The design trade-off between innovation and familiarity

John Bradley and Carrie Bradley ask if recent attempts to update what brands stand for is worth losing what consumers know and love.


By John Bradley and Carrie Bradley

The Christmas decorations have barely made it back into the garage and Burger King, Pfizer, Kia and General Motors have collectively spent bazillions in starting 2021 with new looks.

And they’ve also helped us resurrect an age-old design debate: is it better for a redesigned logo be an up-to-date exposition of what the brand currently stands for in the minds of its consumers, or does it have a role to play in changing those perceptions from what they are now to what the brand owner would like them to be?

Burger King and Pfizer, to our minds at least, fall solidly into the first camp: better, more up-to-date expositions of the brands as we know and love them.

beforeafterBKBurger King passes our first test with flying colours: would anyone in their right mind advocate the old one if the new one was the existing design? While very on trend for the late 90s and early 00s, in hindsight, we are mystified as to what the blue swoosh was doing and why the bun looked shiny, plus it all looked a bit Taco Bell-ish. It also passes our second test in that there is enough commonality with the old – even if you aren’t old enough to remember the QSR’s logo from the 70s until the mid-90s – that there can be no danger of it not being recognized.

beforeafterpfizerPfizer also passes both tests, keeping the typeface similar enough to provide continuity and the blue ribbons adding some much needed dynamism. The old one could easily be a Viagra tablet with the corners filed down a bit – one wonders which came first – but, either way, moving on from that association can only be a good thing for a dynamic science brand, especially given their role in the COVID vaccine.

Where it gets more interesting, however, is when we look at what’s been happening to two of the world’s biggest car brands: GM and Kia.

beforeafterkiaFor us, Kia definitely fails the recognizability test. Try it yourself: cover up the old logo with your hand and, be honest, would you immediately recognize the new one as Kia? Can you even read that it spells Kia? Who is KVI?

At least we can read that GM’s spells “GM,” but also, since when did logos work by people just reading the print? It looks so different at first glance – different typeface, color and case – we are not sure how many Oldsmobile, Pontiac and Buick drivers would recognize this as being who they buy their cars from.

beforeafterGMBut that is the price one has to pay for trying to move on from those diehards and be the modern, thrusting, innovative brands everyone in the GM and Kia head offices thinks them to be. The negative space in and under the “m” of “gm” is, of course, an electric plug, signifying that GM is at the forefront of innovation in that area. Once you see it, it’s all you see. But how many years did we all go not seeing the arrow in the FedEx logo? Logos really should work in a split second, not years.

Kia’s somewhat futuristic design is apparently to get us all up-to-speed on their role, not a manufacturer of very good, reliable and affordable cars, but as being at the cutting edge of change and innovation. Maybe they are working on our long-promised flying cars and not bothering with going electric. Both GM and Kia are trading off the benefit of design getting consumers to reassess what the brand stands for against the cognitive dissonance of the logos just being too different to what worked before.

This risk is greatly magnified by the fact they are both car companies. Packaged goods, retail and service brands willing to spend the money can achieve a fairly quick changeover so that most, if not all, consumer touchpoints carry the same flashy new look. With cars, millions of Kia’s existing logo are going to be driving around for a decade or more, thanks to their engineering prowess in building highly reliable and long-lasting cars. It’ll probably be two to three years before used cars on their dealers’ own lots begin to sport the new logo – at least GM has the benefit (if that is the right word) of having Oldsmobile, Pontiac and Buick logos glued onto the trunk.

We wish them luck in their quest to redefine themselves. At least changes to brand imagery are very easy to measure, so they will know soon enough if their redesigns have helped or hindered. No such worries at Burger King or Pfizer though – they will already know.

john and carrieJohn Bradley and Carrie Bradley are managing partners of The Bradley Group.