In an Era of Accelerated Rebrand Backlash, Starbucks and Target Stand Their Ground

07 Feb 2011
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Changing the face of a company in the form of a logo has always been a tenuous task, but never has there been a time when changes in font, color or a trademarked phrase garnered such public outrage at such high velocity. We know from our experience working with iconic brands such as Gillette, Hallmark and Olay, that even the slightest visual changes need to carefully consider the brand’s relationship with its consumers, but the speed and strength of online criticism has left companies with rebrands on the horizon scrambling to figure out what triggers consumers’ wrath and how best to avoid a viral flogging.

The dawn of the digital age and the increasingly social marketplace have inspired new heights of brand loyalty, bordering on zeal among consumers. Companies’ use of social media platforms as a tool to promote brands has further blurred the lines between a consumer’s self image and the products they love. As The Economist points out in a recent article, when brands branch out into social media, they’re attempting to foster emotional bonds with their congregation of consumers by asking the people who purchase their products to “friend,” “fan,” “like” or “follow” them. And when a company makes the decision to overhaul their brand and change their logo without consulting their most devout consumers…beware.

Tropicana’s effort to rebrand in 2009 was met with this breed of extreme consumer backlash. The orange juice brand, owned by PepsiCo, attempted to ditch the “orange with the straw” imagery on the front of their juice cartons in favor of a clean, modern design that featured a glass of orange juice. The change drove the company’s loyal customers over the edge. PepsiCo caved to consumer fury and after a month-long onslaught of letters, email messages and telephone calls, they began phasing out the new and bringing back the old.

Even more recently, The Gap’s haphazard debut of their new logo, a sans serif font with a little blue box above the “p,” was met with a scornful reception. The change inspired scathing blog posts, snarky tweets and even the invention of a Gap-logo-generator website titled “Crap Logo Yourself.”  The criticism was so vehement and vitriolic that The Gap went back to their old mainstay only a week later.

This January has been a month full of announcements of other brands forging ahead. The retail brands of Starbucks and Target and the television network and media property of Comedy Central and NBC Universal are all in the process of major rebrands or logo redesigns. These redesigns have all met with some resistance from consumers, especially Comedy Central’s new insignia, but so far all have stood by and defended their design decisions.

Both Target and Starbucks have entered a new level of brand popularity in the confidence that they are well known enough to be solely recognizable through an image alone. Target’s quiet drop of their name from their logo has gone almost unnoticed. Starbucks’ less incognito strategy was to roll out their redesign in tandem with other positive announcements of innovation, from a new drink size to a mobile app that allows consumers to place orders from their iPhones.

Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz communicated in his video statement about the redesign that there is a solid ideology behind the decision to drop the words “Starbucks Coffee” from the logo and also hinted that there may be larger plans afoot for the company, “We’ve allowed her to come out of the circle in a way that I think gives us the freedom and flexibility to think beyond coffee.”

So far, these most recent brands to roll out redesigns have shown their ability to stand up to consumer criticism and come away relatively unscathed. They seem to have bucked the negative redesign trend with a solid strategy and fixed determination, and we applaud them for the courage of their convictions.

Images courtesy of Starbucks and NBC Universal.