Why logos are going retro

The agency behind Kodak's retro rebrand, the designer who helped take Coke back to its roots – and others – tell us why brands are choosing historical logos over new designs, when it works and when it doesn't.

To keep up with the evolving taste of the consumer and the world they live in, brands are usually forced to adapt and mould their logo. Sometimes a brand can lose its way over too much change, and longstanding brands can actually benefit from returning to their iconic roots rather than diverting away from them. This year we’ve noticed an emerging trend among major established brands, such as Kodak, the Co-op and NatWest, who have chosen to resurface logos used in the past rather than designing an entire new one when it comes time for a fresh look.

Historical logos can work to associate these brands with nostalgia, experience and expertise that set them apart from younger start-up competitors. Alongside this trend is the increasing favour of authentic handcrafted logo designs from the 1960s and 70s. In a world where consumers are awash with digitally produced logos, this is a refreshing counter-trend. 

We wanted to find out what designers thought of the nostalgia-style rebranding, and if it relates to today’s consumers.

Why brands are bringing back historical logos  

This year Kodak brought back its first official symbol designed by Peter J. Oestreich in 1971. The icon was used for over 35 years, and probably more than that as shop signage across the globe. Design duo Work-Order modified the 1971 symbol by stacking the Kodak lettering in landscape form, using a design reminiscent of film perforations and street signage.  Work-Order also chose to “re-establish the strength” of the red, yellow and black features used on Kodak’s packaging and marketing materials since the 20th century. 

Work-Order partner Keira Alexandra suggests it’s about integrity and purity associated with a brand’s long establishment.  

"I wouldn't say it's about nostalgia. Rather, it's a return to a company's foundation and roots, showing a commitment to mission," she says. "If the foundation is strong, and/or has a valuable legacy, use it."

Kodak's chief marketing officer Steven Overman was quick to stress on Work-Order's website that resurfacing Oestreich's design was not "bringing back" the iconic identity of Kodak, but rather it never really went away. 

"It's simply logical to keep one of the world's most famous marks at the forefront of the company's image and identity," he says.

But is it just “simply logical”? Or is it strategic, even essential, in today's market where longstanding brands desperately need to stand out against a wave of new start-ups? 

Co-founder of branding agency Vault49 John Glasgow says it’s a growing trend that’s not just happening across brands, but in fashion, music, sports and culture, and he sees this on his daily commute between Brooklyn and Manhattan.

"It’s especially common amongst brands that have a long, rich history like Bacardi.  They see a value in celebrating that history by looking back to their heritage and reigniting those early inspirations, logo treatments, fonts, and brand personalities."

In 2014 Heredesign took Bacardi’s illustrated bat logos from the 1890s and early 1900s to inspire its current design. The studio says they wanted Bacardi’s rebranding to be rooted in the history of the family, and for all design details and typographic treatments to be sourced and inspired by the family’s design archives.

“It’s also an opportunity for brands to use this to their advantage, to differentiate themselves from competitors and start-ups who don't have 25, 50 or 100 years of experience in perfecting their brand, product or service,” says John. 

Design luminary Bruce Duckworth, with 24 years experience as head of design at Turner Duckworth and president of D&AD, says when a brand’s original story has been forgotten or overlooked, it’s best to return to its unwavering roots.

"Brands are always looking for ways to stand apart and become relevant to consumers. If their history and experience add to their story and their authenticity it's worth reminding consumers of it. 

Bruce worked on the re-branding of Coca-Cola when it chose to do this. 

"The brand had lost its way and had become overlooked. The success of the work was that it didn’t re present the past but took what was unmistakable about the brand and redesigned it for the future and be relevant in today's world, and consumers loved it," he says.

"It got younger consumers interested in the brand again and their older consumers looked at it fresh and welcomed back an old friend."

Will using a historic logo benefit the brand?

We can't look at this recent trend and say it's the first time it ever happened. An earlier example is when BMW Mini re-launched the iconic 1960's Austin Mini car. BMW had sold the Rover Group in 2000 whilst retaining ownership of the Mini, and in 2001 it launched its take on what a modern Mini looks like. The car design balanced past and present elements. 

"That's the key to success. Embracing the romance of their nostalgic past but designed with all the benefits of today's world. The best of both worlds," says Bruce, who has always admired the work of Mini.

But this only works if the original design remains iconic and is fondly looked back on - like NatWest’s.

This year the UK bank returned to a logo design from 1969 that used a set of three interlocking cubes to represent three different banks coming together to form NatWest. Although redesigned at least four times over the bank's 47 years of existence, the three elements remain the iconic feature of the brand's logo.  

Returning to the 3D look of the cubes was a conscious effort to have an icon that would translate to a wider digital identity by FutureBrand. Modern bright colours and animated elements were a bid to associate the new design with modern banks rather than a traditional one.

Futurebrand, the agency behind NatWest's re-branding, wrote on an in-house news blog that NatWest have been slightly braver than conservative high street bands.

Is it effective? 

John says the element of nostalgia is best effective for a brand when it bridges the gap between associations of the past and modernity.

“It can be through colour, shape or how their heritage logo is adapted and applied to a modern branding system,” he says.

“I think Gen Z are receptive to this and appreciate brands that have history and experience, but visualise themselves in the modern world we live in.”

And he says communicating truth through a brand’s heritage is appreciated in this current climate – consumers are more receptive to identity that rings true and simple, rather than hiding a message under layers and layers of detail. 

People are craving the craftsmanship behind simple icons of the past over digitally produced icons. Vault49 is built on the ethos that craft is what sets their agency apart from competition. 

“Brands are recognising that their customers want to be engaged in an open and honest dialogue rather than superficial effects and other frills that are distracting,” says John.

“By a process of simplification, brands are getting rid of all the fat and fussy 3D effects around their branding logos and systems to appear more pure. I am predicting that more and more brands will go through this same process to keep up with this growing trend.”

It can be effective if it’s done for the right reasons, says Bruce.  “Design is only effective when it communicates the brand truthfully. Simply re-using an old logo for no good reason wouldn’t be effective." 

Logo simplicity 

Working parallel to the emerging trend of old logos is a trend of logo simplicity.

Recent re-brands of major companies such as Deliveroo, Subway, Instagram and Mastercard have seen a replacement of skeuomorphism with vector-based logos.

"I think consumers are looking for brands that are less complicated and simplify their lives. Also the skeuomorphism icons can look fake, people are looking for simple truth," says Bruce.

Bruce says there’s often an opposite reaction to a particular trend and the craft resurgence is acting out against the “computer-generated look” of a few years ago.

"Craft celebrates the skills of the individual and being seen as an individual is a trend we're seeing." 

The latest brand to go through a stripped back rebrand is The Co-op.

The Co-op returned to its simple "clover leaf" logo design from 1968. In-house group design director Ben Terrett told It's Nice That returning to the previous logo would be "simple and memorable, there's nothing fancy about it". Reaction to the logo was positive, as people looked back fondly on the simple four letters and the locality they represent.

Although 2016 may not be the first time brands have chosen to draw on past logos for a fresh look, it’s certainly a trend that’s reaching out to a body of modern consumers who value truth and simplicity. In a society that is taught to be critical of advertising and it’s messages, craftsmanship and authentic experience prove positive points of difference. 

“If you have it, why not flaunt it?” says John. 

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