Instagram recently made waves with its rebrand in the not-so-good way. On every sponsored post from Instagram that was intended to get the audience excited about the update, my informal survey found that 9 out of 10 comments were negative.
Several Silicon Valley superstar brands have aggressively rebranded over the last few years, and the results have been mixed at best. People fear change, especially when it’s forced on them unexpectedly. One day they update their phone’s operating system and all of a sudden aren’t able to find the app they open multiple times a day. Whether tweaking or totally revamping your digital storytelling strategy, it’s important to keep the changes conversational to avoid alienating your core users.
Every time a brand launches a new logo or updates the color scheme of its app, it spawns a seemingly endless number of articles, arguments on comment sections, and people who claim they’re moving to Canada over the indignity. While little ends up coming of all the talk, brands face serious scrutiny when they rebrand. Much of a company’s creative storytelling can be subtly tweaked over time to better fit readers’ preferences and to reflect the latest chapter in that enterprise’s narrative. But sometimes a complete redesign is in order. When that’s the case, brands often launch their new looks to the surprise of their peers and users. And usually, with that new look is a story about how the brand’s story is evolving. Whether audiences respond favorably to the rebrand depends as much on the story as it does on the graphic design and font choices. A brand’s story defines a brand as much as its logo does, so let’s quit bickering about the loss of the iconic Insta camera and start parsing through the good stuff.
Instagram’s head of design, Ian Spalter, wrote a dissertation on Medium (a full five-minute read!) defending the rebrand that the company underwent in May. Usually, if you need that many words to explain something, it’s probably not good. To say nothing of the two explanatory videos that accompany all the words.
Here’s the deal: Instagram didn’t really tell us anything about itself as a brand. Instead, the essay had such lines as, “When we started reimagining the rainbow, we looked at more minimal options, but ultimately we needed more warmth and energy to complement the glyph.”
If you’re going to rebrand, tell us for who and why you’re changing one of the most iconic logos in the app era, not the challenges of minimalizing the rainbow (which sounds weirdly antithetical to those 90s Skittles commercials). Most people spent their energy and wrath pandering Instagram for how much its new logo looks like one of those gradient backgrounds everyone used to use on PowerPoint in middle school, but not nearly enough dug into the puzzling rationale for the new redesign.
I don’t understand the Instagram story or brand any better than I did before I read the explanation from the designer himself. The opening line of the article was disarmingly obvious, but it never got more substantial: “Today we announced a new look for Instagram, inside and outside the app. We created a new Instagram app icon and a set of unified icons for Hyperlapse, Layout, and Boomerang.”
Compare that to the first line of the blog that co-founder and CEO of AirBnB, Brian Chesky, posted when it relaunched its brand nearly two years ago: “In 2007, Joe and I opened our home up to the first Airbnb guests.” Suddenly, I feel like I’m pouring a cup of coffee in Joe and Brian’s house and reading on to find out what happened next. If you’re going to confuse people with a new logo that makes it hard for them to find the app they’re hopelessly addicted to, at least tell them a good story.
Brian’s post goes on to tell the story of AirBnB’s formative years, taking a wistful look at how things happened so quickly and explaining how the guys just sat around one day and wondered what exactly their brand should focus on. And even though there was a lot more thought and calculation that went into the new logo and the story behind it, it has that cozy, homey feel that AirBnB prides itself on. So the brand story was simply a written extension of the vibe that its product offers. It did the talking that the app and logo can’t, without being weirdly self-referential or defensive. It also eliminated confusion and made its mission clear in a way that felt authentic.
Then there was that wacky, also much-pandered Uber rebrand last year. The explanatory video begins, “Consider the bit: the building block of the digital world…”
The video launched into a lengthy diatribe about bits and atoms, and it never really comes full circle. Instead of telling us a story about the way the brand started as a way to hail Lincoln Town Cars and then turned into a household name that revolutionized peer-to-peer ridesharing, it talks about vaguely related scientific concepts that don’t seem to tie into ridesharing at all. Needless to say, it doesn’t explain much about the weird, video-game-esque logo that replaced the iconic black-and-white U. But this isn’t a commentary on logo design—just a look at how important it is that rebrands are more than just shiny new (confusing) icons.
Without compelling, multimedia digital storytelling behind the new clickable icon, rebrands are little more than invitations for the internet to debate the merits of various design work. And with how much I hear the top graphic design firms charge these days, that doesn’t sound like a very good value proposition.
Subscribe to the Content Standard Newsletter for more stories like this one.