Your brand: Much more than just a logo

Today, one of my favorite local companies–Caribou Coffee–is rolling out a complete brand makeover.

According to the news release, the company’s new brand look includes “a new logo, color palette and design elements that bring fresh energy and broader context to the existing tag line: Life is short. Stay awake for it (R).”

Luckily, I got a sneak peek at the new brand over the weekend thanks to my friends over at Exponent, Caribou’s PR agency-of-record.

In addition to the release, the media kit also included a four-color brochure based on the new brand, another four-color piece that explains the rationale behind the new logo and look and feel, a custom jump drive (thanks!) full of logos and visuals and one of the new Caribou cups.

The media kit was well done. Full of information (and electronic visuals) a journalist or blogger could use to write a story or post about the new re-brand.

But, here’s my question: Is this really a re-brand or just a new visual identity system?

At the heart of that question is a larger issue for all organizations: Is a brand more than just a logo?

For many companies, the logo or visual identity of the brand is the foundational element for the brand itself. Think about logos and symbols like Target, McDonalds, Starbucks. These logos have become pervasive across not only American culture–but around the world. They each stand for something different–and each conjures up different feelings and emotions for the customer.

But, at the end of the day, the Target “bullseye” is just a logo, isn’t it?

I remember working for an organization earlier in my career that went through a re-branding process. I wasn’t privy to all the behind-the-scenes meetings and decisions at that time, but I got wind of the branding changes along the line. In essence, it was a visual identity change. We were changing the basic “look and feel” of what this brand meant visually to our stakeholders. A new color palette. A new typeface. A new look. And, changes to all our letterhead and marketing communications materials.

Looking back on that situation now, was it really a “re-brand” or merely a shift in art direction?

Doesn’t re-branding constitute a lot more than just a logo change? Think about it. What is a brand, really? According to Wikipedia a brand is a name used to identify and distinguish a specific product, service or business. OK, fair enough. But, to me, a brand represents the collection of all the thoughts, feelings, perceptions and attitudes a customer has toward a product, service or organization. That’s a hell of a lot more than just a logo.

So then, why do we continue to call a simple logo change a “re-brand?”

My advice: Organizations need to do a better job of sharing the stories and experiences that make up their brands. That’s really what’s at the heart of a brand, isn’t it? Yes, the logo and visual identity are key pieces of the brand puzzle–but they’re just one of the elements. What about the story about how your customer service representative went the extra mile to make a client’s day? What about photos from your customers using or experiencing your product or service? What about a phone call from a customer where she talks about how your service completely changed her life? Those are the experiences that define your brand. Those are the shared stories that form the basis for your potential customer’s perceptions and attitudes about your brand. And, quite often, those are the ideas that pop into people’s heads when they’re making purchase decisions, too.

Think about a company like Southwest Airlines. Do people fly Southwest because of their colorful planes or their logo? Or, do they fly Southwest because of the stories they hear about the brand’s over-the-top-fantastic customer service (despite the recent Kevin Smith story)? What about the tales of people singing on the flights? Or, maybe the tweet that read: “Best. Flight. Ever.” Think any of those stories or shared experiences make a difference when someone’s making a decision about what airline to fly?

To be clear, I’m not saying a logo or visual identity system isn’t important. It is. Absolutely. And, I’m not calling out Caribou–I continue to be a huge (I cannot emphasize that strongly enough) fan. I just think your logo should be a piece of your brand–it shouldn’t define it.

The next time your company is thinking about a “re-branding” campaign, start with the heart of the matter first. Your employees. Your stories. The experiences your customers share that make you unique. The complete brand picture.

What do you think? Agree? Disagree? I’d love to hear your take in the comments below.

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18 comments on “Your brand: Much more than just a logo

  1. Well put! Organizations need to stop getting all caught up in the way their brand looks and start focusing more on how their brand makes people feel. Its the stories that a company provides its consumers with that they will share. Not how cool their new logo is.

    I think it has to go deeper than that. It has to go into the core of the organization and show through a series of different channels. I think the main issue is that the term branding has loss a lot of its value. While I consider branding to be more about the memories, expectations, etc associated with the brand – A lot of people believe branding lies solely within photoshop.

    If we take Charles Manson; cut off his hair give him a face lift he’s still Charles Manson. He’s still going to be a scary, ugly person on the inside. Only focusing on the outside might work for a while but sooner or later if there isn’t a change internally – Consumers are going to be able to see right through you.

  2. sm says:

    Interesting and I agree. I love Caribou and I like the new re-tooling of their brand but I am with you–it’s not so much a complete redesign, but a refresh. I do like it a lot and I love the color palette.

  3. GR Hansen says:

    A well-thought piece Arik. And a topic I’ve considered through some work I’ve done with a local HR out-placement group. Companies and People (especially those “in transition”) must get beyond the ‘brand as visual identity’ stereotype. You can’t know the Caribou brand until you experience the complete product and service. Similarly, people can’t deliver their brand identity through a resume or CV, or in a 15-second Elevator Pitch.

    There is so much more.

  4. Great post Arik, I think you’re spot on. I give Caribou credit for recognizing the need to be in control of their brand. After all, your brand is doing work whether you control it or not. Might as well make it work for you rather than against you.

    As you pointed out, people often assume that managing one’s brand means reworking it’s identity again and again to keep it fresh. I’m reminded of the client that came looking for a re-brand based around the colors in a powerpoint.

    To me it is like decorating a Christmas tree that won’t stand on its own. You could have the best looking ornaments, garland and star, but what’s the point if the tree has no foundation?

    That foundation comes from the leg work that you mentioned: people, stories, experiences.

    Thanks for this post, Arik. Kudos.

  5. Scott Hale says:

    I think agencies consider a visual change to be a re-branding because the logo/art is something that can be changed instantly and controlled internally. There’s no waiting once the new art is revealed – it’s black and white (old logo = old brand. New logo = new brand). It is easily measurable over an instant time period.

    The visual identity is only the beginning of a larger change. It will take time to change how people feel about the brand and it will be gradual.

    To me, user experience is the most important element of a brand. I’ve been intrigued by logos and art many times, but I return for the experience. That’s where a brand is built. The art just might act as the foundation and a physical representation of change ahead.

  6. Kasey Skala says:

    In essence, isn’t that what Caribou is trying to do? Trying to shift its focus, trying to energize its employees?

    Today, a logo is much more than just a visual. Like you mentioned, it’s what people identify a company as. Look at the fuss around Coke when redesigned their can. In a market where you aren’t #1, at times, you need to take a look at the graphics and identity in which the population views you.

    Overall, my personal opinion is that I’m not that impressed with the new logo. Like you, I’m a Caribou fan because it’s a Minnesota-based company. So they probably weren’t aiming for me. But I don’t get the direction they were going.

  7. arikhanson says:


    I believe that is the first Charles Manson reference on this blog 😉 I tend to agree–what’s beneath the logo is what I’m getting at.

    GR: I think that’s my big concern. The re-branding process needs to start with the experience–not a typeface.

    Scott: That’s my larger point. How does the re-brand change the experience? I was just in my local store this morning. Other than some new signage, I saw absolutely no change. Not sure that constitutes a re-brand.

    Kasey: It is what they’re trying to do. And yes, it may take time. I just think there needs to be more to it than a logo change at the outset. Find a meaningful way to get your champions and advocates involved. Find ways to involve your store leaders in the process. Maybe they did the latter, but like I said, I was at my local store this morning and I didn’t see much evidence other than the new signage. Again, not slamming Caribou here, just bringing up the “re-brand” topic in the context of this news.


  8. Danielle says:

    Totally agree. A brand is more than the colors, fonts, designs mixed together. It is about your mission, your philosophy, your products/services, etc.

    A brand is who you are as a company, which goes way beyond logo.

    Atomicdust, Saint Louis, MO

  9. Danny Brown says:

    It’s a tough one to call, Arik, although I agree with you that a brand should be much more than just a redesigned logo/colour scheme.

    Yet if you think about Apple, it doesn’t matter if you’re on about a Mac, an iPod, the iPhone or the new iPad – the overriding image is the apple with the bite out of it.

    Same goes for Superman – you don’t think the cape, or the red and blue outfit, or the S curl of his hair – you think of the S logo on his chest.

    It’s a dangerous game, making your logo such a strong part of your essence for sure. Yet it can also help you be remembered long after other parts of you are forgotten.

    So, yeah – tough call.

    PS – thanks for introducing me to the Link Within widget – very cool. 🙂

  10. Lisa Grimm says:

    Arik – Great post and great comments that followed. I’m an ex-Caribou loyalist turned Starbucks fan, so this is not exactly an objective point of view. I’ve witnessed this brand make one silly decision after another since selling years ago — and this visual recalibration is no exception.

    I say all of this as someone who spent a lot of time and money at the Big Bou on Grand Ave. for many years and absolutely loved every minute. Scott’s comment (as well as others) really resonated with me, so I won’t be too repetitive…

    Caribou is a hometown brand. They are a Midwest staple and for a time they did a great job creating a stellar environment that was very north woods, cozy and just felt like home. From its high-quality products to the friendly staff — they did a great job. The fan base at just one location was so powerful — and I knew of others equally as strong — a sort of prideful Caribou cult following across many metro locations. I can only dream about how awesome it would have been for them to utilize the many and significant ‘user experiences’ of not just the customers and staff, but the relationship between coffee, people and staff community that a coffee shop is. Can you imagine what you could do with all that great content? Fun!

    I really liked their old logo. I feel as though they should have spent the time and money on something else. We all know that aesthetics and design are an integral piece of the pie, but I think Caribou would have been far better off crowdsourcing for information on how to be a better premium coffee provider. Instead of competing with Starbucks and the recession, perhaps taking it back to basics and what they used to be so good at would have been more beneficial. It was truly human – and it came out in the way they executed everything, not because it was written on a coffee cup or because they used a certain color scheme and imagery in their design. I’m all about showing and not telling, and from your post and all of the comments, so is everyone else. It will be interesting to see how wrong I am about it all, but I think there was a time when Caribou had something really special until they sold out.

  11. GR Hansen says:

    In response to Danny Brown’s comment (“Yet if you think about Apple, it doesn’t matter if you’re on about a Mac, an iPod, the iPhone or the new iPad – the overriding image is the apple with the bite out of it.”), anyone who truly ‘knows’ the Apple or Mac brand knows the brand not as a two-dimensional apple symbol. A brand is not a picture, logo, color, sound bite or other simple sensory experience. Consider the “brands” you love, and think of why you love them. Like your spouse or mother or best friend, it’s not because of the way they look.

  12. Danielle says:

    Totally agree with GR in regards to Apple. You know an Apple product even without the logo. It’s the sleek design, the clean lines, the innovation.

  13. Agreed Arik, a brand is much more than just a logo or tagline. It’s something that should be living and breathing within the company. Employees should be brand ambassadors.

    Now the real question is, does the new brand from Caribou make you want to drink more of it?

  14. Candee Wolf says:

    So true. The health care industry has traditionally looked at brand as the logo, but it is so much more than that. I tell our offices that *everything* they do is the brand…it’s the way they answer the phone, it’s the way the Web site looks, it’s the way they receive their dental care, etc. Brand is about the whole package, the whole experience.

    It’s easy to see the logo, which often makes it the starting point for a brand discussion so I understand why this happens. But that also means I spend a lot of time educating colleagues about what a brand really is.

  15. Tim Otis says:

    I continue to follow the chatter on the logo, as it’s not going away and very interesting as a case study. While I do agree that a brand is a lot more than just the logo, I disagree that it does not hold some importance in perception. Why? Caribou’s logo was a visual piece of the organization and one that aesthetically originated from the founders’ story. The new logo was to ‘nationalize’ Caribou and to appease initial investors. Apparently, the shops became too ‘Mid-westernized’. The change is pretty amazing though. Look at their Facebook Page– comments upon comments indicating the logo has been perceived by customers as a stepping stone into expansion. Even though I don’t like the new logo, apparently it worked. But if Jack Trout has anything to say about what I would call a re-brand, the Bou might be toast.