When rebrands go wrong

From erasing a company’s visual heritage to distracting from broader business problems, we unpack the main reasons why a rebrand may fail

Anyone who works in the world of branding will be all too familiar with the furore that surrounds the unveiling of a major rebrand. A new logo design in particular has the unique ability to provoke fierce debate both within the design community and among the general public, as seen with WHSmith’s recent rebrand experiment, which saw signage on ten of its UK stores updated over the Christmas period. As well as being heavily criticised for ripping off the NHS logo, the whole saga offered a number of lessons in how (not) to manage an identity rollout.

“We understand it is a trial so for that reason we may give it some latitude, but it still needs to be trialling something meaningful,” JKR’s chief growth officer, Lee Rolston, tells CR. “Why WHS, not WHSmith? I don’t know any people who call it WHS. Arguably more people call it Smith’s.” In a retreat that feels reminiscent of Gap’s ill-fated 2010 rebrand – which lasted just six days – WHSmith has since confirmed that there is “no plan” to roll out the changes more widely.

While it’s easy to get swept up in the court of public opinion, establishing whether a rebrand has succeeded or not is intrinsically linked to its broader impact on a business. Whatever people’s views on the London 2012 Olympics logo when it was first unveiled, it ended up making good sense in terms of the wider design scheme that was used across the Games, while Airbnb has become one of the world’s most loved brands in the wake of its divisive 2014 rebrand. In contrast, Tropicana’s 2009 redesign, which saw it ditch its distinctive orange and straw logo for a more minimalist look, is widely regarded as one of the worst rebrands in history. Two months on, sales had dropped by 20% and the brand had lost a staggering $30 million.