Why Black & Decker became Black + Decker

Branding agency Lippincott has designed a new visual identity for Black + Decker. We asked senior design partner Marc Hohmann about the reasons for the controversial rebrand.

Branding agency Lippincott has designed a new visual identity for Black + Decker. We asked senior design partner Marc Hohmann about the reasons for its controversial rebrand.

Yesterday, US power tool brand Black + Decker unveiled a dramatic new look. The condensed type and hexagonal nut logo in use since 1921 has been replaced with a more streamlined design that uses a + sign instead of an ampersand.

While Black + Decker’s old logo was powerful, robust and exactly the sort of look you’d expect from a company that makes drills and saws, the new design has a softer, gentler feel – even the rectangle surrounding the brand name has rounded edges.

The immediate reaction to this new look has been mixed. In an industry where brands compete to convince consumers of products strength and durability, it’s oddly unsettling to see such a minimal and meek design and online reviews have so far described it as “weak”, “cheap”, “flimsy” and “generic”.

But Black + Decker’s new look isn’t a hasty move – the re-design is part of a three year initiative to re-brand Black + Decker and its sister companies DeWalt and Stanley.

Stanley’s black and yellow logo has already been given a makeover, and Lippincott designer Marc Hohmann says it’s not just Black + Decker’s identity that has been re-designed but its product range, too.

Black & Decker’s previous branding and packaging

“We started work on Black + Decker around two years ago,” says Hohmann. “The first stage was a re-evaluation of the brand followed by a new positioning and strategy, then the design and visual system which took about three quarters of a year,” he explains.

One of the key issues Lippincott identified when evaluating Black + Decker was that it occupied an awkward middle ground between the iconic and much-loved Stanley tools and more powerful DeWalt products that are “guaranteed tough”.

New packaging

“Stanley is a brand people have a lot of love for – the main thing that came out of research into it was that they just wanted it to be a little more dynamic. But with Black + Decker, people didn’t have that same love – it had lost its way,” says Hohmann.

This was largely due to Black + Decker’s bewildering range of products (a result of the pressure on tool and appliance brands to constantly innovate) and the disparate designs of its power tools and home and garden appliances, says Hohmann.

“For years, Black + Decker’s agenda was to release more and more products and variations until they ended up with thirty different drills,” he says.

“It also has a diverse offering – it’s not just about tools with strength and power, like DeWalt, but hand vacs and small appliances that are light to hold and easy to use. The design of those products was completely different to the drills and saws – there was nothing in the packaging or design that would suggest a link – and we wanted to bring those two things together,” he explains.

To tackle this discord and distance Black + Decker from its sister brands, Lippincott decided the new identity should be purer, simpler and friendlier.

Unusually, the agency worked with product designers on re-designing Black + Decker’s product range before developing a visual identity to match. The product range hasn’t been rolled out yet but Hohmann says items “have been stripped down to their bare essentials”.

“A lot of Black + Decker’s products were over-designed and too decorative – there was a lot of noise. It wanted to re-position itself as a humble, friendly brand that’s accessible and easy to use, and we decided the best way to do that was through a more minimal look,” says Hohmann.

The inspiration for the new visual identiy was not engineering or hardware brands but Adidas, Uniqlo, Ikea and Muji – retailers that have a strong yet minimal identity, says Hohmann. “They are brands that are not in any way elitist – they have a friendly, almost artisan feel but a modern one, too,” he says. “We wanted to achieve a look that would have the Adidas effect: close your eyes and think of Adidas sneakers, boxes or stores, and you immediately see the three stripes,” he explains.

Lippincott is aware that people expect a certain ‘look’ from tool and appliance brands but Hohmann says this was something the company was keen to avoid, partly to ensure products stand out on the shelves and because he believes that minimal, quieter design is what consumers really want today.

“If you look at product design from twenty years ago, it is quieter now, more ‘super normal’. People want more dynamics and action but less visual noise – Apple Mac computers, for example, used to be fun and colourful, but now they’re sleek and minimal. We’re past the point of layers, drop shadows and flourishes,” he says.

When a company as well known as Black + Decker rebrands, the outcome is almost guaranteed to attract controversy, particularly when the re-design is so radical. But perhaps some of the criticism directed at the new look is unfair – it’s been described as flimsy and weak but if the company’s aim is to cultivate a lighter, friendlier image with universal appeal, perhaps that’s not such a bad thing.

It’s a shame the iconic nut logo has been dropped and the new identity looks a little odd on packaging, but it works well on drills and hoovers (above). And by designing an identity so at odds with other DIY and tool brands, Lippincott has ensured that Black + Decker will stand out on store shelves whether consumers like it or not.