Companies update their logos for many reasons, including functional, emotional and strategic ones. While there are a handful of exceptions, the average lifespan of a brand's logo is on a steep decline. While we are prone to overestimate the importance of logos—they can't, in isolation, return a business to good fortune, make you more money, or make customers like you—we can underestimate the impact of making a change.
When done right, it can have enormous power.
The case for change
The most common reasons companies change their logos are mergers, acquisitions and shifts in strategic directions. Companies that merge are eager to signal unified fronts, leaving behind the symbols of the past and forging ahead with new relevance.
Some brands change in an effort to refocus. They may have been depositioned by a new set of competitors or a new market context. Startups like Uber often change, again and again, as they lose their baby teeth and enter adulthood.
DuPont signaled a very different structural makeup and focus in its first update in over 100 years. From its origins in gunpowder to ownership stakes in GM and Conoco, and as the inventor of Lycra, Tyvek and Kevlar, DuPont has lived many different lives. Today, it spans essential innovations critical to customers' well-being. By retaining and transforming its distinct oval, it preserved the DuPont seal of quality and cultural values, but also used it to signal a new, open future.
Also, consumers in a radically transparent and connected world are demanding more from companies. Brands must stand for something. They must have a purpose they live up to. Unilever made the transition from a financial holding company to a consumer-facing brand to reflect this new social compact. And in a company of divergent brands, a bold, artistic new symbol signaled a new unified purpose and vision.
The case not to change
Brands shouldn't be too quick to pull the trigger. Some heritage brands have weathered strategic business moves and more without a change, looking at the world through a longer and wider lens with an appreciation of time and history.
Some brands grow into their logos and names, and some brands seemingly got it right right out of the gate, such as Heinz, DuPont, Johnson & Johnson and Coca-Cola. Perhaps it's a coincidence, but many of the brands that fit into this category eschew symbols in favor of a uniquely styled name and, when necessary, change with surgical precision.
When to change?
The degree of change is a product of the company's market position, brand equities and exterior market forces. Many companies wait until they hit a bump in the road to make a logo change and unfortunately attempt to use it as an easier path to solve more fundamental positioning or cultural issues. Papering over the cracks doesn't work well in today's transparent world. Instead, updating from a position of strength removes time and market pressures and gives you more flexibility to consider your options.
The Stanley logo update reflected its expansion from tools into new areas like security and health care. Starbucks' was designed to reflect a broader portfolio of products where coffee was not the core ingredient. For Google, its logo change to a bolder sans serif with G favicon and motion dots was a measured act of maturity and design leadership.
How much should you change?
Historically, the older and more mature the brand, the harder and more expensive it is to change the logo. But today's digital environment is changing those rules. In fact, it's never been cheaper or easier to change a logo, and when viewed as a long-term move, it's often well worth the investment.
Brands that have successfully updated their logos have learned that the market often gives them more permission than they give themselves. As long as a brand is true to its purpose and opens itself to greater employee and market participation, it can relax the strict corporate rules and, when appropriate, allow its logo out to play.