Rebrand rebellion: The “rules” we broke and why we broke them

By Jen Van De Vooren, Art Director

OK, it’s hardly a news flash that the internet is full of misinformation and misguidance. But there’s so much “common wisdom” out there that it’s worth considering what’s truly wise, and what’s merely common — especially if you’re an art director, creative director, or chief marketing officer considering a rebrand.

And, so, for exhibit A, I present the new McMillan identity.

Here are a few rebranding “tips” I encountered on the net when starting the McMillan rebrand, and what I did to rise above them:

Internet Misguidance #1: Look forward, not back.

Sounds logical, right? You want your organization to be forward-looking, progressive, and future-focused. But as a McMillan art director looking for a great design solution to a rebrand coinciding with our 20thanniversary in business, I would have totally missed an opportunity for a relevant, resonant brand expression if I’d ignored the past. Here’s why:

Our CEO and Chief Creative Officer, Gordon McMillan, had shared an interesting tidbit about his surname. His father told him that back in the day, in the Scottish Highlands, their last name was MacMillan. After getting into a tussle, their part of the clan left. They didn’t want to be associated with the name MacMillan — or McMillan, for that matter — so they put a line under the “c” as a way of differentiating from both the Macs and Mcs.

When I remembered that story, the idea of making the underscored “c” a significant element in the McMillan rebrand presented itself. Have a look at that device, which we now call the Launchpad. Not only is it a stylish design element, but it’s also a really cool easter egg. Grab the underscore with your mouse, drag it down and let go — if you hit the ‘c’ a couple of times you will reveal a fun little mini-game and a few surprises.

Internet Misguidance #2: Your logo, typography, and design should tell a single-minded story.

Solid advice, right? You don’t want an identity that’s flying wildly in all directions. You want to make sure that what people are seeing is clearly from the same organization.

True, but the danger of such guidance is that it requires a slavish adherence to a single-minded principle. It can limit creative thinking.

You’re seeing a great deal more multifaceted brands these days. From Russian-bred nation-building to British-born music-making. From Hungarian not-for-profit art-and-design idealism to Manhattan-based for-profit health and wellness exploration. The world over, avoiding single-mindedness is delivering singular success.

As a quick B2B example, when you think of IBM, you may think of “Big Blue,” but the brand can be vividly and variedly expressed, often by reducing the famous logo into a small grey bug.

A personal favourite of mine that shows the power of versatility is the rebranding of Channel 4, the UK’s colourfully successful public broadcaster.

For the McMillan rebrand, conveying versatility was important to us. Our new brand conveys solid confidence reflecting our B2B experience, but allows for presenting our fun, colourful side as well.

Internet Misguidance #3: Keep the design team tight. Maintain strict control. Do not share prematurely.

I can see why an art director, creative director, or CMO might want to pay heed to this advice. You don’t want your design project to leak out and have people poking at it, offering their own advice that it’s too wild, too boring, too red, or too blue — as well as a zillion other counter-productive comments. Things can go off the rails pretty quickly in a scenario like that. Why risk it, right?

When done properly, getting employees and stakeholders involved early on can engage people, making them feeling part of the process. Valuable feedback and insights can emerge.

Part of the trick is in framing the discussion properly and asking the right, carefully phrased questions. Stay away from purely subjective questions such as those asking about colour preference. Instead, use positive, direct, and big-view questions like:

“Which concept do you find the most successful? Or, Which one feels the most like an extension of our current corporate culture?”

That’s what occurred when our CEO/CCO shared the early McMillan rebranding design work with staff (I was lucky enough to work alongside a number of fantastically-talented, director-level creatives who also developed concepts for the rebrand). He listened carefully to what people said, and how they reacted, tempering his own personal expectations for what a refreshed, refocused McMillan might be with what he was hearing from others. And we ended up in a place that feels right for us.

Internet advice, meet salt.

So those are three examples of commonly held internet-based rebranding beliefs which we gave the cold shoulder — one colder than an ottawa winter.”

It’s worth emphasizing that I’m not saying everything you read on the internet is wrong (you are, after all, reading this). I’m just saying you might want to take what you read with a grain of salt, and consider breaking the rules.