Neuroscience can explain – and prevent – logo redesign disasters

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How brand agencies like Coley Porter Bell are using emerging scientific disciplines to create the perfect rebranding.

People don’t like change. David Bowie wrote a song about it – ‘turn and face the strange,’ he sang. If only it were so easy.  

Take for example, when Snap, parent of teen photo-sharing app Snapchat, slightly thickened the edge of its ghost logo a few weeks ago. On paper (or screen, as it were) increasing the keyline edge by a point or seems inconsequential; a minor tweak that should pass users by.

Instead, the firm was lambasted, users threatened to leave the app for good, shocked and appalled at the absolute temerity of altering a few pixels. But as trivial as it may seem from the outside, they have a point.

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Updating a brand’s visual identity is fairly routine, a periodic exercise in maintaining relevance or adapting to new platforms; in expressing the evolution of that company and its story. With a logo in particular, it is the first point of contact with a brand, the asset that makes it recognisable without name. Think of the Swoosh or Golden Arches – even if you couldn’t read, you would know what you were getting. 

It is what consumers have grown used to, and any update to a brand’s identity – whether a new logo, a piece of packaging or even a branded experience – must therefore consider both the conscious and subconscious ways in which people decode these changes. Using neuroscientific principles we can understand how seemingly insignificant updates like Snap’s can be met with such disapproval.

Codebreaking

People decode the world around them through two distinct but related ways of processing information in their brains: System 1 and System 2. Most brand purchase decisions take place in the rapid-processing, unconscious thinking part of the brain: System 1.

System 2 on the other hand, is where most of our heavy-lifting and learning takes place. Once we’ve processed in System 2, it becomes encoded in System 1 – something instantaneous, automatic and subconscious. Much like learning to drive, it first takes effort and considerable concentration, but after time we encode that learning to the point where driving becomes an effortless action not requiring active thought.

The same applies to purchase decision. Through picking a brand repeatedly, we encode its identity in our mind, creating a shortcut which, over time, makes the decision to pick that brand virtually automatic. When that identity changes, for whatever reason, it is as if that shortcut is on diversion.

There’s myriad recent examples of just this. Take Mastercard, which earlier this year updated its logo, the instantly-recognisable interlocking circles. Mastercard has been incredibly consistent with its harmonious red and yellow for so long that it has achieved recognition in System 1 among most consumers. Utilising principles of reductive design, Mastercard removed entirely its name from its logo, in a natural evolution for the digital age. In the case of Mastercard, its 52-year relevance means that the loss of a name is of far less significance and disruption than a younger, lesser-known brand.

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In essence, Mastercard has earnt the right to move to a more simplified logo. The neuroscientific principle is ‘gestalt,’ a German term interpreted in English as ‘pattern’ or ‘configuration’. According to gestaltism, the human brain instinctively disassembles logos into constituent parts, and puts them back together. By removing the word ‘Mastercard,’ we still recognise the Mastercard brand because its heritage and equity are so strong. As such, the redesign was heralded a success.

Conversely, a logo redesign that wasn’t so well-received was that of Spanish fashion retailer, Zara. Its second redesign in a decade was met with derision and a slew of memes from across the design world. For a brand that’s been so consistent for so long, you have to ask yourself the question: Why change? Moving to a taller, more contemporary typeface with such remarkably tight leading made the logo over-complex in its construction.

It was too drastic departure from what its customers were used to. The emerging discipline of neuroesthetics takes a scientific approach to the study of aesthetic perceptions of art, music, and any object that can give rise to aesthetic judgments, like a logo.

A rule of thumb we use at Coley Porter Bell, Beauty Pays, is based on this principle, whereby System 1 interprets beauty as investment, care, and self-belief – and hence value.

The Zara redesign immediately feels like less care, effort and detail has gone into creating it, which, for a fashion brand whose products are entirely aesthetic, is not a good look.

Image: iStock

Snap Decisions

This brings us back to Snap, whose logo redesign was hardly a drastic redesign by any measure. So what explains the outrage?

The issue is not that people no longer recognise the brand; the logo is still manifestly Snap, after all. Rather, users experienced a visceral and immediate reaction to the change. It’s due to what neuroscientists term ‘thin slicing’, the process of finding patterns in events and interactions with things based only on thin slices of experience.

Image: iStock

The human brain is capable of decoding huge amounts of information from very small slivers of detail. Jumping to conclusions, for want of a better term.

But herein lies a lesson. A seemingly harmless update can be a giant leap for the unconscious minds of consumers used to digesting your brand in a certain way. Essentially, people don’t like change – whether they realise it or not.

Vicky Bullen is CEO of Coley Porter Bell, Ogilvy's brand design agency.

Read next: Apple logo creator Rob Janoff reveals his tips on design success

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