To refresh or to rebrand? That is the question faced by every company at some point. They know something needs to be fixed with their brand, but they’re not sure how deep the problem goes—whether they need a surface-level update or a complete reboot.

A brand refresh is a reimagining of your brand’s look and feel. It’s primarily a cosmetic solution that can nonetheless have a powerful, wide-ranging impact. Depending on the company and the issues it’s facing, a brand refresh can even include adjustments to culture, slogans and services. What it does not include are changes to a brand’s DNA or fundamental market position.

By contrast, a rebrand is a complete repositioning of your brand. With a rebrand, you are leaving everything about your current brand in the past. It is a restart that requires in-depth research and meticulous strategic planning that can affect nearly every aspect of your business moving forward.

Because the difference between a brand refresh and a rebrand is so profound, it’s important to get the decision right at the outset, or you run the risk of having to do the whole thing over again in a couple years. Here, we’ll look at what’s involved in both a brand refresh and a rebrand, starting with the common challenges addressed by each.

The Brand Refresh

  • Are you embarrassed to hand out your business card?
  • Have you received negative feedback on your website?
  • Does your visual identity no longer capture your brand’s essence?
  • Do you have a great company but you’re still struggling to attract top talent?

A brand refresh is a new face for brands that are fundamentally strong but feel stale or outdated. While it usually centers on a reimagining of visual identity, a refresh can also affect culture, systems, products and services. Rejuvenating the look and feel of your brand can go a long way toward injecting new life into business performance and employee morale after all.

A brand refresh is essentially a tactical maneuver, often undertaken to ensure that a brand is keeping pace with current marketplace trends. Companies that remain stagnant while their competitors reinvent themselves with fresh looks and relevant ways to communicate can expect to lose their competitive edge in no time.

Don’t be mistaken by the name, though. A refresh can be a wide-ranging initiative, redefining your brand’s visual and verbal language across a multitude of touchpoints. It can even include the jettisoning of underperforming or outdated offerings. Tactical decisions like these are what give the refresh its power. You’re not redefining who you are as a company, you’re just sloughing off the stuff that’s slowing you down—breaking free from outdated perceptions or outmoded ways of communicating with your audience.

What a refresh can’t solve are deep-seated issues like widespread negative perception, internal misalignment, or fundamental shifts in a company’s positioning. If these challenges sound familiar, your brand is probably in need of the comprehensive overhaul that only a rebrand can accomplish.

The world’s top companies undergo brand refreshes all the time. Here are a few notable cases that show just how impactful a refresh can be…

Starbucks

Starbucks identity

Starbucks had reinvented its image a number of times over the years. In 2011, however, it unveiled its most dramatic iteration yet. Most notably was the lack of the name “Starbucks Coffee” anywhere in its logo. It was the type of bold move that only a household-name brand could pull off, but it was perfectly in keeping with what the company had become: minimalist, experiential, and about much more than just coffee.

Mastercard

Mastercard identity

Simple, seamless, unmistakable. The latest refresh of the Mastercard brand was far from a drastic overhaul. For a company in the midst of a digital era constantly in flux, trust and familiarity were critical aspects to retain. The interlocking red and yellow circles are so recognizable that, like Starbucks, MasterCard was in the unique position of completely removing its name from the new mark. The resultant brand is thoroughly modern and yet steeped in a legacy of integrity.

Southwest

Southwest airlines identity

Challenge: communicate a company culture defined by compassion to an increasingly jaded audience. Hoping to connect with millennials and business travelers alike, Southwest chose an iconic symbol of humanity for a post-ironic market: a heart. The heart is an emotive punctuation for an identity centered on personal touch. A redesign of the company’s livery, airports, and website rounds out a refresh that is modern but true to Southwest’s DNA.

The Rebrand

  • Have you recently gone through a merger or acquisition?
  • Has your business model or strategy changed?
  • Do you need to disassociate your brand from a negative image?
  • Are you failing to differentiate your company from the competition?

Compared to a brand refresh, a rebrand is a complete repositioning of your company. It is a fundamental reboot for companies struggling with the systemic issues that accompany substantial growth, a business model shift, or an unmitigable PR disaster. With a rebrand, you are abandoning what your brand was for the sake of what it can be.

A rebrand is the right decision when your current brand is simply no longer sustainable. For companies with negative brand equity (or for those on a downward trajectory that can’t be corrected) a rebrand is the only option. It’s a signal to the market that a new strategy is in place, that you are not tied to what got you here, but rather are charting a bold new course for the future. It goes without saying that rebrands are more time- and budget-intensive than refreshes, but the dividends they can return are more profound as well.

A rebrand lets you shake free from current perceptions and/or associations with your brand. Those associations don’t even have to be negative, necessarily, often times they simply represent a position that you simply can no longer expect to build on. A brand that has staked its claim on value and low cost, for example, might eventually need to upgrade to positioning centered on quality rather than price consciousness.

Business owners are often all too keen to let go of a brand that isn’t working. It’s critical, however, to have a plan in place for what’s next before you abandon what is. And the only way to ensure a sound, evidence-based plan for your brand’s future is with in-depth research and strategy.

While you could do a brand refresh without research and strategy, you could never do a rebrand without these critical initiatives. Only with research can you understand current perceptions of key stakeholders—both internal stakeholders, including leadership, employees and board members, and external stakeholders, including customers, investors and strategic partners. Only with strategy can you define positioning elements like your mission, vision, values, competitive advantage and brand promise.

Rebrands tend to make bigger waves than brand refreshes. A few that captured the attention of the media and marketplace include the following…

Zenefits

Zenefits identity

Zenefits is a unique case where the need to rebrand arose on multiple fronts, each more drastic than the last. After growing to a $4.5b company just two years after its founding, Zenefits found itself in a major compliance scandal that quickly devalued the company to the tune of $2.5b. Apart from that, however, hardly anyone in their target audience knew who they were. A full 80 percent of HR professionals had never even heard of the brand. The Zenefits rebrand was profound, and driven by goals of reinvention, differentiation and awareness.

Accenture

Accentutre identity

After breaking away from the accounting firm Arthur Anderson, the company once known as Anderson Consulting was compelled to change its name. The resultant rebrand was centered on a name that many scoffed at at the time. An invented name inspired by the idea of an “accent on the future,” Accenture has gone on to become a dominant brand in a marketplace filled with similarly unconventional names. Critically, the rebrand allowed Accenture to escape its association with Arthur Anderson, which imploded after being found guilty of obstructing justice in the midst of the Enron scandal.

Dignity Health

Dignity health identity

In 2012, Catholic Healthcare West decided it needed a new name and a new image for the future. Born from a change in governance structure and a strategy centered on relationships, capabilities and resources, the Dignity Health Brand came about after months of in-depth research into employees, doctors and patients. The result was a brand inspired by compassionate care, the most important value among staff and patients. Dignity Health’s brand purpose, “to unleash the healing power of humanity” underscores the brand’s belief that true healing depends as much on compassion as it does on advanced medicine.

The Takeaway

If you’re wondering whether your company needs a comprehensive rebrand or simply a brand refresh, you’re not alone. The answer to this commonly asked question lies in the depth and scope of the challenges your company is facing.

A brand refresh is a great solution for a company who needs a facelift. Primarily a cosmetic solution, a refresh can nonetheless be wide-ranging and deeply impactful. A brand refresh can’t, however, solve more deep-seated issues with positioning, architecture, or misalignment. For challenges like these, a rebrand is the only solution.

Whichever direction you decide is required for your brand, the best advice we can give is to find a branding agency you can trust, with a proven history of addressing the unique needs of companies like yours.

The Definitive Guide to Rebranding

Everything you need to know about rebranding your business-and avoiding costly mistakes.

Read more by

A prolific blogger, speaker, and columnist, Brian has more than a decade of experience in design and branding. He’s written for publications including Forbes, Huffington Post, and Brand Quarterly.