Don’t Rebrand. Refresh.

Or, how to breathe new life into your brand without throwing the (brand) baby out with the bathwater.

Rebrand or refresh

I’ve realised that I’m prone to using the word, “rebrand” a little too freely. The concept of introducing change to a brand identity is a lot more nuanced and, although I’m always aware of where a particular project sits in terms of scope and desired outcome, the changes clients are after, do in fact cover a spectrum, from refresh to rebrand, and everything in between.

From something as cosmetic as updating with the proverbial fresh coat of paint, to undertaking a wholesale brand refurbishment. The trick lies in knowing when a refresh is all that’s needed and when rebranding is the way to go.

So what’s the difference between them, why should you be refreshing and ringing the changes regularly, and how will you know whether it’s a refresh or a rebrand that you need?

Consistency demands change

First of all change, in business as in life, is inevitable. It’s that idea from Alice in Wonderland of it taking “all the running you can do, to keep in the same place.” and “If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that!”

For a more contemporary, prosaic take, marketer and columnist Mark Ritson offers, “One of the core paradoxes of branding: consistency demands change” and “Time makes fools of all the brands that stand still.”

Unless you’re in the business of consumer staples such as pasta or toilet paper, your customers and prospects are rarely in a position where they can buy from you all the time. This means that you need to take a long view – where what you offer can, in the minds of your target audience, build up recall and reputation over time, staking its place front of mind, when the time is right.

It’s one of the reasons why brand and branding is never a one-off exercise – markets, categories and sectors are in constant flux. And yes, even toilet paper manufacturers update their brands!

To refresh or rebrand – that is the question

A brand refresh is, in the main, a tactical manoeuvre while a rebrand is a strategic repositioning of your brand that results in the creation of a new brand identity.

So, although sometimes a radical change is necessary, very often a brand refresh can, despite being largely cosmetic in nature, have a profound and wide-ranging impact on your business.

What a refresh can and cannot do

A brand refresh can include updating your visual and verbal identity – from modifying the logo design, colour palette, typography and taglines – to refining your marketing strategy, tone of voice and marketing materials.

Informed by external factors, it also responds to how your business is evolving internally. Properly executed, it helps you stay relevant and memorable, building on the brand equity you’ve built up while cementing that all-important competitive edge.

​​What it can’t solve are issues arising from there having been a fundamental shift in offering, positioning and/or audience, or if the branding introduced at the start-up stage was developed at pace, not given enough consideration and has long since been outgrown. This is when a comprehensive branding overhaul, a rebrand, is called for, redefining what you stand for (your values), who you are and who you serve as a company.

A case of refreshing not rebuilding

A good example of a brand refresh would be Housing for Women. As well as needing to breathe new life into the brand and raise their profile, their brand ident, with a logo far too detailed to render clearly at small sizes, was technically no longer fit for purpose in this more digitally focused world. An update was required to make it more flexible.

The environment the charity operates in had changed significantly since their branding was first developed. In the past, they’d needed to concentrate on educating the public in the problems facing vulnerable women. This meant that the look and feel of their material was somewhat dark and ominous. Updating meant taking a more positive view on the transformative effects of their work by presenting a bright and optimistic face to the world.

An evolutionary process rather than a complete change – the name stayed the same and the motif in the logo was retained and refined – we created a colourful and flexible system that gives the marketing team enough room to play with while keeping brand identity consistent.

Housing for Women banner stand

Who’s the refresh for and why?

Brand goodwill is hard earned, especially in noisy marketplaces, so consistency brings its own reward. If you’re considering a brand refresh always remember who you’re doing it for and avoid change for change’s sake. Although a refresh is largely a tactical endeavour it does need to originate from a place of sound strategic reasoning.

“Feeling like a change” or happening to glance over your shoulder at something new in your marketplace is rarely good enough. Whether initiated by a founder or the result of team members who might perceive things to be stagnant, these sort of starting points lead to random acts of branding. Such brand extensions, new sub-brands and stand-alone marketing campaigns can threaten to throw you off-course and away from the value embedded in your strategic positioning and codified in your brand guidelines.

Creating in-built brand resilience

Brand guidelines themselves should always be designed to allow some flexibility. If they’re not too restrictive, they’re more likely to be adhered to and will offer room for manoeuvre and periodically introducing those refreshes and updates.

Making time for taking regular strategic pauses will help avoid random acts of branding. Regularly reviewing where your brand stands, how it fits in its space and assessing the market, (for example, asking if there are new challengers on your patch) will prove invaluable, particularly if you’re able to introduce that all-important outside perspective by working with a brand consultant.

And of course brand guidelines themselves often need updating after they’ve been handed over to the internal team for application. Until a brand system is stress tested in the field, i.e. applied to real-world scenarios that any designer would be hard-pressed to have made allowances for, it’s difficult to know what works and what might need further refining. Keep a live record of findings and factor in a six-month review with the design team.

Updating the past

Step back, understand it again, and then step forward with a brand-new version of the past.

Mark Ritson

Some say you can’t rewrite history. But history, unlike the past, is a live discipline that’s constantly being reinterpreted by historians who construct it in the present. It’s only natural that just as our understanding of the world changes, so does our attitude to the past.

Similarly, with brands, a refresh doesn’t erase what went before but builds on it, reassessing and updating what’s established because, as iconic film star, Lauren Bacall said,

Standing still is the fastest way of moving backwards in a rapidly changing world.

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