Two or three times a month it’ll happen to me. Could be while flicking through a social stream, or walking down the beer aisle, or even driving through the retail sprawl that mars too much of suburbia. A portion of this brand builder’s lizard brain will light up noticing something has changed with a fill in the blank … sign, pack, logo, tagline, icon, etc. Once aware of this change—big or small—I will then mentally work backwards, attempting to hypothesize what was the brand or business challenge that originally kicked off an effort likely years in the making (and surely the subject of thousands of emails, Slacks and side conversations.)
“The rebrand is perhaps the most common and high-stakes activity in the branding playbook.”
Sometimes the answers are plain to see: a merger of two businesses; a valiant third attempt to revitalize a long-dusty brand; a big swing for iconic design. Other times, I’m left more circumspect, wondering about the motives and intentions and, frankly, if all the messages and baneful corporate battles were really worth it.
The rebrand—AKA, the refresh, the restage or (earmuffs) the reskin—is perhaps the most common and high-stakes activity in the branding playbook. Simply to level-set, we can define a rebrand as: A rethinking of the foundational elements that dimensionalize a brand, often including (but not limited to): brand promise, positioning, visual identity and experiential assets (both visual and verbal.)
The Right & Wrong Reasons to Refresh
Like anything else, the decision to rebrand needs to consider context and conditions—accounting not only for the What, but also the When and the Why of it all.
With decades of experience partnering with brands to execute these corporate high-wire acts, LPK knows each rebrand has its own nuances, driven by the current health of the brand, the opportunity for growth, and the ambition (and marketing support) of an organization. We often encounter clients navigating a motley crew of internal stakeholders: some with general hesitancy about the jobs to be done, some with an overly sentimental attachment to the brand, and some with a lack of understanding of what really goes into a refresh—from the components of a brand’s foundation to the true job of a visual identity to the right level of evolution to best serve the brand over time.
Small Steps vs. Big Leaps
At LPK, we often use this simple 3×3 to help brands know where to aim:
A couple of recent partnerships jump to mind that demonstrate the forces at play:
When the Cincinnati & Hamilton County Public Library approached us, they were already near the top of their field with a Five-Star Library ranking, but also anticipating a significant step forward powered by a large-scale capital project that was in its early stages. Lacking a cohesive brand foundation and using a visual identity with 20-plus years on its tires, the opportunity for a leap forward was clear. Focusing on its constituency’s appetite for knowledge and the need for peer companionship, we collaboratively developed a new positioning for the library: serving as a catalyst for curiosity, where every individual can learn without limits.
From positioning and promise to beliefs and behaviors, the strategy gave way to a brand narrative, communication strategy and creative expression that embody the ultimate message: this is a place for minds of all kinds. Inspired by the library’s many modes of learning, we built a creative expression system rooted in exploration. It was a radical and purposeful move away from what had been the organization’s more staid appearance. Gone was the iconography of a physical book and a dark, foreboding red, replaced by a dynamic, connected, and joyous expression of discovery, more accurately representing what the library was (and will be) all about. Said its Director Paula Brehm-Heeger: “This rebrand tells the story we’ve been living for years.”
For the beloved cracker Cheez-It, the situation was quite different. The grab-and-go grocery store dynamics of salty snacks suggest a brand must be easy to find, easy to recognize, and easy to navigate. Cheez-It was failing on at least of a couple of these vectors, as its almost endless queue of flavors resulted in packs that were busy, confusing, and distracting. Working against our 3×3, we zeroed in on an approach that prioritized focus and grabbing attention in all the best ways.
Our work introduced a brand architecture that gave more structure to how each offering was positioned, and our design elevated the iconic Cheez-It square to its well-earned position as the brand’s avatar. Said Sr. Brand Manager Andrew Lorden, “I really love where we landed—the brand is simple and has great appetite appeal!”
Looking Beyond the Launch
Each brand refresh is a story told in many chapters. Some benefit from splashy unveilings while girding against the oft-expected backlash via social media (hold strong, marketing directors, the volume typically drops after about a week.)
“After those launch pieces are briefed, the real danger to brands is that things stop there.”
But the inevitable brand book and launch video are really just the beginning. After those launch pieces are briefed, the real danger to brands is that things stop there. The opportunity is to take the words and ideas in the brand book and make them into a reality—to put the work out in the world and watch it live over time, learning how real people tangibly experience and connect with the brand.
How we can do that is by extending the thinking the proverbial “last mile” so the part of the world outside of an organization tangibly experiences the ideas being articulated. The new promise should serve as the lighthouse for the brand, and actions and communications should be in service of it. This provides focus and clarity of intent while giving us criteria to track and evaluate the brand over time.
Ultimately, successful rebrands are the result of an ongoing commitment to a robust brand strategy anchored by a few fundamental principles: consistently invest in brand building over time; translate brand strategy into brand action; express it through beautiful design; continuously put consumers first; elevate experiences to keep pace with user expectations; experiment, learn, and evolve.