10 most hated logos (and what they teach us)

One of the defining features of branding over the last decade is the freedom that social media gives for anyone to launch an immediate personal critique. Or more accurately, often, a tirade of mouth-frothing abuse.

In fact, many of the most controversial rebrands of recent years had to batten down the hatches and weather the storm of hatred well before they were actually rolled out – and in some cases, were never rolled out at all as a result. 

Other times, when the furore dies down and people see in the full branding scheme in context rather than just the logo in stark isolation, hate turns to love. Sometimes, those initially hated rebrands turn out to become the world's best logos.

So what can these widely-reported PR disasters teach us about branding? Read on for our analysis of 10 of the most hated logos of all time...

01. London 2012

London 2012 logo

One thing's for sure, Wolff Olins' bold, mould-breaking brand for London 2012 attracted plenty of flak. Criticisms ranged from simple legibility concerns, to more outlandish claims that Lisa Simpson appeared to be engaging in fellatio. 

It got political when Iran's Olympic team insisted it spelled out 'Zion', and someone else spotted a swastika. Matters worsened further when the bright, flashing colours from the promo film induced epileptic fits.

Once the Olympics kicked off in earnest, and the brand was seen in context across a dizzying array of applications, attention shifted to the glorious summer of sport in the UK capital. And amongst a sea of bland, identikit, safe Olympics logos, most people around the world could still pick it out of a line-up instantly.

The lesson here? Breaking new ground and doing something daring with a brand will get you noticed. Not always for the right reasons, but sometimes it's better to be brave and different – and hated by some – than to fade into oblivion. That's how innovation happens.

02. Gap (briefly)

GAP rebrand

Gap's utterly disastrous attempt to embrace the pared-back, minimalist, Helvetica-vanilla revolution blew up so comprehensively in its face that the whole thing was pulled after less than a week.

In place of its iconic blue square with tall, condensed serif type, the US clothing giant attempted to launch something so half-hearted and limp, the internet descended into a maelstrom of mockery and snide imitation. 

What's to be learned from this debacle? Firstly, don't ever throw away brand heritage to try and embrace a new trend – but perhaps most importantly, know when you've got it wrong, and concede defeat.

03. USA Today

USA Today logos

Wolff Olins met with controversy once again with its 2012 rebrand of USA Today – a title that, since its launch in the 1980s, has grown into one of the widest-circulated newspapers in the States, alongside the substantially older Wall Street Journal and New York Times.

The backbone of the rebrand was a simple visual system, based around a large, flat-colour blue circle – an ultra-minimalist rendition of the previous globe graphic – and stacked Futura all-caps text. Unfortunately, at first glance it was far too simple for some, attracting a tirade of abuse accusing it of being simplistic, off-brand and even insulting to readers' intelligence.

The branding solution was more than met the eye, however. As well as being pared-back, clean and simple, it was also incredibly versatile – the circle acting as a container device for content, and the colour scheme signifying different sections of the paper. It works, very effectively. 

The lesson? When there's a more complex identity system that needs to be seen in context, ignore that initial wave of criticism and launch with confidence.

04. Tropicana (briefly)

Tropicana rebrand

Like Gap, this is another short-lived rebrand that ultimately buckled under overwhelmingly negative attention. When juice brand Tropicana ditched its instantly recognisable 'straw stuck in an orange' motif and replaced it with a generic crop of a glass of orange juice, people simply weren't having it.

Customer complaints reached sufficient volume that the brand's owner, PepsiCo, threw in the towel and reverted to the original branding within a couple of months. 

The lesson here is something of a no-brainer: if you have something distinctive and well-loved about your brand that gives it shelf-standout in a competitive FMCG sector, don't chuck away in a misguided attempt to look 'contemporary'.

05. BP

BP logo

This is the oldest example on this list, from the year 2000 – in many ways a precursor of the public furore around high-profile rebrands that would come to define this millennium so far. It was an unmitigated PR disaster.

In a move widely derided at the time as an attempt to 'greenwash' its reputation, oil giant British Petroleum brought Landor on board to replace its imperialist green-and-yellow shield with a delicate geometric flower. The chunky all-caps 'BP' become lowercase, hovering above the flower, with a new slogan: 'Beyond Petroleum'.

Given that the rebrand and its subsequent global rollout cost tens of millions of dollars, environmentalists were quick to point out BP had spent far more on its new logo than on investing in renewable energy sources. Subversive designers turned the logo into a meme, complete with stricken turtles and oil-drenched seabirds.

The lesson here, which many companies have learned the hard way over the years, is that you can't paper over the cracks with branding and expect people to change their opinions – authenticity is everything, and an ideological rebrand such as this needs organisational change to back it up.

06. Airbnb

Airbnb logo

DesignStudio's rebrand of Airbnb launched the agency into the global spotlight back in 2014, and was the first in a string of controversy-attracting projects that included Premier League and Deliveroo.

The Airbnb 'Bélo' was described on launch as “an expression of what it truly means to belong anywhere”, accumulating a hug, a map and a heart. These figured fairly low on the list of things the public compared the symbol with, however. 

Entire Tumblrs were devoted to the Bélo's resemblance to various parts of the human anatomy (mostly genitalia). Others insisted it evoked the chin of Family Guy's Peter Griffin, amongst other things.

DesignStudio calmly weathered the storm of hilarity and indignation, and the Bélo is now comfortably bedded in as a contemporary icon. If you and the client stand by the thinking behind a rebrand, don't let social media trolls get to you. Unlike Gap or Tropicana, this one definitely improves with age.

07. American Airlines

American Airlines rebrand

When you have an effortlessly iconic logo designed by a master such as Massimo Vignelli, you'd think it would be a tough decision to ditch it. That's exactly what American Airlines did, and people got mad.

Vignelli's bold, graphic cross-winged eagle symbol, neatly sandwiched between the twin 'A's, had a pleasing visual symmetry that felt both timeless and elegant. Its replacement is none of those things, watering the confident navy down to a softer blue and reducing the majestic eagle in flight to an abstract beak.

The lesson? If it ain't broke, don't fix it. And if you have a Vignelli classic under your belt, it definitely ain't broke.

08. IHOP

IHOP logo

The International House of Pancakes, otherwise known as IHOP, is something of an American institution. But few things are more likely to put you off enjoying your fluffy, syrupy breakfast fare than the fixed gaze of a demonic clown.

Perhaps in an attempt to emulate the warm 'smile' motif that Turner Duckworth achieved so effectively for Amazon, IHOP capitalises on the face-like juxtaposition of the 'o' and the 'p' in its name. But while the combination of chunky, blue rimmed, staring eyes and thin red grin exudes many things, warmth isn't among them.

The lesson? If you're trying to make a logo look friendly and approachable, test it on actual humans and see if they bolt in terror. That'll be a good clue.

However, IHOP did manage to create some positive PR buzz when it flipped its 'p' to a 'b' and changed its name to IHOB

09. Instagram

Instagram rebrand

One of the biggest milestones in the death of skeuomorphism, and the rise of flat design, was when Instagram dropped its retro, textured camera in favour of a pared-back icon, adorned with a neon rainbow gradient. The internet freaked out.

Like many of the other examples on this list, this was a rebrand that launched a thousand memes. Panned for looking like something that had crawled out of Microsoft Paint in the '90s, this radical new direction for Instagram's logo spawned plenty of rip-offs and snide 'logo generators'.

Some lamented the fact that Instagram's 'retro camera' essence – the whole founding principle of the app - had been lost, while others simply hated the zingy, garish colour palette. But as flat design became the defining look and feel of iOS, the 'native' feel of the app icon has acted in its favour.

Where it was once known primarily for its retro photography filters – for which the skeuomorphic camera was a neat fit - Instagram is now one of the foremost social media platforms. Sometimes, initially unpopular design decisions have broader strategic reasons at their heart.

10. Cleveland Indians

Cleveland Indians logo

Sometimes hatred for a logo goes far beyond aesthetic preference, such as in the case of the Cleveland Indians' long-controversial mascot, Chief Wahoo. It has been called offensive, outdated and even racist for using a cartoonish caricature of a Native American, in a climate where most US sport teams – with notable exceptions, such as the Washington Redskins – have stopped doing so.

However, it seems the pressure has now had an effect, as Chief Wahoo will no longer feature on the Cleveland Indians' uniform from the start of the 2019 season, with the team conceding that it is "no longer appropriate" to do so.

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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.