Weathering Brand Backlash.

August 25, 2014  

As passionate people who build brands for a living, we know that a new brand identity comes with risks. The worst? Alienating your most loyal audiences. Usually the reaction is based on emotion, not insight, but either way, the groundswell can lead to a viral backlash. Here’s our recap on how some brands deal with it.

On the morning of October 7, 2010, many of the web browsers at the Ologie offices were trained on a design site called Brand New, which offers a forum for the public to rate new brand identities. We were compulsively hitting the refresh button, tracking the open-source reviews of a logo we’d launched that day for Belk Department Stores. 

gap_logoIronically, it was the same day another retailer launched a blue logo. Gap’s redesigned identity was famously slaughtered, not only on Brand New, but throughout social media and news sources as well. The backlash was so bad that Gap reinstated its old logo within a week. Our logo for Belk garnered average to above-average reviews, and we all exhaled as the brand took off without a hitch. Who knew that branding success could be measured by the number of days a new logo lasted? 

olympics_logoMaybe it was the London Olympics logo controversy of 2007 that started it all, but these days, creating and evolving brands seems riskier than ever. Over and over, major brand identities and campaigns are launched to widespread outrage or ridicule or both. And thanks to social media, there’s no shortage of channels for people to vent. No brand or industry is safe. At Ologie, we have many clients in higher education—a category that, on the whole, is getting smarter about managing brands, and logos in particular. But colleges and universities also have multitudes of passionate, loyal alums, who would often prefer that their cherished alma maters remain frozen in time. So with a few recent examples in mind, we thought we’d take a look at three different ways that brands, within higher education and beyond, have dealt with very public floggings.


As we mentioned above, it was fascinating to watch Gap completely retract its new logo after a week of hate mail, parodies, and highly critical feedback from the design industry’s best. The action was shockingly swift, without any defense of the work or the investment behind it. And it created a new exit strategy for high-profile screw-ups: pretending it never happened. uoc_logoBut sometimes the hostility doesn’t pick up steam until a new brand has been out in the marketplace for some time—like nine months, in the case of the University of California. Inspired by the system’s historic seal, the UC marketing team developed a thoughtful, cohesive, fresh brand with a new logo aimed at a younger demographic. But alumni became outraged that their beloved seal had been jettisoned for a logo that some said looked like a toilet in mid-flush. (Of course, the seal hadn’t been replaced; it was just being used in more formal applications, but that fact was lost in the uproar.) Well into the brand’s rollout, a single petition with 54,000 signatures changed everything, and the logo was gone. Instead, UC ended up with a type treatment for the new brand that’s void of controversy, but also void of the personality they were looking to share with all of their audiences.


ud_logoLast month the University of Dayton launched a new athletics identity. It was immediately met with harsh criticism from students and alumni, who saw the letters “VD” in the design, instead of the traditional “UD.” (In fact, the design is meant to read just as “D,” as part of a strategy to be known simply as “Dayton.”) And the V shape is actually meant to be wings, a nod to their mascot, the Flyers, and their city, the hometown of aviation and the Wright Brothers. It’s a smart strategy and a sharp design. But that didn’t mean anything to the masses. Within hours, the hashtags #WeAreVD and #UDnotVD were trending, this shirt design got even more play, and an online petition to remove the logo is still making the rounds. The result? Within 10 days, the university’s newly painted basketball court was repainted with a slightly altered logo. At Ologie, we’ve seen our own outcries in response to a new identity. In 2010, we created the “Makers All” brand and campaign for Purdue University, drawing fresh life and relevance from the school’s proud athletic spirit and strong engineering history. Within days, a Facebook group had been started, demanding the campaign’s removal on the grounds that it was a clear effort to phase out the Boilermaker moniker. We quickly added overt Boilermaker references to all the creative, to make sure audiences understood that we weren’t trying to replace Purdue’s storied mascot, but rather to reinforce it with a stronger connection to the university today. This meet-in-the-middle approach tries to appease naysayers and still move the brand forward. It’s critical to let audiences know that you hear their feedback, no matter how heated, and that they have a voice in the brand. In the case of Purdue, a tighter communications plan could have helped Boilermaker fans understand why the campaign was important, who it was targeting, and what it hoped to accomplish.

OPTION 3 “TELL US MORE.” airbnb_logo

Just because a brand doesn’t have passionate alumni doesn’t mean it’s safe from criticism. Take Airbnb, the much-loved vacation-housing rental site. After launching a new identity last month, the brand endured an onslaught of criticism, most notably that the logo looked like a crude diagram suitable for a gynecologist’s office. (Are you seeing a trend here with the criticism?) But Airbnb’s response to brand bashing trumps all others. It quickly created an impressive site that invites users to interpret the new logo in their own way, with an entertaining design-your-own-version-of-our-logo experience and a chance to explain how it represents each individual’s travels. And of course, it’s all tied together with a clear explanation of why the company changed the brand in the first place—which is the critical piece that’s usually missing from branding initiatives. When you’re evolving any brand, there’s always a risk of alienating fans. But brands are living, breathing things that need to grow to attract new people and remain relevant for current fans. The key to avoiding an outpouring of angst is to be clear about the reasoning for the evolution and to listen to audiences along the way. Who knows? Making a few adjustments just might improve the final outcome.