Brand refresh or rebrand?

Spend just a few minutes researching the difference between a ‘rebrand’ and ‘brand refresh’ and you’ll be offered many opinions defining their absolute, uncompromising distinction.

Usually, there will be a helpful, hyperbolic analogy to better describe their meaning. For instance: if you were to ‘refresh’ yourself to surprise your other half, this may include a new haircut, different outfit and perhaps some dancing lessons. If you were to ‘rebrand’ yourself you’d basically be leaving and replacing yourself with a model better suited to your partner. Or a puppy, perhaps.

A rebrand essentially reinvents the brand, while a refresh updates it. But are these terms becoming less and less relevant to agencies? When I asked David Wall (co-founder of Dusted and, quote, ‘knows everything there is to know about branding’) about brand refreshes his eyes lit up with wisdom and maybe some tears.

“A brand refresh is, strictly speaking, no different to a rebrand. They are essentially covering the same areas, however a refresh is used to describe a smaller, more economical approach: when you’re looking for evolution, not revolution.”

Some time ago Dusted were asked to refresh the brand for the Wine and Spirit Education Trust (WSET), which we did. It was a fascinating process in design; we developed a new brand identity they could be proud of, while retaining much of the brand equity they had thus far developed. The brand imagery has long been associated with the Greek mythological character Ariadne, and this is something we wanted to work with. Rather than giving them a new direction entirely, we updated their existing logo to refresh the look and feel.

Despite making a conscious effort to maintain the brand equity and keep the business recognisable to existing customers, when I spoke to Darren Holburn (co-founder of Dusted and all round branding guru) he still insisted this was a rebrand, rather than a refresh.

“For WSET the priority was about redirecting their values and helping them pursue a new future.” A lot of what you find on the Internet will give you very definitive ideas about what ‘refresh’ and ‘rebrand’ are, but Darren says otherwise. “It’s not black and white, there’s definitely a sliding scale. Some observers would pin our WSET project as a refresh, but it would be closer to a rebrand, if anything.”

When we came to WSET we got started on researching how people see the brand, and what kind of reputation they had amassed so far. Among phrases with positive connotations such as ‘recognisable’, ‘classic’ and ‘traditional’ were occasional negative comments such as ‘not relevant’, ‘inconsistent’ and ‘not premium enough’. Being a wine and spirit education trust, they have a certain image to maintain, but the business is far from elitist or pretentious. The brand change needed to reflect that, and that meant taking action on the WSET company values.

WSET needed a much more up-to-date and professional image to complement their intended global reputation, but more importantly we wanted the rebrand to clarify their position as global educators. The client wanted to make it evident in their imagery and language that they are primarily an educator, toning down the classical, tradition style observers may misconstrue as too traditional. We helped them redefine their values in a way that better complemented the company objectives. Essentially we provided a ‘toolkit’ to enable WSET to continue to move forward, maintain a strong global position and cement their reputation as leaders in their industry.

If one were to redefine client values, that would make the strategy a rebrand. Company values are effectively their identity and when you change an identity you are rebranding, even if you maintain the elements of the design and keep the brand equity. After all, if you swapped brains with someone else, your body would have some of your ‘brand’ equity but it wouldn’t be you, as your identity. They might be better at being you than you were, but that’s probably very little consolation.

So when setting out your strategy, you shouldn’t specifically seek to refresh or rebrand: set out to help the client. Defining your strategy as rebrand or brand refresh limits your options, while you need to be free to do what is best for the company. As Darren says:

“At the end of the day you’re just trying to create a modern and engaging brand for your client.”