THE ART OF THE REBRAND
Nick Carson, chair of judges for CA’s Brand Impact Awards, discusses three key approaches to rebranding with previous BIA winners
Nick Carson, chair of judges for CA’s Brand Impact Awards, discusses three key approaches to rebranding with previous BIA winners
Rethinking, repositioning and redesigning brands is a staple task for many design studios. Although start-up organisations will always be a blank canvas by definition, it’s fairly rare for an agency to develop a totally new identity system for a client.
As a creative exercise, rebranding poses a unique set of challenges compared to branding from scratch. This is simply because, for want of a better phrase, there is creative baggage attached – and that baggage was often the work of another agency.
In the following pages, we’ll explore three of the most common strategic approaches to the rebranding process, complete with insightful advice from some of the world-class agencies that have triumphed at CA’s Brand Impact Awards in previous years.
These key routes include drawing on a brand’s heritage, and restoring its former glory after it’s lost its way; gradual evolution, refinement, and modernisation of a brand to make it fit for purpose; and finally, ripping it up and starting again, as if branding from scratch.
According to Chris Moody, chief creative officer at Wolff Olins, and two-time Brand Impact Awards judge, the biggest challenge of rebranding in 2018 isn’t creative: it’s the wider global climate. “Politically, socially, and technologically we are in times of massive change, and as a result there is a great deal of nervousness and trepidation,” he points out.
“There’s also lot of noise and bluster, so to a degree the biggest challenge is managing ‘volume’. There’s the literal volume of people in the room – clients and numbers of agencies involved in projects has never been larger – but also dealing with the increasing volume of feedback and rounds of design iteration,” he continues. “Crafting a distinct, singular brand voice has never been more necessary, but it has also never been more tricky to pull off.”
Moody believes we’re on the cusp of a third era of branding design. “The designer’s palette now
includes motion, haptic, texture and voice as standard,” he reels off. “At Wolff Olins, we have started to define this third wave – after corporate identity, and brand identity – as ‘intelligent identity’.
“If you’re a designer working in brand, it’s your imperative to steal some of the perceived authority from product teams, service designers and, most of all, engineers,” he continues. “It’s our responsibility to set the agenda for the whole brand experience, and to be the ones inventing and curating the definitive interactions we have with a brand.”
DESIGNING IN THE SPOTLIGHT
It’s a rousing battle cry from the veteran agency widely credited with ‘inventing’ modern branding as we know it. But it sits at odds somewhat with another relatively recent challenge for agencies to face: the often alarming speed with which a rebrand is met with public scrutiny, often before the more nuanced aspects of the scheme – the “whole brand experience”, as Moody puts it – are revealed.
“For some reason, everyone is now an expert and a critic, without in reality being either,” laments Sean Perkins, partner and director at North, which picked up Brand Impact Award trophies for its rebrands of Co-op (see page 50) and Arjowiggins in 2016, the same year it topped the list in CA’s annual peer reputation survey, the UK Studio Rankings.
Perkins points out that major changes to any organisation’s identity system are expensive and can be risky, adding that all of North’s rebrand projects stem from a legitimate strategic business need. But that public scrutiny all-too-often focuses on the logo: “In their reveal, they can be immediately criticised or commented on for entirely the wrong reasons,” he says.
“Rarely is a new brand identity about looking nice. Identities are about doing a job, and they have a strategic purpose to exist. On social media, people are quick to point a finger, like or dislike,” he continues. “Personally I don’t care: most of the comments are ill-informed and naive. But their commentary causes concern for clients: no business wants controversy
“Rarely is a new brand identity about looking nice. Identities are about doing a job, and they have a strategic purpose to exist”
SEAN PERKINS, NORTH
over a new identity, especially after spending significant amounts of money in implementation.
“That means clients in general become more cautious, and wary of making changes in the future. They become less brave. Our industry’s reputation is damaged by the vocal infighting around taste and style, and potentially smaller design agencies’ reputations would struggle to survive significant controversy.”
“The biggest challenge is, as it always has been, to deliver and meet the expectations of the clients, no matter how high, or how realistic those expectations are,” agrees Kate Marlow, creative partner at Here Design and judge for 2018’s Brand Impact Awards. “The specific design challenges themselves haven’t necessarily changed, but in most cases the budgets are leaner and the timelines shorter.”
Like Moody, Marlow is excited about the diverse multi-platform opportunities that are available to agencies in 2018. “More so now than ever, brands recognise that they need to be seen across all platforms: we call it their brand world,” she says.
“That can span everything from packaging, to print, to environments, to social media and beyond,” she continues. “It’s a lively period, where our role as designers is to be constantly thinking beyond convention, and to be originators of ideas.”
Joining Marlow on this year’s BIA judging panel is Chloe Templeman, creative director at Design Bridge. She identifies that an influx of new, challenger brands – in the food and drink sector in particular – are now posing an additional challenge when it comes to rebranding more established clients.
“Branding for these start-ups tends to focus on design individuality, with ‘uniqueness’ and ‘newness’ as design cues,” she explains. “So many claim to be small-batch, natural and sustainable, or fit within the ‘clean eating’ trend. There’s a lot more choice for consumers than in the past.”
Templeman points out that more-established brands often feel like they’re falling behind their newer,
younger counterparts. “However, their strength lies in the fact that they’re trusted and stable, which is important in this economic climate,” she continues. “This is where using design to celebrate the brand’s story and journey can be very powerful, reminding people of the connection they already have with them.”
Sometimes, of course, a rebrand is necessary to help reverse ill fortune for a brand. “I love working on a brand that has lost its way a bit,” enthuses Templeman. “You can go back in time, understand its sometimes forgotten past, and then bring it back to life again, in a way that resonates today.”
STRATEGY 1: REAWAKEN HERITAGE
This leads us neatly into the first of three main rebranding strategies, and one that’s been high on the agenda in recent years with widespread talk of the ‘retro design’ trend, aka digging around in the archives until you find something that could be modernised.
But according to Spencer Buck – co-founder and creative partner at Bristol’s Taxi Studio, a doublewinner at last year’s Brand Impact Awards for its limited-edition København Collection for Carlsberg (see opposite page) – talk of trends is irrelevant.
“Quite simply, you do it when it’s the right thing to do,” he shrugs. “I hate the reference to a ‘trend’ as that implies transience, whereas the point is to design the brand into a place where it’s more timeless and robust. But the sad reality is that some brands were the best versions of themselves many years ago.”
Brand equity can be eroded over time, Buck explains: “It washes away critical points of difference – brand USP, in old money – until the brand becomes normalised in the marketplace.
“Our job is to identify the point it all went wrong, then seek to bring the brand back to being the best version of itself. Digging in the archives is not a ‘fix all’ for all branding briefs, but it’s also not a bad place to start if the brand has drastically lost its way over time.”
Richard Buchanan is MD at The Clearing, which picked up a Brand Impact Award in 2016 for its rebrand of Breast Cancer Now. He draws attention to several brands in the FMCG and automotive sectors that have been resurrected for modern times, including Arctic Roll, Monster Munch, Fiat 500, Beetle and Mini.
“They were built on sentimentality, but also a reservoir of goodwill that exists in consumers’ minds,” he explains. “But those consumers alone aren’t enough to ensure that brand is successful in future. They have to appeal to new audiences.”
Ultimately, Buchanan adds, for a rebrand to tap into some long-lost heritage it needs to have something substantial in its DNA that’s worth reawakening in the first place. “There needs to be a benefit that’s as relevant today as it was then,” he says. “Some essence, or attitude, that can be reimagined for a new audience. You need to identify those golden nuggets, those little gems that make that brand special.”
According to Templeman, Design Bridge often works with long-standing brands whose rich heritage may have been forgotten or somehow ‘lost’ over time. “It’s our job to find those hidden gems, and tell those stories through design in a way that is relevant today,” she says, giving the agency’s rebrand of Guinness, which was highly commended at the Brand Impact Awards last year, as an example (see opposite page).
“But this approach can only really work when the brand has a past, and an interesting one at that,” she goes on, echoing Buchanan’s thoughts. “Sometimes you search for the hook and it’s just not there, so you have to choose another route. There’s no science to it: sometimes it’s a gut feel.”
Moody believes in looking to the future, rather than the past, wherever possible. “On a personal level, I feel nervous about building on heritage alone,” he admits. “It’s a valuable component, but in no other industry would people be so self-indulgent and self-referential to their industry over that of the client’s.
“All brands should aim to carry with them a core, forward-thinking DNA that is true to what they stand for. Picking a fixed point in history as the only anchor can hold you back,” Moody argues. “Authenticity shouldn’t be confused with heritage: it’s something that’s earned over time.”
STRATEGY 2: INCREMENTAL CHANGE
If a brand hasn’t lost its way entirely, but is becoming a little tired, sometimes the rebranding process is more about modernising, and making a brand fit-forpurpose, rather than dramatically looking either forwards or backwards for inspiration.
“Small incremental changes are about subliminal reaction to the change, not overt signalling of newness,” explains Perkins. “They’re useful when brands need to address certain functional issues to move forward, without jeopardising the equity and reputation in their existing brand recognition.”
Like so many high-profile projects before it, SomeOne’s recent rebrand of the UK Parliament (see opposite page) faced a wave of initial criticism for spending public money on what was perceived to be a few tiny tweaks to the portcullis logo. But as the tweets piled up, and more of the ‘brand world’ was revealed, it became clear to anyone willing to dig a little deeper that the rebrand was about digital versatility.
“Only a fool rushes into an established brand with a total disregard for the brand’s history,” believes Simon Manchipp, co-founder and executive strategic
“Only a fool rushes in with a total disregard for an established brand’s history. There’s nearly always something worth preserving”
SIMON MANCHIPP, SOMEONE
creative director at SomeOne, which won a 2016 Brand Impact Award for its D.Thomas skincare rebrand.
“There’s nearly always something worth preserving,” he insists. “With the UK Parliament, the portcullis is part of the very fabric of the buildings. The Royal documentation. Even the curtains. So there was never a question of replacing it. It’s a globally recognised symbol, which in brand terms is worth billions.
“It was streamlining and making it digitally adept that formed the basis of our brand work, as well as creating systems to better clarify Parliament’s role in a modern democracy. Connecting many parts to make one cohesive whole.”
Moody compares this approach to the principle of ‘incremental gains’ embraced by Team Sky in cycling events, and admits that Wolff Olins has actively encouraged it in recent years. “However, just like Team Sky, I’m now questioning the true validity of doing this,” he adds. “It’s not so much about being unable to plug in to other people’s designs, but more that it’s more important than ever to design with totality in mind.”
If small changes make a big impact, he reasons, then it’s a course of action worth pursuing, but you need to be completely honest with yourself. “If you are fiddling with line weight for the sake of it, then it’s a waste of everyone’s time,” he smiles.
Moody gives the example of Ericsson’s recent minimalist brand overhaul (above): “It’s pure hygiene,” he argues. “This is commendable, and a critical part of any brand design process, but it’s neither genuine ‘rebranding’ in any major sense, nor newsworthy.
“Fetishising these tweaks – see also eBay, Audi, and YouTube – gives them an inflated level of importance,” he adds. “It feels like [highly-acclaimed architect] Richard Rogers making a big deal about bleeding the radiators in one of his buildings. Designers should aim for big, bold, radical change. If you aren’t pissing someone off a bit, you aren’t trying hard enough.”
STRATEGY 3: START AGAIN
Which leads neatly into our third, and most radical approach: starting again from scratch, treating the client almost like a new start-up. Almost, but not entirely. According to Michael Johnson – creative director and principal of Johnson Banks, an agency which has twice won Best of Show at the Brand Impact Awards – rebranding is a very different beast from branding a new company, and your creative process should be tailored accordingly.
“For a while I approached both in a similar way,” he admits. “The penny dropped a few years ago that for ‘new’ projects it made more sense to start at the core – why they are here, what do they stand for, then work outwards. Conversely, when realigning existing brands we often start from the edges and talk about ‘how’ they work, and what they believe in, before we tackle the trickier and more essential stuff at the core.”
Johnson emphasises that truly radical change must be a collaborative decision between agency and client. “I think there’s a very naive view out there that designers should ‘persuade’ their clients to be more adventurous,” he says. “I can only do a radical piece of work if, client-side, they are on the same page.”
He adds that graphic design alone is rarely enough to persuade: you need solid strategic foundations, based on a clear need for major change. “Walking into a boardroom with a clutch of new logos and a presentation you could précis as, ‘Wouldn’t this be cool?’ is asking for trouble,” he smiles.
As ever, wider economic factors often come into play with any root-and-stem changes to a brand – especially for a well-established, global one. Johnson gives the
example of Virgin Atlantic, when both he and the CEO began on the same page in terms of a radical shake-up of the company’s livery.
“Yet, when someone pointed out that repainting just one plane cost a quarter of a million pounds, and my jolly little presentation had just ‘spent’ £10 million in implementation fees, that was a killer blow – and illustrates how the hopes of a graphic designer can sometimes run headlong into everyday realities.”
The Clearing faced a similar challenge, albeit on a slightly different scale, with its rebrand of Royal Ascot (see page 54) – which needed to be signed off by the Queen. “They had a really old, tired-looking marque, and we wanted to move it into something quite premium,” Buchanan recalls. “We designed a total creative vision, mapped out every single touchpoint: product, service, internal culture, environment, communications.
“When it came to sign-off, she didn’t approve the logo, because it was 2011 and we were still in what people thought was a double-dip recession. She was concerned that they were seen to be spending money on what wasn’t broken. You would have had to change every sign on the racecourse, and wayfinding and signage becomes really expensive.”
THE THIRD ERA OF BRANDING
The Clearing successfully revisited and refreshed the marque at a later date, but like Johnson’s Virgin Atlantic example, that initial reticence to change was grounded in practical realities. The cost, and associated risk, of wholesale change of a brand can be prohibitively expensive in any sector – and in most cases, a brand needs to be fundamentally broken to consider it.
Buchanan uses two main measures to decide this: saliency, or the ‘meaning’ associated with a brand, which can be both positive and negative; and awareness. “When the saliency is negative and unhelpful, and your awareness is really low, you go: you have fundamentally pissed people off and they don’t particularly like you,” he reasons. “Then what’s the point in hanging onto it?”
Moody agrees that it usually takes some kind of fundamental brand crisis, or some kind of major organisational change, like a merger, for a brand to start again. “This is a shame, because you end up starting from a bad place,” he argues. “The branding work done for Google’s parent company, Alphabet, was intriguing, as it was an identity that made sense of something that previously nobody had thought of. I suspect we will see more of this, particularly as West Coast brands reach their next stage of development.”
Moody believes that customers are actually more forgiving than we give them credit for, and that it tends to be the clients who refuse to let go of the past. “The world moves incredibly quickly, so brands need to be more agile. That should include identity,” he insists. “Imagine wearing the same clothes for 25 years. You’d look out of touch and stale.
“The argument against radical rebranding is perverse, as it’s often claimed that big changes erode hard-won trust,” Moody observes. “But look at it another way: would you trust someone who seemed decades out of step with the rest of the world?
“If corporate identity was about standing out, and brand identity was about better communicating what you stand for, then this new third wave of more intelligent identity is about creating brands and identity systems that can move with people, and move people emotionally, in real time,” he concludes. “If you are focusing on building new value, you’re less likely to need to cling onto the past.”
North’s branding for RAC in 1997 included famously thorough brand guidelines.
Johnson Banks picked up Best of Show at the BIAs twice, with its Cambridge University and Unicef UK projects. This recent rebrand of Historic Houses evolved to encompass everything from cottages to castles.
Design Bridge has reimagined packaging ranges for Fortnum & Mason.
Stockholm Design Lab recently rebranded Ericsson by making small tweaks to improve digital precision.
When Fitness First came to The Clearing, Richard Buchanan describes it as “broken”, with serious under-investment and a reputation for poor value. “We kept the name, but for everything else we started again,” he explains. The ground-up rebrand transformed it into a richer, more motivating experience.