Design Roundtable: Why Do Rebrands Elicit Such Strong Reactions?

Posted inBranding & Identity Design

Change within the design world isn’t generally well-received, and just this year, we’ve seen rebrand after rebrand followed by seemingly inevitable collective internet outrage. Yet after writing a number of articles about how people dislike a rebrand for what feels like ten minutes before moving on to the next one, I started wondering: why is change within the design world so challenging? Is it because people feel connected to these brands? Is it because the internet created a space for people to voice their opinions? Or does it just come down to the fact that, intrinsically, as humans, there’s comfort in the predictable?

I had the opportunity to sit down with a few well-versed designers to ask about their thoughts on change within the design world. We discussed brands’ reputations, consumers’ sense of ownership, and how change can often evoke a sense of vulnerability. 


People have a hard time with change in general, but why do you think change can be so difficult with design?

Marmaduke: Change is hard when we feel like we’re losing autonomy. Brand design changes can be challenging because we identify with the brands we interact with often and the ones we use to display something about ourselves to others. There’s a sense of trust that comes with this familiarity, so when a favorite brand changes something fundamental about its own identity, people feel like they’re being forced to change something about theirs too. Hence, the more people identify with a brand, the more they’ll resist design changes. 

That doesn’t mean brands should avoid making changes because consumers are conservative— it just means they should anticipate a backlash from a vocal few and prepare a response that helps continue consumer trust and strengthen relationships with audiences and advocates.  

Hancock: It’s such a personal and emotional aspect of a brand. It’s more than just a visual— it represents the brand’s essence, its values, and its personality. So when a brand undergoes a design change, it can feel like a shift in identity, which can be unsettling for people.

Most people have an emotional connection to brands, especially those with a long-standing history and reputation. In these cases, the design isn’t just a design— it’s a symbol of memories and nostalgia. When it changes, it disrupts this emotional connection. People may feel like a part of their history and identity is being taken away, which can create a sense of confusion and even anger.

It can also create uncertainty about the product or service itself. Will it still work the same? Will it still taste the same? These questions can create doubt and distrust in the minds of consumers, which can be damaging to a brand’s reputation.

Minns: Humans have always been drawn to the familiar. With an instinctive fear of the unknown, change can be difficult. Nostalgia is also a huge player; people often associate a brand’s visual identity with moments of their past. A brand like Heinz may evoke comforting memories of being nursed to health with a warm bowl of tomato soup, and the thought of that changing may be scary.

In certain sectors, such as sports, emotional ties to brands are significantly higher. The chances of fans becoming defensive or offended by change is much more likely due a sense of ownership some fans have over their favorite team. 

Some sectors are more forgiving. Top fashion and luxury brands may face a less tumultuous path to reinvention. There is already an expectation that new creative directors will bring their own design aesthetics to the table, so the fusion of fresh leadership with traditional assets brings a newness that is not only more readily welcomed, but expected.

Wright: I think that change is inherently difficult. Be it a relationship or career change, it throws up feelings of vulnerability, risk, and the unknown. This is very much the same with design. To be the first to champion change, you often need to be brave, to follow your gut and instinct. Design is so public that if you get it wrong, you have nowhere to hide. As a result, brands often take the path of least resistance or choose a solution that is conservative, and not strategically considered. 

Park: Design is the visual voice of a brand. It tells their story and shares their values. Aside from the product they deliver, their brand story— and how it is delivered and connects with their audience— is one of the most important tools a brand has. This simple fact makes change extraordinarily difficult. 

For the brand itself, there is fear that if they change their “voice,” their customers may no longer hear them in the crowd. For designers, it can be very difficult to see past an existing brand— especially one with a deep history— and imagine new possibilities on how to visually capture the essence of who it is today and who it can be tomorrow. It involves putting all preconceptions aside and daring to imagine what can be. For both the brand and the designer, there can also be a real nostalgic or emotional connection to a visual brand even if it no longer accurately represents what a company is or wants to be.

Ottignon: Change is hard. It takes a great deal of conviction, skill, dedication, coordination, and people skills to drive change at any significant scale across an organization. In the wrong hands, it’s also risky. You’re potentially throwing away elements that have built a level of equity, or effectiveness, and replacing them with something unproven. Factor in a healthy degree of loss aversion, and you start to see why people are generally nervous about big design changes.

[Left] Instagram’s original logo [Right] Their controversial 2016 redesign

Do you believe a functional or visual change to a brand is more difficult to pull off successfully, and why? 

Marmaduke: It depends what kind of relationship people have with the brand. Instagram is a useful example, proving that both functional and visual changes are painful for users, but for different reasons. When Instagram redesigned the logo from the old-time instant camera to the flat minimalist box, it threw an entire generation into an existential crisis. Then when they introduced Reels, people lost their shit again. The Kardashians led the charge against that functional change, desperately and unironically calling on Meta to “Make Instagram Instagram Again.” But Reels is a massive success. It’s visually appealing, user-friendly, builds communities, enables creators— what’s not to like? It was because influencers struggled to make money for a second after the algorithm changed. So functional changes in brands that serve important functional roles in our lives are going to be met with resistance. 

Hancock: In my experience, both can be equally challenging. Changing a brand’s functionality requires careful planning and execution to maintain its values and messaging. Adobe did this well when they transitioned from a software licensing model to a subscription-based service. Although this move required a significant change in its business model and pricing strategy (and caused a lot of uproar initially), people came to appreciate the flexible pricing options and constant software updates, which has ultimately enabled it to maintain its position as the industry-leading provider. 

Meanwhile, visual changes can be risky because they alter the brand’s identity, potentially alienating existing customers. But ultimately, if an identity aligns with a brand’s mission and reflects its values, it will resonate with the right people. 

Wright: I feel that they are equally important, and need to be simpatico. A rebrand is not merely a visual exercise. Any change needs to be made through a functional lens, as this effects not only how the brand behaves, but its influence, the way employees speak about it, and of course, the consumer interaction. So it always needs to be considered from a holistic viewpoint. As Aristotle noted, “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.”

Park: I’d flip the question back and say neither. I think the hardest aspect is much bigger and more foundational than that. Studios partner with companies to help them define various possible futures and where they fit into this extraordinarily complex and changing society. The visuals and functionality of all their products flows from that— everything should be an expression of their values. At the end of the day, the brand has to be authentic. The magic comes in when a studio is able to capture the “essence” of a company in a way that feels inevitable even if it took a lot of sweat behind the scenes. You see an amazing rebrand and think, “Ah, of course, that’s what it was meant to always be.” Some call this process design strategy or design transformation. It’s ultimately when you dive deep into the questions of what a brand [is], who they want to be, and how they want to show up [in] the world. And the impact can be enormous— it can shift the entire perception of a company, build brand loyalty, and increase market share— in deep and lasting ways. It creates possibilities. 

Ottignon: Both come with huge challenges. With a functional change, there’s obviously the challenge of executing that change successfully before you even start to think about communicating it. But it’s the communication part that many brands often get wrong. Social platforms like Instagram, and latterly Twitter, seem to be particularly bad at this, announcing big, nuanced changes via a reel or a tweet. And feeling the backlash accordingly. With a visual change, such as a rebrand, a big part of the challenge is how to launch it. A phased approach is easier, but can be confusing, and lessens the impact of any message you want to communicate. So often, a big part of the negative reaction to a logo redesign online is because it’s released in isolation without adequate explanation or context. On the other hand, a “big bang” is very, very hard to pull off. But if you can do it, it’s incredibly powerful, as you can tell the full story consistently and coherently. 

What reasoning would incite a brand to redesign its logo, branding, and/or packaging system? 

Marmaduke: There are so many valid reasons for redesigns: expanding into new verticals, entering new markets, connecting with younger audiences, consolidating product portfolios, a brand going through a merger and losing its sense of cohesion and identity. Each situation requires a different level of design and a different degree of change to help organizations solve problems and achieve goals. 

Whatever the reason for redesigning, brands must ensure that they’re timely— adapting to evolving culture. But it needs to be timeless too; it can’t be a rushed reaction that doesn’t provide longevity and familiar brand cues.   

Hancock: One of the main reasons a brand may choose to undergo a redesign is to make a bold statement or communicate a new direction. By refreshing its visual identity, it can better communicate its story, forging a stronger connection with customers. Additionally, a redesign can help a brand stand out in a competitive market and adapt to changing cultural and customer needs, regaining relevancy.

Minns: Brand refreshes are needed for many reasons. It could be a new audience, a saturated market, a visual language which no longer resonates, or a brand world that is no longer fit for purpose, as the business shape or size has changed.

Wright: There are many reasons. A new CEO eager to stamp their mark, a merger, an unhappy board, or anytime there’s a realization that the brand’s positioning is no longer doing it justice. There is always the need to stay relevant, and for a brand to capture the zeitgeist. Nothing is ever timeless. Brands need to be obsessively looking at how consumers absorb them and make sure the brand’s positioning matches consumer needs.

Park: Most often, a company will enter a rebrand process when it feels its visual voice no longer represents who it is. Perhaps society or technology has shifted around them. Perhaps they are offering an altogether different service than they used to. 

Ottignon: There are any number of reasons to rebrand. It might be to signal a change in offer, a need to speak to a different audience, or to tell a different story. It might be because the existing identity no longer stands out in the category, or feels less relevant to the current cultural context. Or it might simply be that the existing design system isn’t fit for purpose. Whatever the reason, it’s important to be clear on why you’re doing it, and to approach the change strategically. I’ve seen too many examples where redesigns are motivated by the wrong reasons, based on subjective criteria and personal preferences. Those tend to be the ones that don’t work. 

Are brands afraid of rebranding because of the reaction their consumers might have? If so, how do they get past it? 

Marmaduke: Brands first need to consider the scale of change that consumers and other stakeholders are comfortable with. Too much change can create confusion and a loss of trust, breaking down relationships they’ve built over years. But successful brand managers are expert managers of change because there is no growth without change. They must have a strong enough reason to change and partner with specialist agencies that help them define, create, and sequence the right kind of change.

Hancock: I often see organizations hesitant to rebrand due to fears of negative customer reactions. In my opinion, communicating the reasons behind the change and involving customers in the process helps them to understand the brand’s decision. They feel more connected to the new design and are generally more receptive as a result.

Minns: Brands need to remember that it’s impossible to please everyone, and sometimes being polarizing is the way to go. It gets you noticed and avoids the fatal mistake of falling into a “blanding” space. But if you want to ensure your rebrand is as well received as possible, you must communicate

Keeping an open dialogue with your consumers is the best way to get them on [your] side— build emotional connections and keep them in mind with any design decisions you make. Consumers are more forgiving of brands they love, and that is crucial when trying to navigate the necessary changes needed in a brand’s life cycle.

Wright: As I said earlier, you have to be brave. In today’s world of high visibility and instant feedback, it can be scary for them to take that leap, so design agencies must work with clients to help them move beyond fear-based thinking. We do this by presenting strategy and insight before design. The process of design is often guttural, so this combination of instinct and intellect ensures that the design is authentic to both the brand and the client’s needs.

Ottignon: People generally react unfavorably to the unfamiliar. But there’s a psychological phenomenon called the Mere Exposure Effect. The more people see something, the more they come to like it. That plays out again and again in branding. When the Airbnb rebrand launched, people flooded the internet with derision and vitriol. It was laughably extreme but— like most online discourse— those people quickly moved on and found a new thing to be angry about. And now it’s rightly held up as a textbook example of a successful rebrand. So if you believe it’s the right move, prepare yourself for some negativity in the short term, and remember that the success will be measured over years, not hours. 

[Left] Airbnb’s original logo [Right] Their 2014 redesign

Is it more beneficial for brands to make small incremental changes, or are they better off doing one massive rehaul? 

Marmaduke: It totally depends on what problems a brand is facing and its audience’s relationship to the brand. I’ve worked for nonprofit organizations whose only distinctive brand asset was their name, so we changed everything but the name. The people who used their services didn’t identify with the brand though, so that kind of radical change didn’t make people outside the organization feel a loss of autonomy. For brands that people have strong relationships with, radical change is riskier.

Hancock: Honestly, there is no one-size-fits-all approach to rebranding. For those looking to continually stay fresh and relevant, regular incremental changes may be most appropriate. It’s a way of staying attuned to culture and showing people that you’re constantly looking at what’s next. But it may not be enough to make a significant impact. Those looking to signal a new direction or expand their product offerings will find a massive rehaul a powerful way to communicate this change to their audience, expanding beyond existing clients to draw new people in. 

Minns: Brand equity is built up over time and is often centered around distinctive brand assets. Rehauling an entire brand world isn’t always the right thing to do, especially when you’re still in a period of building public trust. It’s dependent on many, many factors.

Wright: Change has to be confident. I like to think of it as the shock of the new. Consumers are very smart, so they will sense if a brand is insecure or uncertain in its conviction. When brands implement evolution with confidence, it not only connects with consumers, but also empowers their employees and creates a sense of pride.

As an example, we recently completed a rebrand for a large entertainment company. When they first saw the logo redesign, their initial reaction was that we had “broken the logo.” Our response was emphatic; we had not “broken” it, we had “liberated” it. The core DNA of the brand was still there, we had just completely reimagined it. Not only that, but we had complete conviction in our solution. As a result, the design has gone on to become hugely successful for the brand, but it took a lot of guidance to get there.

Park: I think it depends on the challenge they are trying to address. Do they believe their current visual voice overall represents who they are, even if some things feel slightly off? Then maybe an incremental shift is better. Or do they feel like they are trying to articulate a new, sharper vision for themselves and announce it to the world? Then a massive rehaul would likely be the better option. 

I think the challenge in asking this question upfront to a company though is that it doesn’t leave much space for the creative deep dive. Visual solutions should flow from a clear vision and strategy. Eliminating options too quickly can often stifle a project before it has time to bloom. Once the brand goal is clear, we have to leave a little room for serendipity and discovery. 

Can you think of a brand that has most successfully rebranded? How and why were they able to do it?

Marmaduke: I really appreciate the rebrand of the Italian soccer team FC Venezia. Studio Borsche beautifully elevated the brand from just another club to an icon of Venetian spirit. It leans into the richness of the club’s heritage while bringing a more contemporary perspective. The new brand world is complemented with a style of photography borrowed from the fashion world and celebrates the city as much as the players. A revived color palette and two typefaces balance the refinement of the city and the boldness of the team. It’s a great example of translating the spirit and culture of a place into a visual identity and brand world that feels true and has impact. 

[Left] FC Venezia’s original logo [Right] Their 2022 redesign

Hancock: Airbnb comes to mind. Its initial logo was outdated and didn’t accurately represent its business, causing confusion among its audience. It needed a new logo that reflected the innovation of the business model and resonated with its target audience.

The new design was much simpler, cleaner, and ultimately more memorable. Most people highlight the logo change, but it was much more than this: a complete overhaul of its visual and verbal identity including a new website, app, and marketing materials.

Airbnb also incorporated user-generated content into its branding strategy, showcasing unique and diverse experiences that travelers could have with the service. This helped to connect emotionally and differentiate the brand from competitors.

Overall, Airbnb was successful in rebranding because it took a holistic approach, considering all aspects of the brand and how these can work together to enhance connection. 

Minns: Burberry’s newest brand identity felt like an exciting move for the sector. It was a perfect signifier for a significant change within the business, in this case, the arrival of Daniel Lee. With strong brand foundations that underpin everything they build, Burberry can approach rebranding and do so successfully, but for any brand, the key is to be distinctive, relevant, but also true to the essence of the business.

[Left] The Dunkin’ Donuts logo [Right] Their logo after rebranding to “Dunkin'” in 2018

Wright: Oh, this is a tough one. I’m actually going to give two examples. The first is Dunkin’ (cue the eye rolls!). I know it’s an obvious one, but I’ve chosen it because it’s a huge consumer brand. It points once again to the word brave. It was a revolution rather than evolution, and I admire the confidence to drop the word Donuts. They aligned their brand positioning with consumers, capitalized on their cultural cache, and made the name more actionable. It’s funny, but in hindsight, it’s so obvious, which of course, is often the way with good strategy and design. The word “Donuts” is completely unnecessary in the name. It puts way too much emphasis on one offering. After all, they will always be synonymous with donuts! 

My other choice is Juventus football (sorry, soccer) club in Italy. To reimagine a club logo in such a reductive form is very bold and powerful. Soccer club crests are steeped in history, but often complicated and not exactly functional for the digital age. This design creates an identity system that can truly flex. It has a solid strategic foundation, feels highly relevant, and allows them to stand out on both the national and international stage. I think we will see many other clubs going in this direction over the next few years.

Materials from the 2022 Girl Scouts rebrand

Park: I recently came across the rebrand of Girl Scouts of America and thought it was brilliant. It can be extraordinarily hard to shift a heritage brand, but by centering the visual metaphor of badges and individual accomplishment, the brand became a celebration of each girl in their unique interests and dreams. The rebrand speaks to girls directly and celebrates them. In that way, the rebrand feels like an effortless extension of their values. The visual voice is authentic. 

Ottignon: If you’re defining success over a decent time period, successful rebrands vastly outnumber the unsuccessful ones. I could rattle off 100 from the past few years.

A personal favorite is the Barclay’s Premier League rebrand from 2016 where it became, simply, the Premier League. Strategically, it was sound, enabling them to build equity around the league itself, rather than a corporate sponsor. And it was executed with aplomb and no little swagger, across a bewildering array of channels and touchpoints. The whole visual system was redesigned from scratch to live in a modern, digital world, while respecting key elements, such as the lion. 

Even more impressively, the league managed to avoid offending football fans whose emotional investment can result in some fairly extreme reactions. If you’re in any doubt about the scale of that particular achievement, it’s worth remembering Leeds United’s attempt to rebrand two years later. It lasted less than a week. 

[Left] The Barclay’s Premier League logo [Right] Their 2016 “Premier League” rebrand

Can you think of a brand that has rebranded with massive backlash? Why do you believe there was resistance attached to the change?

Hancock: Instagram…People felt that the [simplified 2016] logo lacked the charm and uniqueness of the old one, and it was too similar to other generic app icons. There was also a sense of nostalgia for the old logo, which had become iconic in its own right.

In my opinion, the backlash to Instagram’s rebranding may have been due to the company’s failure to fully consider the emotional attachment that users had formed with the old logo. Maintaining consistency and familiarity in branding is crucial to avoiding backlash from users who have developed a strong connection with a brand’s identity. As designers, we know that rebranding requires a balance of creativity and authenticity, while also keeping in mind a brand’s core identity and emotional connection with its audience.

Minns: Changing some of the world’s most loved brands is always risky. With such high emotional investment, some backlash is inevitable, and fans can be left feeling betrayed. 

Take the recent Premier League kit changes, for example. Some fans view the sport, the leagues, and the teams as extensions of their identity— most staying loyal to a team from childhood, using them as a source of pride, community, or as a tether to childhood memories. It’s especially challenging to approach change under these circumstances. 

[Left] The classic Gap logo [Right] Their failed 2010 rebrand

Wright: How long have you got? The one I’m always stunned by is the Gap rebrand that lasted a mere six days. Here is a classic example of a design that was disrespectful to the DNA. There is such inherent brand value in the blue square, so to minimize this to the point where it feels like an afterthought is perplexing. I feel like this is a classic case of a change for the sake of change, not a change underpinned by insight and strategy. It feels naive and confusing. I’m actually surprised it lasted as long as it did!

Ottignon: Beyond the [aforementioned] Leeds example, one of the most costly must be the rebrand of Facebook to Meta. It invited ridicule at the time, and looks worse and worse with every passing hour. 

Attempting to draw a line under the scandals and terrible PR in and around the 2019 election, Facebook doubled down on its metaverse investment with a new name and a new identity. It did not go well. 

The rebrand failed to resonate with anyone. Advocates of the metaverse hated that Facebook was trying to assert ownership over a technology designed to be decentralized. While on the other side, web3 skeptics had a field day. Cue a million memes, and the destruction of billions of dollars in enterprise value. 

[Left] The Facebook logo [Right] The logo for the company’s 2021 Meta rebrand