Why top-to-bottom rebrands are all the rage
Even before a serendipitous ad buy on the first season of the hit podcast “Serial” catapulted MailChimp into mainstream public consciousness, the email-marketing platform had been quietly growing share. Over the next four years, acquisitions of competitors and a campaign filled with sharp wordplay from Droga5 pushed the young brand to more than half a billion dollars in annual revenue.
But by 2018, MailChimp had grown bigger than its initial aspirations. In preparation for a relaunch as a full-service marketing platform, the company commissioned a comprehensive redesign of its brand identity.
Gone was the old logo, a script rendering of the company’s name. Instead, Freddie the chimpanzee, a cheeky monkey who had appeared intermittently on branding and swag, became the new logo—after a redesign that saw him simplified for digital executions and converted to a single-color treatment (Cavendish Yellow, the color of bananas, of course). For most materials, the brand now uses Cooper Light, a friendly, rounded, serif typeface. And from then on, the brand became “Mailchimp,” sans the capital “c.”
“They had become so associated with the word ‘Mailchimp,’ but they had expanded far beyond just email services and had really gotten involved in all sorts of new marketing tools,” says Brian Collins, founder and chief creative officer at Collins, the design agency responsible for Mailchimp’s new look. The solution, then, was to lean away from “mail” and into “chimp.”
“Freddie had never been the logo for the company. But he was what was most beloved about it. And that clicked,” Collins says. “People loved it because it was quirky. It was interesting. The premise was that as you started to grow, you didn't have to diminish yourself. You didn't have to become slick. It seemed to carry larger meaning for what the company stood for.”
The agency also delivered a logo animation of Freddie winking, a color palette of hues named for foods like peppercorn, dragon fruit and portobello, as well as new imagery, photography and illustrations that doubled down on the whimsical, playful personality the brand wanted to convey.
This kind of top-to-bottom rebranding—much more than just a cosmetic overhaul—has recently gained steam with companies well beyond Mailchimp, as a surprising number of marketers introduce a new or updated persona more palatable, relatable or trustworthy than before. “It feels like we are witnessing a seismic shift in the sheer number of rebrands,” says Matt Kandela, CEO of branding and design company Dear Future. “Dunkin’ lost the Donuts, and Weight Watchers shed so many letters they slimmed down to WW. Mastercard was lost for words, and so was I when I saw that Slack logo. One has to wonder if we’ve entered peak rebrand or if this is just the new normal.”
The reasons behind a big redesign are as numerous as brands themselves, but the recent spate can often be traced back to disruption or opportunity caused by digital commerce, including the rise of direct-to-consumer brands.
“There’s a bit of fear and envy that’s driving [marketers’] decision to shake things up,” says Kristin Krajecki, strategy director, head of global brand experience practice at design firm Frog. “They’re being disrupted, the category’s moving quickly, and they want to signal to the world that they’re keeping pace and that they’re modern and that they have something fresh to tell you about their brand. A brand refresh is a great way to do that.”
In past decades, audiences were passive, consuming information from brands as it was doled out and making purchasing decisions on longer timescales. But information now flows both ways at all times. “Most brands were created to live in an analog world,” says Collins. That means brands that haven’t undergone some kind of redesign or update recently aren’t equipped to deal with digital executions or the technical demands of social media.
“People are shopping more on smaller screens, so a logo and identity system just might not be succeeding in its interaction design,” says Krajecki. “If your mobile experience is subpar to your dot-com experience, well, you’ve got to fix that, because that's the way people are going to interact with your logo.”
Legacy assets might be able to be adapted for the web, but they often require a full redesign, like the simplification of Freddie the chimp for use online. That’s far superior than the stopgap measures some brands try, such as using the same version of a logo—likely optimized decades ago for print—as avatars on social-media platforms. “The brands that are succeeding have been adapting to become more experiential and holistic, designing for every interaction and expression,” says James Ramsden, executive creative director at branding design agency Coley Porter Bell. “This requires a radical rearrangement of how a brand is constructed and shared.”
The bar for entry for a big redesign also tends to be lower these days, especially for digital-only companies. “An identity rebrand in a pre-digital age was a massive undertaking,” says Kandela. “It might have meant millions of dollars spent changing letterheads, product branding and signage on brick-and-mortar retail. But today it can be as simple as changing a few lines of code.” And when a task is cheaper and easier, it happens more often.
The best rebrands, no matter how thorough, keep many of the successful parts of a company’s identity intact. Mailchimp changed nearly every piece of its visual identity, but each one evolved incrementally. Mastercard has iterated its logo multiple times in recent years to ease its transition from physical cards to digital payments, but many cardholders probably haven’t consciously noticed.
This very publication used that approach in 2017. The name was shortened to “Ad Age,” a change that rang true to most readers because that’s how most already referred to the magazine. The new color palette (affectionately called “the stripes” in the newsroom) is a modern touch, but the typographic tool kit takes inspiration from newspaper typography, and the new logo is based on the original logo from 1930. Evolving a brand identity, rather than scrapping it and starting over, enables companies to tackle new challenges without losing equity with customers.
At the same time, consumers are demanding more of the brands they use. Big changes can feel inauthentic if they’re not grounded in history. “Clients will come to us and say, ‘We’re stagnating. How can I grow? Where does my brand have permission to go?’” says Krajecki. “When you're living in this really malleable back-and-forth relationship with consumers, you have to be so true to who you are, what you believe in, why you exist in the world, and that has to manifest itself deeply and authentically everywhere.”
It can easily go wrong. In perhaps the shortest-lived redesign in history, the Gap pulled its new logo in 2010 after just six days. The public reacted harshly to a new typeface and a faded blue box that looked like a lazy afterthought, and the brand reverted back to the old (and still current) spindly serif typeface on a blue field. Airbnb’s paper clip (or some say vagina) logo, introduced in 2014, is still around, but widely panned.
In some cases, brands have no choice but to evolve their look. Chobani introduced America to Greek yogurt in 2015, and it quickly took over the market. But the brand became a victim of its own success. Competitors began offering their own Greek yogurt variations, and the brand to beat became the brand to emulate. Soon, consumers had a hard time distinguishing Chobani products on store shelves from all of the similar-looking plastic tubs.
So in late 2017, an in-house team unveiled an updated look for the brand. The sans-serif typeface and white packaging had felt too sterile. A chunky serif typeface in forest green replaced it, set on a warmer, off-white background. It also graced employee uniforms, stores and pop-up shops. Evocative photos and illustrations of ripe fruit, free of dairy splashes and cold spoons, caught the eye in supermarkets, as well as on employee handbooks and print assets used internally.
The friendlier, tastier look was more compatible with the implicit promise of the brand, which markets itself as natural, easygoing and socially conscious. “There are lots of brands that are looking to humanize and start a more personal conversation,” Krajecki says, adding that this is likely why there’s been a proliferation of first-name brands: Oscar, Casper, Alexa and Siri, Marcel from Publicis, banking apps like Marcus from Goldman Sachs and Erica from Bank of America.
Not every brand has equity, assets or loyal customers to hold onto, so a full redesign can be less risky. Other brands have baggage or bad news to leave behind. Long-suffering department store Sears added a confusing symbol to its wordmark a few months ago. Seemingly crafted with a broken Spirograph, it did little to draw attention away from the brand’s slow decline into bankruptcy. And a year after the suicide of its founder, fashion brand Kate Spade undertook a redesign, choosing to center on the spade symbol, which now replaces the name “Spade” on some items.
For newer companies with little-to-no name recognition, a comprehensive rebrand can be a useful way to put themselves on the map. “A decade ago, household names, category leaders and iconic brands were much more likely to be owned by large corporations that had invested heavily over decades in building brand equity,” says Kandela. “Today, many leading brands are newcomers, run by younger entrepreneurs who don’t all have boards and shareholders to answer to.”
Even brands run by the old guard can succumb to the temptation of a flashy redesign. Average chief marketing officer tenure is down to 43 months, so an executive looking for a reprieve or hoping to make a big splash before jumping ship might grasp at a redesign. “Rebrands are lightning rods for attention. It’s the unspoken yet driving factor behind a lot of rebrands today,” says Dave Snyder, chief creative officer at design and technology company Firstborn. A rebrand can only be effective long-term, he says, if “senior executives believe in a company's purpose and vision more than the desire to use a rebrand as a vehicle to get their next big gig.”
And every agency knows the danger posed by a change in a client’s executive team. New CMOs or CEOs like to bring in their own people to put their stamp on things, which often means an agency review. It can also mean a rebrand.
“Often you have exercises around branding and identity that are a little bit ill-informed because CMOs are going to rebrand or the CFO comes in and says, ‘Hey, this feels stale. I want to put my mark on this company,’ and so on,” says Olof Schybergson, CEO at Fjord, Accenture Interactive’s design and innovation consultancy. “It's more to do with the crisis in marketing, advertising and branding than with an authentic need to refresh your brand identity.”
Far from drawing attention to a brand, a redesign can also be an attempt to distract from problems that have nothing to do with aesthetics. Amid sexual harassment scandals, boycotts and the resignation of multiple executives, including CEO Travis Kalanick, Uber rebranded twice, in 2016 and 2018.
In 2013, American Airlines emerged from bankruptcy and merged with US Airways. It also scrapped its much-loved logo, created by famed Italian designer Massimo Vignelli in 1968, and replaced it with the current unpleasantly sharp, multi-hued slash. The planes themselves got a new typeface on the fuselage and patriotic piano keys on the tail.
Snyder compares using a rebrand as a distraction to flipping houses. “Slap some new paint around and ignore what matters: The plumbing is shot, the electrical is dated and the septic system is a ticking time bomb,” he says. “This approach is often taken by private-equity companies looking to shine up an offering before a sale.”
Ultimately, brand redesigns are judged the way athletes are. Win and all is forgiven. A beautiful rebrand in the middle of a crisis becomes a savvy marketing initiative rather than a shameless ploy. And even the most carefully planned brand evolution becomes a millstone if it turns out ugly.
These days, beauty often means comprehensibility. Complicated logos or illegible words are hard to read on small screens or to recognize in a quick scroll-by. “In the content-saturated landscape of social media, brands are simplifying or losing their mark altogether in favor of a more timeless and simple wordmark,” says Hamish McArthur, head of design at VMLY&R. “A beautifully considered, simplified logo is going to gain attention because it is just that—simple—a breath of fresh air in an otherwise cluttered environment.”
But one final caveat: There isn’t a “right” way to redesign, and brands that look to other companies for too much of their inspiration risk sameness. “You often find a lot of founders who are looking to mirror and mimic what has worked for other brands that have come before,” Krajecki says. “You can look across a lot of the direct-to-consumer brands or new technology platforms that have launched in the last couple of years and start to see a lot of commonality across their storytelling, across their product experience, across their visual-identity system.”
So perhaps the best lesson comes from Coca-Cola, which does incremental change and personal conversation better than almost anyone. The soda’s ingredients are notoriously different than when it was first introduced in the 19th century, but the logo, rendered in Spencerian script, hasn’t changed since 1885.
“The things that remain constant and familiar that sit at the core of their brand—the color red, that signature on the contour bottle—those are the things that are immutable,” Collins says. Having assets that are so grounded allows for experimentation in other areas. “So Coke decides to introduce Cherry Coke, and the halo of familiarity gives me that trust that this is probably a tasty version of something I already know. The brand can be judiciously evolved.”