How far is too far when rebranding?

Without fail, when a big name rebrands it hits the headlines. Followed promptly by a stream of comments, likes, loves, dislikes, hates, and memes.

In a world where everyone has a voice, to rebrand a company can be a daunting affair. So, when should you suggest a company rebrand, and how far is too far when rebranding?

Psychology has the answer.

How often should we update company logos?

Did you know that in the last 6 years, Google has updated their logo 3 times? At first glance, this seems surprising. I don’t know about you, but it doesn’t feel like their logo has been updated so regularly or received the same mass response as the likes of Uber or Pinterest.

Google logo redesign through the ages

Some companies, on the other hand, haven't updated with logos in decades. Lego’s current logo was designed in 1973, Mitsubishi in 1964, and BMW has changed little since 1917.

With some of the big names tweaking their logos periodically, and others every century. How often should we update a company logos?

The answer rests on three psychological theories:

  • The two-factor model of exposure effects
  • The discrepancy hypothesis
  • Social Judgement theory

The two-factor model of exposure effects (let's call it 2FEE for short)1 2 describes people’s initial response to new things. New objects are perceived as threatening and alarming as they shift away from what people know and are comfortable with. This ‘threat’ is reduced with repeat exposure as people get used to the new look of a brand. With habitation – seeing it a lot increasing likeness.

Notice how people have stopped commenting on the new Instagram brand? This is the effect in action.

Interestingly this theory points to the possibility of boredom effects. Such that the more people see a stimulus the more normal and banal it becomes. In the world of brand recognition and brand value, this is a scary place to be.
This adds weight to the argument that logos should be tweaked occasionally to keep things ‘fresh’.

Google may be on to something.

The discrepancy hypothesis3 adds to the foundation of the 2FEE model but includes the effects of novelty4. Slightly altering a known stimulus increases its novelty, and therefore its likeability compared to the original version. Maybe this suggests why Google doesn’t experience the fallouts that other big rebrands have received?

However, change a logo too far from the original though and its becomes perceived as a new image. Activating the negative psychological responses in the process.

The final theory, the Social Judgement Theory5 is the one which we are most familiar with. We see it in action with every negative tweet, facebook post or a friend’s grumble about a company's rebrand.

It states that no change is preferred, but other studies using the theory have shown that slight changes may be tolerated.

The general consensus is that a tweak is better than a complete overhaul. When you examine company rebrands, the vast majority play on the aesthetics and form of the previous logo.

The exception are companies who either pivot their business or merge with another, such that the original meanings associated with the old logo are no longer relevant. Be prepared for a temporary fallout – at least until people become habituated that is.


References

Form for thought - A blog about design psychology and design thinking for graphic designers, web designers, ui designers, ux and illustrators. Looking into the psychology of colour, user behaviour and advertising psychology.