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The Logo Battle Between Relevance and Distinctiveness

By Shirley Mak

It’s a tale as old as time, heard in marketing suites across the world…
“What can we do this year to make a big splash?”
“Our brand feels out of sync with the times. We need to modernize!”
“How about updating our logo? That would be a clear sign that we really do get Generation Blablablah!”
Maybe not exactly like that, but you know what we mean– in the attempt to modernize or make their brands more Relevant, more and more brands have begun to refresh their long-standing logos. We’ve been losing logos left and right to the sea of sameness (RIP).

Look at this series of luxury brand logo modernizations and proceed to cry for the death of uniqueness.

And while all those luxury brands changed under the guise of modernization, Chanel and Gucci are laughing and watching in the rearview mirror.

Our POV is simple: every time a logo changes, you’re destroying years of built up memory structures around your brand’s Distinctive visual assets — so you better have a damn good reason to change it.

When we consider where it makes sense to update a logo, it boils down to one of three reasons:
1) Purely an aesthetic update, but Distinctive assets are maintained
2) When the brand doesn’t have enough Distinctive Assets, create more
3) The brand is small and relatively few people have any memory structures to begin with, or an intentional brand restart

We understand the perspective that refreshing these logos to be cleaner, sleeker, and simpler makes them more adaptable to future trends. But in the effort to do that, don’t lose what makes the logo so Distinctive. Logos are essentially made up of some combination of three key elements: font, color, and symbol/character. If you’ve already spent the time to build association with your distinctive font and/or symbol, a modern rebrand can cause the brand to lose the memory structures that have been built. And if you know anything about Collider, you know we love the brand-building power of Distinctiveness

(1) Purely an aesthetic update, but Distinctive assets are maintained

We’re not saying that every brand logo update is a mistake. There are plenty of examples of logo modernization that stays true to the essence of the original logo, furthering memory structures and increasing cultural relevance slightly. Some even joined the sans serif world, but kept many other Distinctive assets (or created new ones if they didn’t have any before) that still led to a strong representative brand logo.

Google has evolved a handful of times over the years. And though they went from serif to sans serif- they kept the colors the same and maintained those memory structures and distinctive assets.

American Express changed their logo in 2018, opting for a solid blue rather than a gradient. While more of a subtle change and most consumers probably wouldn’t notice, it’s worth noting that this logo continued to build on their distinctive brand assets and memory structures.

Baskin Robbins shows us how an updated logo doesn’t always have to mean dramatic change. They simply brightened their colors and adjusted the spacing between shapes, leading to a friendlier feel- all while keeping all of their Distinctive assets.

(2) When the brand doesn’t have enough Distinctive Assets, create more

One logo change we particularly liked was MailChimp, because all they had was a font with no noticeable color or symbol/character. By introducing yellow and the winking chimp, they instantly added useful distinctive brand assets to their arsenal. They previously didn’t have a Distinctive brand color or Distinctive brand mascot- now they do. Changing the font was worth the addition of those potential new memory structures.

Airbnb’s early rebrand was a smart choice, but only because they’ve been adamant at maintaining the new Distinctive assets (symbol and color). While the old one wasn’t terrible, especially if they kept it moving forward and honed in on the blue, there weren’t many Distinctive assets for the brand to highlight. With the new logo, Airbnb created new Distinctive assets and committed to them which allowed memory structures of the brand to grow.

The old Walmart logo had very little Distinctive assets that the brand could really own, it had a commonly used navy blue and just a simple star. On the one hand, Walmart could have continued down that path and really zeroed in on the star and color. But instead, they shifted to a rounder typeface, lowercase, brighter blue and opted for a unique yellow sunburst symbol rather than the star. This might have been a jarring change at the time, but props to Walmart for sticking with these Distinctive assets across the board.

(3) The brand is small and relatively few people have any memory structures to begin with, or an intentional brand restart

This reason applies to a few brands, and depends on the brand’s dedication to change. Make sure everyone is aligned with this update and the team is committed to using the new Distinctive assets and logo from here on out. Are you willing to toss out all previously developed Distinctive assets to restart your brand? 

In Century21’s rebrand, they nixed their colors and house-like outline for an all caps logo and new colors with the determination to completely strip away the old brand. We understand the intention, but losing one of the only Distinctive assets they owned (the house) to an unrecognizable generic text is hard to support. At least keep the one symbol you’ve built memory structures around!

Petco’s logo change hurts our souls. In the attempt to refresh the brand to focus more on (pet) health and wellness, they lost years of memory structures to their only distinctive symbol (the adorable cat and dog) and the red and bright blue. It looks like they’re going all in on getting rid of their old brand…we hope it’s worth the risk. 

Intel’s rebrand was centered around the intention to go beyond their connection to PC chips. Not only did they rid themselves of their distinctive swoosh and reduced their distinctive blue to a single dot, but they also updated their sound logo (which is another conversation altogether but too important not to mention)!!!! We’re not sure if this was a necessary update, because they lost all the parts that made them Distinctive, leaving us with a logo that feels more generic than anything.

GM’s new update was intended to reflect the future of electric. It’s also reminiscent of a rebrand that is based off of Relevance, with the soft lowercase text, gradient background, and rounded edges. It’s always risky to make branding changes based off of Relevance rather than Distinctiveness, so we hope they don’t regret this a few years down the line.

Before you decide to update a brand logo in hopes of modernizing the brand, we suggest you stop and consider the following:

1) What are the brand’s current Distinctive assets? (think- colors, mascots, font, symbols, jingles, sounds)
2) What are the non-negotiables that must be carried forward? (hint: anything that is already a Distinctive Brand Asset in consumers’ minds! Don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater.)
3) Does the logo really have to be updated? (hint: probably not)
4) How can the logo be updated without losing Distinctive assets and memory structures? (Hint: keep your colors and any key shapes, symbols, or mascots)
5) Again…does the logo REALLY have to be updated? (repeating the hint: no!)

The bottom line is- sometimes it’s okay to modernize in an attempt to increase Relevance, but not at the risk of Distinctiveness. Feel free to update the logo over time with small tweaks—all while maintaining the Distinctive Brand Assets. But don’t ditch those hard earned memory structures in consumers’ minds by scrapping everything. It may be an agency’s dream to reinvent your famous logo, but it’s most likely a massive mistake for the brand itself; remember that it’s famous for a reason!

(Keep in mind that all the views expressed in this post and on this site are personal views. They don’t represent the views of YUM! or any other person or organization except the authors themselves.)

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