When Branding Goes Wrong. When branding goes right. And what we can learn.

Branding is a powerful tool. Sometimes that power backfires and the responses by the audience you sought to connect with—well, they can be quite extreme. Lately, there has been a slew of rebrands that are met with hatred, criticism and at best, ambivalence. Audiences are noticing and taking to their socials to express exactly what they think of these companies’ new rebrands.

Take for instance some recently well-hated rebrands: Kia, Nokia and We Heart New York.

Kia announced the redesign of their new logo back at the start of 2021, and it was met with what can only be described as pretty unhinged hatred. Kia has, for a long time, had an image problem. The cars are cheap and full of features that cost thousands less than if you were to buy from another brand. They are definitely not luxury. They aren’t that fast. They aren’t the most innovative—until now. 

Kia is redefining itself. Once a South Korean car manufacturer was brought to western markets, consumers weren’t quite sure about how reliable and trustworthy the company was. Fast forward over a decade, Kia has now established itself as an innovator in the category. They have taken over the Detroit industrial design teams designing some of the world’s most iconic vehicles. Now they have launched a line of fully electric vehicles. They have innovated their in-car technology. Kia is now more of a luxury than ever before. With millions of Kia and Hyundai vehicles on the road now, their trustworthiness is well established, and people are willing to pay more for what once was considered the value car brand.

Hence a rebrand. This is the perfect circumstance for investing in a rebrand. They are updating their image and with that, it was time to update their logo. The new logo was meant to create a sense of momentum, future-forward thinking, innovation and technology. But it was met with some severe hatred. People complain that they can’t read it, that it looks like a “KN”, and if they see it out of context, they’d never know what it was.

I get it. Readability is an issue. But let’s all be honest, as someone in the industry for well over a decade and seeing (and aiding in) some of the largest rebrands in the country, the new Kia logo is objectively considerably better than the old logo. The old one made no sense. It didn’t stand for anything. It had awkwardly small serifs attached to the letterforms—and pointing backwards—the wrong direction if you’re trying to show off how innovative and forward-thinking you are. It was in an oval—what does that even mean or do for the brand? It’s bad. Really bad. But when the new logo came out, it was met with so much more hatred.

More recently, Nokia just unveiled their rebrand. Just as you would guess, it was met with major criticism. A brand that stood for old technology with their unbreakable phones, before the era of fragile smartphones, Nokia was durable. It stood up to the weather. Gravity. Abuse. Being thrown across the room.

But they are no longer a consumer company. They are all about innovative technology in the B2B space. Consumers are commenting even though this brand isn’t for them. But there’s a nostalgia attached to the brand that consumers crave, days of simple before everything was driven by social media and analytics and Amazon—before algorithms, digital ads, even before Gmail. This was when the millennial generation grew up, and the fact that a heritage brand has decided to embrace an innovative future that doesn’t involve them—and not to mention that the new logo does leave a lot to be desired—this really pisses them off.

But there’s another rebrand that recently happened that consumers are praising and everyone—industry experts and customers alike—love: Burger King.

The recent rebrand from JKR (Jones Knowles Ritchie) played to the nostalgia of the brand—a modernization of the classic Burger King that we grew up with and loved. It harkens back to another version of the logo that our parents grew up with when they were kids and a slight update from when millennials grew up. And now millennials have kids of their own who will get to grow up with a logo that looks extremely similar to what their parents grew up with. So goes the generational cycle of branding and the evolution of companies as they adapt to modern times while still staying true to who they are.

That is the insight. Human beings don’t like change. They especially don’t want change when it concerns brands or products that they have an emotional attachment to, such as Nokia or Kia. What Burger King and JKR did successfully was tap into the nostalgia of the brand and use it to their advantage to make something new that customers would love! When change comes in drastic forms, expect drastic results.

Another recent branding blunder was the evolution of the “I Heart New York” logo that was designed by the late Milton Glaser back in the 70’s to the now, quite sterile, “We Heart New York.” New Yorkers, the graphic design community and the general public all took to their phones to express their dislike of the new, weird emoji evolution of the classic “I Heart New York” logo that was considered by many to be one of the most iconic logos of all time.

Objectively, the new logo seems like a nice evolution. It’s a modern take on a classic, it doesn’t stray too far from the original, it went from being personal to being inclusive changing “I” to “We” and it uses a 3-dimensional heart in place of the flat classic red heart that fits into modern trends dictated by social media—especially the heavy use of emojis across social platforms.

So why do we (being the voices of many who have spoken out against it) hate it so much?! For the same reason we hate the other rebrands listed here.

Consumers’ lives are changing all of the time. Social feeds, constant news cycles, the price of gas, our families, our friends, their workout habits or lack thereof, the availability of toilet paper at the grocery store, we are in a constant state of motion. Life is difficult to keep up with. It’s why most adults crave the simplicity of childhood. We miss when things were simple—when the hardest decision we had to make in a day was whether we wanted a milk carton or a soda with our lunch, when we didn’t even know what a mortgage was, when we didn’t have doctors telling us how overweight we are, when our phones, watches, computers and tvs all buzz with the same notifications telling you that your payments are due.

Rebrands add complexity to the already chaotic life of the consumer. I could go into each of these rebrands and analyze why the designs are better than the previous iterations, or why they missed the mark, and what I believe these creative briefs should have focused on.

But that’s not the point. Nobody cares. What people do care about is remembering a time when they had no responsibility, no hard decisions to make, and were constantly amazed at the world around them. There was a freedom that came with childhood, with memories. When brand’s tap into that, it makes us feel something—whether good or bad, you can’t deny that it makes us feel. And that is why we react the way that we do.

Consumers aren’t analyzing logo design. They don’t even know the subtleties that go into making a smart, sophisticated brand mark. They just know how they feel. And sometimes that’s good. And sometimes that’s bad.

So I caution anyone who has their hands on a brand that is recognizable and has been around for a while—remember who your audience is. It’s not yourself. It’s not a community of designers and art directors. It’s your customer. Don’t disrespect your audience.


Talk to Us.
We’d love to hear from you.