Should you ever scrap a brand and just start again?

Sometimes the more common rebranding strategies of incremental change or reawakening brand heritage just aren't working, and you need to switch up your design thinking and considering starting again from scratch. In this case, you can treat the client almost like a startup. 

But how do you know when you've reached that point? And what should you do about it once you make the decision to scrap an old brand and start again? We spoke to three creative pros to find their tips for starting afresh.

01. Know when to let go

Richard Buchanan of The Clearing uses two main measures to decide when to start again: saliency, or the ‘meaning’ associated with a brand, which can be both positive and negative; and awareness. “When the saliency is negative and unhelpful, and your awareness is really low, you go: you have fundamentally pissed people off and they don’t particularly like you,” he reasons. “Then what’s the point in hanging onto it?” 

Chris Moody of Wolff Olins agrees that it usually takes some kind of fundamental brand crisis, or some kind of major organisational change, like a merger, for a brand to start again. 

“This is a shame, because you end up starting from a bad place,” he argues. “The branding work done for Google’s parent company, Alphabet, was intriguing, as it was an identity that made sense of something that previously nobody had thought of. I suspect we will see more of this.” 

Moody believes that customers are actually more forgiving than we give them credit for, and that it tends to be the clients who refuse to let go of the past. “The world moves incredibly quickly, so brands need to be more agile. That should include identity,” he insists. “Imagine wearing the same clothes for 25 years. You’d look out of touch and stale.

“The argument against radical rebranding is perverse, as it’s often claimed that big changes erode hard-won trust. But look at it another way: would you trust someone who seemed decades out of step with the rest of the world?"

02. Tailor your process

Royal Ascot branding

The Clearing gave Royal Ascot a premium overhaul

According to Michael Johnson – creative director and principal of Johnson Banks, rebranding is a very different beast from branding a new company, and your creative process should be tailored accordingly. 

“For a while I approached both in a similar way,” he admits. “The penny dropped a few years ago that for ‘new’ projects it made more sense to start at the core – why they are here, what do they stand for, then work outwards. Conversely, when realigning existing brands we often start from the edges and talk about ‘how’ they work, and what they believe in, before we tackle the trickier and more essential stuff at the core.”

03. Get the client on-side

Johnson emphasises that truly radical change must be a collaborative decision between agency and client. “I think there’s a very naive view out there that designers should ‘persuade’ their clients to be more adventurous,” he says. “I can only do a radical piece of work if, client-side, they are on the same page.” 

He adds that graphic design alone is rarely enough to persuade: you need solid strategic foundations, based on a clear need for major change. “Walking into a boardroom with a clutch of new logos and a presentation you could précis as, ‘Wouldn’t this be cool?’ is asking for trouble,” he smiles.

04. Consider the cost

Fitness First

When Fitness First came to The Clearing, Richard Buchanan says it was "broken". "We kept the name but for everything else we started again," he explains

As ever, wider economic factors often come into play with any root-and-stem changes to a brand – especially for a well-established, global one. Johnson gives the example of Virgin Atlantic, when both he and the CEO began on the same page in terms of a radical shake-up of the company’s livery. 

“When someone pointed out that repainting just one plane cost a quarter of a million pounds, and my jolly little presentation had just ‘spent’ £10 million in implementation fees, that was a killer blow – and illustrates how the hopes of a graphic designer can sometimes run headlong into everyday realities.”

The Clearing faced a similar challenge, albeit on a slightly different scale, with its rebrand of Royal Ascot – which needed to be signed off by the Queen. “They had a really old, tired-looking marque, and we wanted to move it into something quite premium,” Buchanan recalls. “We designed a total creative vision, mapped out every single touchpoint: product, service, internal culture, environment, communications.

 “When it came to sign-off, she didn’t approve the logo, because it was 2011 and we were still in what people thought was a double-dip recession. She was concerned that they were seen to be spending money on what wasn’t broken. You would have had to change every sign on the racecourse, and wayfinding and signage becomes really expensive.” 

The Clearing successfully revisited and refreshed the marque at a later date, but like Johnson’s Virgin Atlantic example, that initial reticence to change was grounded in practical realities. The cost, and associated risk, of wholesale change of a brand can be prohibitively expensive in any sector – and in most cases, a brand needs to be fundamentally broken to consider it. 

This article was originally published in Computer Arts, the world's best-selling design magazine. Buy issue 279 or subscribe.

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Nick Carson

Nick is a content strategist and copywriter. He has worked with world-class agencies including Superunion, Wolff Olins and Vault49 on brand storytelling, tone of voice and verbal strategy for global brands such as Virgin, Pepsi and TikTok. Nick launched the Brand Impact Awards in 2013 while editor of Computer Arts, and remains chair of judges. He's written for Creative Bloq on design and branding matters since the site's launch.