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Are We “Debranding”?

June 02, 2021

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Are We “Debranding”?

This recent Bloomberg article caught my eye, announcing that everyone is now “debranding.”

What? Branding has never been more in. Everyone knows they need to brand, to develop an identity and put it out there in the world. You need a brand to be on social media, to create content for an audience.

How do you create content in line with “who you are” if you have no idea who you are? That’s where branding comes in. As individuals, we each have our own brand, but few of us capitalize or recognize the importance. 

“Debranding” Isn’t about Ditching the Brand Concept

Naturally, the article’s headline caught my attention—it was supposed to! After all, I clicked because the very idea made no sense to me.

What the article is talking about isn’t debranding. It’s discussing a trend in logo design (which is part of branding, yes, but hardly the only part of it).

The author notes that brands are moving away from highly stylized logos with lots of glitz and glitter. They're moving towards flatter, monochrome, simpler logo designs.

That isn’t anything new or noteworthy, actually. Flat design has been big in web design for a few years now. You probably know it from looking at Facebook or basically any other tech website. They use “flat” illustrations with no shading, a simplistic style.

So, that trend has finally reached logo design. Brands are ditching shading and highlighting, complex logos for simpler, cleaner designs. There are likely a few reasons for that. One, they tend to reduce better on tiny phone screens or icons in your browser address bar. Two, they communicate simplicity, a certain “down-to-earth” quality.

You can guess where that’s going: authenticity. Burger King’s new logo look is a good example. The old BK design had the text angled between two buns with a big swoop outside it. It was high gloss (represented by two white marks on the buns—makes you think “oh, shiny!”); it had depth.

The new one is a lot simpler. The red text “Burger King” appears level between two stylized buns. There’s no swoop. There’s no depth; the little white marks that made it “3D” are gone. Like I said, this is simple and it suggests authenticity too. When you go to BK, you’re getting no frills, no extras—just the good stuff. Just a burger between two buns, and that’s what we’re focused on. Simple.

This appeals to a population that’s skeptical of brands. The old BK logo promises us something “fancy." The new one promises simplicity, a focus on what really matters.

Same with the Warner Brothers shield: gone is the gilt and the 3D shading. Now we’ve got a blue shield with a white “WB” in it. There is one version that has a little shading to it, but by and large this is not a logo that says “fancy!” The old one did. So this is a “stripped down” version of WB—a “back-to-basics” brand, if you will.

And we’re seeing that all over. Brands are ditching fussy serif fonts for “stripped down” sans serifs. (A note here: sans serifs are better for web design, since they’re easier to read on screen.) Serifs are kind of fancy—we think of books, of the 1950s or even earlier. There’s a sort of sophistication with them.

Sans serifs, by contrast, are futuristic, humble, down to earth. No muss, no fuss. Even luxury brands like Yves St. Laurent, Burberry, and Balmain are getting in on this trend.

There’s Still Branding Going On

What’s clear here is this isn’t debranding at all. In fact, all these logo changes are actually rebranding, to an extent. And they’re all pointing in a particular direction: brands are trying to get “back to basics,” like I said.

For some brands, this is going to work well. Burger King might be an example. There’s nostalgia in their simpler logo design. It looks a bit like a throwback to the 1970s or 1980s—a “simpler” time, if you will. And it suggests they’re getting back to their roots. Fast food is something for the “masses,” for the average person. So BK is speaking to the core of their brand, the roots of their identity. This is simple food for the average person. There’s no “frills” with it—it’s cheap and reliable. They’re done fussing around with fancy coffees (looking at you, McD’s) or “healthy” salad menus designed to rope in a bunch of people who don’t want to eat at BK anyway.

So, for a brand like this, this kind of redesign works. A brand like BK can do this kind of thing, because it takes them back to what is actually the core of their brand.

What about some of these luxury fashion houses? Burberry strikes me as an example where this doesn’t work, and here’s why:

Simple, down to earth, for the masses is not what Burberry is about. Its entire brand identity is wrapped up in tradition, legacy, high-end quality. Burberry is a brand people want because it’s been around forever. That’s what you’re buying when you go to Burberry. You want tradition, you want frills, you want fuss.

So, this logo change communicates the wrong things about the brand. Sure, we could say it’s “bold” or “modern”—maybe Burberry is trying to position themselves as a bold, modern brand. Maybe they’re trying to say their fashions are forward-thinking, futuristic.

But that’s not what comes across. And it’s not what Burberry’s customers are after either. They want “timeless,” not modern. Classic, not futuristic.

A different brand—like Calvin Klein—can get away with that messaging. Calvin Klein has only been around since the 1960s, and they’ve always been about modernity. So they can modernize their logo without getting away from their roots as a brand.

Burberry is going to have a harder time selling that as part of their brand.

Logos Aren’t the Only Part of Branding

The other thing that irks me about this article is the idea that brands are “debranding” because they’re changing their logos.

No, absolutely not. A lot of people make this mistake—they think the logo or the wordmark is the only part of branding.

It’s not even the most important part of branding! It’s often the most visible part. But like we’ve seen, the logo design needs to evolve out of something deeper: the brand’s identity.

That means we have to have brand values and identity front and centre. That’s the first part, the most important part of any rebranding exercise. And that’s why it’s wrong to suggest brands changing their logos are “debranding.” They’re not. They’re trying to redefine, reinvent themselves for the modern moment. And that’s not new. Brands do it all the time.

There’s something to be said about the idea that going with a flat logo design is “debranding” too. It depends on the brand here how well following this design trend works. BK and Calvin Klein fit the modern design sensibility. Burberry doesn’t.

So, in a sense, a brand like Burberry might be debranding. By following this trend, they’re actually ditching their own brand identity. BK and Calvin Klein? Not so much—their branding is actually in line with their identity, so this is an exercise in rebranding.

For brands like Burberry, it’s debranding, because they’re not carrying forward the brand’s identity, its values and sensibilities. JM Smucker did the same thing with their recent rebranding exercise. These brands are following the crowd, which means they’re losing a sense of themselves, their unique identity.

Almost nothing could be worse in the modern moment. Brands need to stand out more than ever. And that means they need a strong identity, a clear sense of their values and purpose. A brand that doesn’t have that isn’t going to stand up to scrutiny on social media. And they’re not going to be able to find their audience, create brand advocates and fans. They’re going to get lost.

There’s a lesson here for us. Branding isn’t going anywhere. And more than ever, we cannot “go with the flow” when it comes to design trends. We have to sit down and think about them, figure out if they fit with who we are as a brand. In some cases, the latest design will absolutely fit. And in other cases, we’d be better to stick to our guns—just like people carve out their own style or “aesthetic.”

And that means we have to remember to start with the why!

--Margo

A little more about me. My goal is and always will be to inspire and create conversation!

I am a businessperson who has excelled in driving a competitive edge through marketing, strategy, innovation, building irresistible brands and unlocking the genius that exists. I am writing to inspire or create new consideration. If you have ideas or questions that you would like me to put a pen too, I would be delighted.

I would also be grateful if you shared this or any of the articles, I have written to inspire others.

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