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How Do You Avoid Backlash When Evolving Your Brand?

Strategy advice from branding guru Joe Duffy.

Changing a brand identity can be a risky business: The Gap, The Big Ten, and Starbucks have all had recent logo changes, all of which have garnered some pretty strong, and often negative, responses from consumers.

Today, consumers have become more protective about what they consider "their brands," taking ownership of a product's brand identity in a way that is different from the past. Consumers who were previously passive users now see themselves as active stakeholders in a brand, so change has to be done quite carefully.

Of course, people do want change and the most successful changes in brand identity make sure that change is both purposeful and respectful to the past. If there's one thing for certain, it's that change for the sake of change alone, or to make something more current in and of itself, is not the route to success in the world of brand design.

The degree of change and the time for change should be flanked by two critical considerations:


While it seems contrary to change, consistency is a critical component to successful changes in branding. Marketers sometimes miss that consistency doesn't come from a logo alone, but rather, it is something that is built and developed through many elements in a brand identity system.

Consistency engenders loyalty and authenticity.

With time, consistency also creates a sense of authenticity. It is the design and use of a robust and thoughtful identity system that allows brands to practice consistency across geographies, throughout communications, and within product and service experiences. Consistency generates greater awareness and familiarity; when it is done well it engenders loyalty. With time, consistency also creates a sense of authenticity.

But there is a point in time when consistency isn't enough. It takes a keen marketing team to objectively recognize the precise moment when competitors have adopted category paradigms to the point where everything blends together.

This is when one must ask what elements of a brand identity system should change and what elements should remain. The objective behind these questions should not only be about creating differentiation, but more importantly, about maintaining relevance.

Authentic Change

The most successful brands use change to signal true change at a company. A new identity says something is new. If it's the same old product and attitude, change could very well disappoint.

A Process for Communicating Change

So you've made the decision to change. You're excited. You've done your homework, written the brief, and explored your options. You're ready to unveil a fresh new identity. How do you make your announcement and make sure that you're not merely rationalizing the change with "brand speak," but actually creating a positive impact on your business?

Communication of change is critical, because it is human nature to find comfort in the familiar. Over time, I've found two critical factors to communicating change with success. They are both about giving people reasons to believe, or "walking the walk" versus merely "talking the talk."

Internal Communications

The first people to talk to are the people inside. They are people who represent the brand, sell it, support it, and bring it to life.

Too often, insiders are last to know.

It's unfortunate, but there are too many examples of insiders being the last to know when it comes to company news like new branding or new communications. When you engage support from the inside out, you build ambassadors among those most able to help manifest your vision day in and day out with your customers.

Again, Authentic Change

A clear reason for change?news, improvement, achievement of a milestone, partnership, or clarification in the midst of a changing category are all good reasons to re-evaluate your brand presentation. And perfect fodder for a focused brief for change.

Context is critical to delivering a meaningful evolution versus a purely aesthetic or ego-driven change. When these two considerations are in balance then you earn the privilege of being able to change your brand and to do so while allowing people to consider it "their brand" as well as yours.

Big brands need to have the courage to change, but they need to do it with respect for their past, with sound reason for evolution, and a smart plan as they announce their news to the world.

[Top image by ellenm1]

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  • Gigi DeVault

    I agree that Starbucks evolved their brand well. Their market research was thorough and they early-on enlisted some highly respected partners. Maybe our focus should be on diminishing backlash, rather than avoiding it. User-generated content is at an all time high: Backlash is going to happen. Some customers are just hard-wired to not like change - brand attachment can run very deep, as we know. And Starbucks carries a pretty heavy load of customer brand attitude - in both negative and positive directions.

    iTracks independently initiated a quick follow-up to the logo change. It found that most customers were neutral, and positive reception was nearly twice negative opinion. Brand New soundly dismissed (in its typical crusty style) journalists' and customers' criticism -- of course, Brand New is "of' the design industry.

    I thought this article concisely pointed to some "truism" that are often eclipsed during the rebranding game.

    Here's my take.

  • Madeline Puckette

    muhuhaha! The "shift" on a big co. scale is like taking an enduring-but-failing marriage and invigorating new love. I liked your comments on this, because I've been part of slowly sinking ships and it's a disaster. The change can't happen without smart and visionary thinkers who are able to see beyond the current situation. Perhaps they wont stick with the company, but they can help map out a plan of action.

    I guess this is where people like you come in handy :) Inspired.

  • chaim P

    Hey Joe,

    I enjoyed reading your article. I was wonder how do you brand a non-retail store that operates on-line? I haven't been able to find any text book on this subject. It would be useful to know this information for individuals that want to start an online business but don't know how to brand a website.

  • Joe Duffy

    Hi chaim P,

    Branding a non-retail store is really no different than branding a retail store in my opinion. The final applications of the design language may differ but the development of that language should be approached in exactly the same way.

    Branding a website utilizes the same design elements as traditional points of consumer contact like retail environment or packaging. You just need to bring those elements (color, type, photography, illustration, format, etc) to life in new and exciting ways - that's the fun part.



  • Wendy Steinle

    Joe, I agree with your points but would like to see some analysis of where the companies you mention fell short. e.g. Starbucks did carry consistent brand elements forward, they also explained updates in context of their expanding business focus. So, it's arguable that, in Sarbucks' case, they followed your advice. Given their mixed reviews, where did they go wrong?

  • Joe Duffy

    Hi Wendy,

    I actually think Starbucks did all the right things. They retained their brand equity, they changed as they moved beyond their core offering and I'm sure they announced that change to their internal audience first.

    I would point to them as a very positive example of brand evolution. Nonetheless, they received quite a bit of criticism ...which I guess should go under the heading, "you can't please everyone".