When should brands revisit the past?

A brand’s heritage can provide a great starting point for a new identity – but sometimes, the past is best avoided. We take a look at the brands drawing on their archives for inspiration and speak to three designers about the pros and cons of revisiting old identities

One of the biggest dilemmas facing any designer working on a rebrand is whether to look to the past or to start afresh. In tech and fashion, major brands have been replacing idiosyncratic logos and founding identities with cleaner, digital-first designs (see Google, Airbnb, Spotify and most recently, luxury fashion brands). But alongside this, we’ve seen a growing number of brands going back to their roots, reviving historic logos, monograms and graphic patterns from the archives. Co-Op, John Lewis and children’s shoe-maker Start-Rite are just some of the brands that have taken inspiration from their past, creating new identities that are rooted in historic designs.

For heritage brands, a historic design can be a powerful asset – particularly when faced with competition from newer rivals. “In a world where we’re surrounded by new brands that are ‘disrupting’ their sectors, it [provides] a point of difference, and a way of competing with those brands,” explains Adam Rix, Creative Director at Music. “Brands that use or evolve their visual identity over time can leverage years of brand equity – something that the likes of banking brand Monzo or Airbnb can only work towards.”

Drawing on the past can also be a way for brands to re-connect with consumers. When design studio North started working with Co-op, the brand had gone through the worst period in its history. As well as dealing with financial losses, Co-op Bank suffered a PR nightmare at the hand of former chairman, Paul Flowers (a.k.a. the Crystal Methodist). For a mutual society – one built on giving consumers a stake in the business – it was a disaster that undermined everything the brand stood for.

Reviving Co-op’s clover leaf logo from 1968, and creating a new identity based around the mark, signalled a fresh start for the brand and a return to its original values. Co-op has since set about investing in new-look stores, community initiatives and apprenticeships, and the results have been positive so far, with the brand reporting increased profits, membership and revenues.