The world has already started looking a lot different since the pandemic began, but the number of brands with a refreshed look in 2020 might be enough to make consumers do a few double-takes as they scan shelves or browse online.
New logos, updated packaging and in some cases an entirely new brand identity have popped up in recent months from several well-known brands, particularly in the consumer packaged goods (CPG) space. This includes Keebler and Heinz over the summer, and Tecate and J.M. Smucker in September.
While a significant brand refresh can take a year or more to complete, marketers and agency executive said it's possible that some of the work emerging now has been fast-tracked in response to heightened competition for attention amid the health crisis, as well as changing consumer lifestyles that are creating new opportunities and challenges for brands.
"People are getting bored. They're eating the same thing every day and so they're opening their eyes to brands and products that they've never considered before," said Satoru Wakeshima, managing director at CBX, which developed the J. M. Smucker brand revamp.
The pandemic hasn't been the only factor causing brands to accelerate the evolution of their look and feel. Following the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, for instance, brands ranging from Aunt Jemima and Eskimo Pies to Washington Football Team began trying to shift to a more culturally sensitive approach.
"People are demanding change in all aspects of life," said Kristy Gulsvig, brand strategy director at Gigasavvy. "More than ever before, consumers expect brands to stand for something, and they are punishing brands that don't listen."
Robb Hecht, adjunct professor of marketing at Baruch College in New York, agreed, adding that brand refreshes are happening more frequently now out of a desire for relevancy as much as traditional business objectives.
"They almost shouldn't be called a brand refresh anymore," he said. "They should now be called an 'audience refresh.'"
The increased shift toward online purchasing may also be a factor in many brand updates, according to several people interviewed for this article. With less real estate on smartphones and marketplaces like Amazon, complex imagery may not stand out as well, which calls for simplified, back-to-basics logos and fonts.
Balancing change vs. history and equity
In some cases, though, a brand refresh is complicated when the company has a long history and strong recognition among consumers. At CBX, Wakeshima said his team has often had to work with brands who have more than 100 years worth of equity and heritage.
"It's a tremendous responsibility. You have to strike a delicate balance between what your consumer will accept and the point where they feel like, 'It's not my brand anymore,'" he said.
Then there is the hurdle of helping clients find the courage to make significant changes. Even when qualitative and quantitative market research is involved, the discussions can be difficult.
"The best clients will let you make them uncomfortable, but not queasy," Wakeshima said.
Before making the leap, companies considering a brand refresh should first rule out other possible solutions for the problem they're facing, said Sean Campbell, founder and CEO of market research firm Cascade Insights.
"Maybe what they need isn't a refresh at all, but a better SEO or market positioning strategy," he said.
According to Campbell, the three most common events that compel a company to rebrand are when their customer base changes, when products or services extend their capabilities, and after an acquisition. Not all companies wait until they're well-established to do a brand refresh, however.
Piecework Puzzles was co-founded by Rachel Hochhauser and Jena Wolfe only a year ago, but as more consumers stayed playing with jigsaw puzzles during quarantine, they noticed a slew of competitors with a similar brand look and feel. Then they read an article on Bloomberg Businessweek about the bland homogeneity of many startup brands, which resonated with them.
As a result, Piecework Puzzles created a much more dynamic look and feel across its web site and other elements that felt more in tune with its target audience of millennial women, Wolfe said.
"We've moved very quickly," Hochhauser added. "It feels like we had the foundations and the bones of the house down, but we hadn't picked the right wallpaper. Now [the notion of wallpaper] has become a part of our new identity."
Refreshing with the times
The impetus to better reflect an organizational ethos is even leading to brand refreshes within the agency world. Earlier this month, for instance, Y&R PR changed its name and unveiled an entirely new visual identity as Goodfuse.
While the work began before the pandemic, Goodfuse CEO Olga Fleming said the timing is somewhat fortuitous. The firm's new logo, for instance, was designed as a script to suggest its way of offering a more personal touch to communications. Its color palette uses a wide variety of colors designed to convey qualities among its team such as empathy and energy.
"What better time to bring forward a brand refresh like this than now, when everyone is talking about humanizing everything?" she said.
If other brands feel they already have a strong connection with customers and don't see new opportunities to contribute value in ways they need now, Fleming said a brand refresh probably isn't a good idea.
"People have enough variables that they need to deal with on a day to day basis," she said. "For brands they trust or that they truly rely on, we have had enough change. We don't need more change."
Then again, brands like Pepsi have essentially "trained" their audience that it will undergo some kind of refresh every few years, Wakeshima pointed out, while those like Coke tend to introduce more subtle changes. CMOs must determine the kind of pace that works for their brand, and to know that while it may lead to greater awareness or loyalty, a refresh doesn't usually solve an urgent business problem.
"By the time a marketer realizes it's time for a brand refresh, it's usually too late," he said.