How to Critique the Latest Tech Rebrand
A simple framework for assessing a tech product’s rebrand for the brand layperson
Let’s get one thing out of the way: I’m a UX designer by trade and brand was never a part of my formal education, or my daily work.
In fact, like many UX designers, I found brand to be silly and superficial; UX is what mattered most (it still is 😉).
I’m going to save my journey to brand enlightenment for another day and skip straight to the present to describe how I look at rebrands in the hopes that it’s helpful to others who are equally unclear about what to make of brand.
But wait, is it ok to make fun of a rebrand?
Sure! I mean nothing is more fun than riffing about what a new logo reminds you of, or dissing a new product name.
I don’t care much for the new Slack logo’s comparison to a swastika (mainly because it’s hard to see and you can form swastikas in the negative space of just about every carpet and tile patterns you see in a building or hotel, oh and because the Nazi swastika is actually rotated 45°, and it’s not formed with negative space but rather a solid black line…but I digress).
But I am fond of its comparison to colorful ducks:
I also joined in bashing the name of Apple’s iPad in 2010, happily reminiscing about the MadTV skit from five years before the iPad was released:
And of course who can forget Netflix’s doomed Qwikster brand that they tried to use for their DVD-at-home service for a New York minute back in 2011:
The point is, there is always room for making light of new brands, but I often get surprised how toxic and negative the feedback can get — a particularly ironic trait amongst designers who should probably be more sympathetic than most about the anxieties of having to put your work out in the world.
And this leads me to the ultimate reason I wrote this article.
Often, critique quickly escalates from having fun with what the visuals or name remind you of — a highly personal, visceral reaction— to tirades about why brand isn’t important, or cynical assaults questioning why businesses wastie money on brand. And sometimes, if we designers know who did the brand, this can escalate into wholly unproductive character assassinations of the firm, designer, or in-house team.
But I find this escalation is rooted in most designers not understanding how to frame a rebrand in the right context. While I am no expert, I have applied my own expertise in tying UX design to business into a kinda-sorta framework for understanding rebrands.
The value of brand from a layperson
But first, let’s get one thing out of the way because if you’re like me (a designer with no history in brand) then you may wonder why the hell brand is important to begin with.
In short, a business’s brand sets expectations for customers.
Brand becomes more important in tech as competition increases because it can be how a business differentiates from other companies when they’d otherwise be seen the same.
It’s uniquely important for tech because software companies often provide a new way of doing something, for which no real precedent exists; hence, setting a compelling and accurate expectation is paramount.
If you’re still skeptical, just know that your job is made completely irrelevant if your company doesn’t have a strong brand. Sleep tight!
Why is a rebrand necessary?
I believe there are four distinct reasons for a rebrand.
The first two are pretty poor reasons (and how I think most people view rebrands as being shallow), so the second two are where I’ll focus my efforts.
1. A company wants a modern refresh.
I think this is what most people think of when they think of a rebrand.
“Oh they just wanted to update their brand to make it look more modern.”
This type of rebrand often happens without much fanfare. And while it’s a fine reason, it is not the type of rebrand I’m talking about in this article.
2. A company is dying.
I don’t want to kick a company when they’re down but I’ll just put this link to Yahoo!’s many logos as evidence that this is a thing that companies do — as if a rebrand can help distract everyone from the bad business decisions being made.
3. A company is recovering from a major event that requires a new identity
Think about what Uber’s dealt with recently. Their rebrands have been PR-oriented. I wouldn’t be surprised if Papa John’s does the same sometime this year. Refreshed brands can help a company shed an old identity. The challenge is that as much as a company wants to run from an old identity, it’s more important that it runs towards a new one.
As a result, this reason for a rebrand is more challenging than the next one because it’s not tied enough to a forward-looking business change.
4. A company is going in a new strategic direction
This can take several forms:
- A startup may have a back-of-the napkin brand when they start that simply doesn’t work when they gain traction. Once they get enough market traction, they’ll need to make updates that allows them to speak to their prospective customers more clearly.
- A startup gets a cease and desist on a name. When you’re small this doesn’t matter. But at some point this will come into play and a rebrand is required. Companies don’t often reference this publicly after the fact but having worked with dozens of startups over the past five years, I can attest it happens more often than most think.
Thismay seem like an unfortunate reason to have to rebrand but often the dreaded cease-and-desist comes at a time when a company is scaling enough to be important (and threatening), so it can be a perfect excuse to establish a refreshed brand that is more representative of what the company has become.
- What a startup began doing has changed and the current brand doesn’t quite fit. I think this is partly what was behind Netflix’s failed Qwiskter brand, although they did it backwards. They rebranded the old service to elevate the new streaming service. In the end, they found more success just deemphasizing that old service and elevating the core brand to represent their play with original content (more on this later).
- A scaling business is making a significant strategic evolution or shift and the brand needs to clear the new path. This is what I think is behind Slack’s recent rebrand. The tricky part is outsiders can’t know what the new strategy is but we can feel pretty certain they wouldn’t do something this costly and evolutionary if it wasn’t to build something bigger.
In all four of these cases the common thread is that a significant business move was behind each rebrand.
Ok, I hope that helps make the case for valuing a rebrand so we can begin to understand how to judge them.
Questions to ask to give you a better framework for judging a rebrand
Again, I’m avoiding visual analysis of a brand here because that’s above my pay grade. Instead, I want to provide some questions to ask that will guide you towards a more reasoned reaction rebrand. And hopefully doing this will elevate your own understanding of brand.
I highly recommend going over to Brand New for a better analysis of visual details of rebrands. The comment section has the typical haters but overall Armin’s write-ups are stellar and the commenters often provide great details you can learn from.
Do you use the product?
Initial reactions are often stronger when you’re an active user. I think Slack got strong reactions because it hit millions of people in the face (or eyes) overnight. More importantly, emotions come into play much more when you’re a user and advocate. It’s like when one of your favorite bands releases their first mainstream album. You might be upset that their sound evolved but you’ll be doubly upset because it feels like a personal attack against you as a listener.
Brands have the same effects on people whether conscious or not. Buyers and users of tech products develop a deep relationships with products we love and just about any rebrand will be upsetting.
I don’t have any great advice if you’re a user of the product that rebrands other than to say it’s an important factor to be aware of so maybe you don’t fire off that tweet asking if the company’s creative director ate paste as a child.
What stage is the company at?
As I mentioned previously, early stage companies may have to make massive brand updates for various reasons: the initial one wasn’t thought through, they shifted markets, or trademark infringement. Later stage startups may be moving up market or getting ready for an IPO (something I overlooked when I looked at Dropbox’s rebrand in 2017). Lastly, established companies have a lot more equity in their brands both in terms of market equity (users and customers) and investments made in brand assets that are more expensive to update. Larger company rebrands should be less dramatic than those of early-stage startups.
This question can also help you think more about what their goals might be:
- Maybe the company is attracting a different market
- Maybe the company is moving up-stream to attract larger customers
- Maybe the company is moving downstream to attract smaller businesses or individuals
Usually you can find press releases or new feature updates to help confirm rationale behind the rebrand. This allows you to judge company’s with the right frame of mind.
What’s the company’s business model?
Woah slow down Warren Buffet, we’re not here to get an MBA! Don’t worry I don’t have one of those either so I’ll keep this simple. Another way to phrase this is, “How does the company make money?”
When Netflix made their last major brand refresh in 2015 (and helping everyone get over the trauma of Qwikster), it was timed around a push to create more of their own content and spread into more countries. But both of those alone doesn’t help explain why they needed a rebrand on its own. Instead you’d need to understand how they make their money. Let’s see how that works:
Netflix makes money off subscribers. Pretty simple. But as they’ve grown in size, the “frienemy” relationship they had with other content providers would eventually sour. Disney announced it was pulling its content in in 2017 (to go into effect by 2020 I believe). And my guess is that Netflix knew that would happen back in 2015. As a result, Netflix had to create new content in order to attract subscribers because they’d start losing access to the third-party content they relied on to grow. Hence, a brand refresh emerged; one that would elevate their status in a way that would create a new brand impression in existing and prospective customers. Today, Netflix’s content rivals — if not, beats — those of other premium providers at a cheaper price point. This has enabled continued subscriber growth.
Whew. That was a long-winded example of how understanding a company’s business model helps frame a brand refresh.
How do the company’s customers or prospects interact with their brand?
When Dropbox updated their brand in late 2017, they did some pretty wild stuff; things like pairing colors that I didn’t know existed, and introducing a font literally with “grotesk” in the name. But at the core they made really minor updates to their logomark and type (and if I’m not mistaken, they might have punched up their brand blue).
While the design community lost our collective shit over the visual style, we may have overlooked the fact that the average user wouldn’t interact with any of that. As an avid user of their syncing service and products like Paper and Showcase, I can attest that those who don’t follow design barely noticed a change.
The point is that before weighing in on a new brand, pay attention to how people interact with it.
In the end, judging a company’s rebrand is challenging because we can’t always know what their intent was from the outside looking in. And while most companies will publicly write why they did it in a press release, and hired agencies will will defend their approach, it’s never clear how much is genuine and what’s bullshit.
I can, however, say that it’s much less common for a rebrand to be done in vein and much more common for these efforts to be driven by a ton of thought and rationale behind it. So if you can at least start with that assumption, then you can better assess how successful the rebrand attempt is based the answers to the questions I’ve provided here.
When I’m not helping UX designers learn how to evaluate brands more effectively, I’m helping them with Sketch design tools at UX Power Tools.