Brand design leaders share the stories of the brands they’ve created.
About 150 designers, entrepreneurs, and other creatives crowded into ZillowGroup’s South of Market offices June 26 for San Francisco Design Week’s Night of Rebranding Stories.
After the empanadas and brand mad libs, cohosts Kristen Stotts, Design Director at ZillowGroup, and Jess Staley, Director of Brand Design at Trulia, introduced the panel of brand design leaders. “We wanted to open the curtain up and show you the good, bad, and ugly of rebranding,” Jess said.
Over the next hour and a half, these design pros talked through their recent rebranding projects, showing lots of process pics, misfires, and aha moments along the way. The crowd chuckled over san serif jokes and cringed at “before” logos. There were tales of executive eye rolls and beloved concepts that wound up on the cutting room floor.
And while there was lots of logo talk, all five panelists stressed that the logo is only a tiny piece of brand design. As Peter Merholz put it, “Brand identity design is not just graphic design. There’s a weird black art to brand design.”
Here are some highlights in case you couldn’t make it:
“The brand no longer represented what we had become. It was like we were walking around looking like our junior high photo.”
— Nate Fortin, Evernote
Several panelists touched on the moment when a company has outgrown the brand that launched it. It happened as Evernote hit its 10-year mark. The app, initially built to remember what the brain could not, had evolved to be more focused on spurring action.
And over time, the Evernote brand had lost its differentiation. Nate Fortin, who headed up the Evernote rebrand, put it like this: “We woke up one day and realized that over the years we’d started to look like everyone else.”
During the six-month rebranding process, one of thornier questions Nate’s team grappled with was: “Are we killing the elephant?” Eventually, they realized that there was “a lot of equity” in their elephant logo. So, instead of starting from scratch, they focused on refining it. They enlarged the ear flap, added a slant to the forehead to signify motion, and went from gray to Evernote’s green. “Even the eye was subject of much debate,” Nate said.
They paired the new logo with a serif font to reflect the literary nature of what Evernote does and developed a series of patterns that they mix and match and use in illustrations and to liven up pages that have stock photography.
One big takeaway for Nate? The importance of collaboration. “If you do a bunch of work in a Star Chamber and then surprise people with it, it’ll be a lot harder.”
“We were flying the plane as we were building it.”
— Courtney Hemsarth, Zillow Premier Agent
Think rebranding is complicated? Try doing it as a portfolio brand at the very same time your parent company is also undergoing a rebrand. That was Courtney Hemsarth’s challenge at Premier Agent, a Zillow B2B brand focused on real estate agents.
The goal was to focus much more on loyalty, trustworthiness, and partnership. The team started by creating a brand positioning statement. “This is so important,” Courtney said. “It’s your north star that everything ladders up to.”
The team developed a logo in which Premier Agent is literally the base that Zillow rests on. A gold bar speaks to the eliteness of the Premier Agent program. And, not incidentally, the gold colors work well with the blues of Zillow’s rebrand.
The gold-and-blue color scheme continues through the rebrand’s illustrations and photography, where agents are shown wearing gold tones. And Courtney has found that both are essential: in emails, photos have more emotional pull, but an illo in an ad really stands out in a feed full of photos.
Premier Agent’s rebrand launched this year on April 2, the same day as Zillow’s. What did Courtney learn along the way? “Invest early in additional resources — contractors, agencies, you name it. You’ll be glad you did.” She added, “We learned by failing a bit. We were going to take time and do it right.”
“I have never in my life obsessed so much over the lowercase g.”
— Peter Merholz, Snag
First off, there was the name. “We knew ahead of time that Snagajob was a dumb name,” said Peter Merholz about the rebrand he oversaw at job platform Snagajob. But choosing was surprisingly hard. Once his team had winnowed a long list of contenders down to four, they got stuck. So they did a quick phone survey with a dozen job seekers, and the choice was made: Snag.
Snag was, Peter acknowledged, a logical choice, a simple shortening of the existing name. But it also has negative connotations. “It took a lot to get to the obvious point.”
Then came the logo. An outside agency sent in hundreds of pencil sketches. Peter’s team loved one of a hand grabbing a period at the end of the word snag. “But we had a lot of trouble with the hand,” Peter said. “It is a pain in the ass to draw hands that don’t look like weird meat things.”
For a while, they had a hand they liked, but it still wasn’t quite right. “Once we started calling it ‘the claw,’ it was all over,” Peter said. After switching to a new illustrator and many more iterations (“We were literally shaving pixels off of hands”) they got everyone to sign off, and the rebrand launched.
The capper to the story, as Peter tells it? “A week later, I was laid off, and a month and a half later, they took away my hand.” Among the lessons learned: “Get a lot of people in the room early — both high level and low level.”
“You cannot do this alone. Stack the room with people you love and trust.”
— Jess Staley, Trulia
When Jess Staley started work on Trulia’s rebranding, there was a real push to differentiate the brand from the real estate pack. Among the challenges: Trulia’s parent company, Zillow, is also a home-finding site, Trulia’s green app icon was often confused with Nextdoor’s, and the icon’s map marker wasn’t relevant any longer.
The key came from a finding that 85 percent of people looking for a home feel like the neighborhood is just as — if not more — important than the home itself. “This became our north star,” Jess said. “To build a more neighborly world by helping you discover a place you’ll love to live. Soon, we had this amazing room filled with everything that related to neighborhood.”
Early on, the team developed a new san serif wordmark. “It was beautifully crafted, but not so unique,” Jess said. So they started again, with more distinctive and customized typography. Jess broke the final wordmark down for the crowd, laying out how different elements embody Trulia’s neighborly mission.
The wordmark, Jess explained, can live on a wide range of colors. So the team set out to expand the brand palette, pulling colors from parts of a neighborhood ranging from the greens of parks and front lawns to the warm tones of tile rooftops.
They also developed a whole system of icons, an involved project in itself. “The original icons were quirky and fun but needed to be a bit more sophisticated,” Jess said. The result is a set of icons based on a 100x100 pixel grid and built with simple shapes and equal weight strokes. So, the icons are charming and quirky, but always uniform in shape.
Trulia’s rebrand had launched just the day before the event, so the experience was very fresh in Jess’s mind. One big takeaway? “Early is always better. Don’t think: ‘Oh, it’s a year away.’ Doesn’t matter. Get the engineers in early. Get the buy-in early.”
“If your brand owns the name of a recognizable object, your job is a lot easier.”
— Micah Panama, Thumbtack
Micah Panama got a lot of empathy from the crowd over the “before” slide of the logo at Thumbtack, a platform for finding service professionals like plumbers and wedding photographers. “I know, it’s a lot of orange,” he said. “Also, that’s not a thumbtack, it’s a push pin.”
But the new logo came pretty easily, he said. “If your name is Target, you do a target, Apple, you do an apple. We did a thumbtack.” As a bonus, the thumbtack also looks like a “T,” the first letter in the company’s name.
Changing the color was another matter: “Everyone was so attached to the orange,” Micah said. “But blue was differentiating.”
Among the challenges was trying to create brand positioning when your biggest competitor is word of mouth, which has no brand positioning. “We started out with the brand positioning of trust,” Micah said, “but that wasn’t differentiated — it goes without saying. We eventually went with ease, accomplishment, and possibility.”
Micah said he came away from the process knowing that “there’s no room for egos in this stuff. So many people are involved.” Oh, and one more thing? “Trust your gut.”
To wrap up the evening, the audience peppered the panel with questions. In response to one, Courtney Hemsarth sent the crowd off with this: “Rebrands don’t come along every day, so enjoy the ride.”