For (Re)Brands, It’s Back to the Future

Why it took 30 years to remove 90s 'crimes against design’ from branding

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Burger King, M&M’s and now Pepsi—each dropping the youth-focused identity they adopted in the mid-90s and opting for more definitive, classic identities.

Gone are the days of flares, drop shadows, awkward type, faux spritz and claim overloads. Brands are reinterpreting themselves for the world today, receiving applause from not just the nostalgia-ists but the purists, the rationalists, their peers and even the stock market. Take for instance RBI, the parent company of Burger King, which saw its shares bounce 7.8% after its new, classic identity was unveiled.

When I showed my mother and two teenage daughters these rebrands, they simply said, “Isn’t that what they’ve always looked like?” That’s the high watermark for distinctive brand building.

As brand practitioners, we have known for some time that this was the path forward, so why did we wait so long? And why did it finally happen now?

The lockdown effect

The seeds were likely sown just before and during the global lockdown. When Covid-19 hit, shops closed and lots of impulse brands took a beat. They were removed from the shackles of the shelf, forced to make their current branding bolder for digital retail and use the time to really think about their brand identity. They knew they’d have to come out fighting for attention and recognition when shops finally opened again, and that space to reflect meant they could dig deeper into their brand history to truly understand what makes them distinctive. 

Most marketers don’t think like the IT department

When your computer is acting up, you restore it to its optimal design. So why do so many marketers think the place to start is where they are today?

For one thing, too much research says that current identity is successful, encouraging marketers to argue it’s too expensive to remove permanent signage or write off packaging. Gen Z wasn’t born when brands’ core identity was around, they argue, so it’ll bomb. 

When Burger King asked people to draw its logo from memory, they found more people drew their pre-1999 identity than anything else. They used that insight as a reference to create the brand identity you see today.

That’s the lesson: Go back to the best version of yourself and start from there, not from where you are today. Is it evolution? Is it a revolution? No. It’s just putting the brand back into the hand that was already latent in the mind.

‘Corporate ego’ has a long memory

Recommending to your CEO that the crown jewel of the company should drop its 30-year-old identity is a bold move—and a stupid one if you aren’t armed to the hilt with evidence, especially if said CEO built their career on the back of that work. But, if you do the math, it’s a good bet that the creators of most of that work have moved on or retired, meaning it’s taken a generational shift just to entertain the notion.

At the same time, the culture has evolved, and there’s more evidence of the power of these classic identities. Just look at what’s happening with fashion, or check eBay prices for classic advertising materials and do some social listening to appreciate that love for these classic identities is timeless. 

Collaborations and memorabilia for Dunkin‘, Fanta and Burger King.Dunkin’, H&M, Etsy

Classic branding is (ironically) a digital-ready identity

Most of these classic identities are pre-digital designs. In the early years of digital, we all got a bit high on what a Mac could do, like over-indulged 90s rock guitarists let loose at the mixing desk.

Big, bold, simple—and most of all authentic—is what we need right now. The graphic simplicity of a classic identity makes it perfect for pop culture-responsive assets. They can move, pulse, flip, be collaborated with, react to culture, even hold a concept far more easily than their complex predecessors. 

Burger King created digitally responsive brand identity elements that flex from physical to digital seamlessly.JKR

90s nostalgia is in full effect

Friends reruns, Jordan 1s on teens’ feet, vinyl sales on the rise: Gen Z is “diggin’ in the crates” of the pre-social era for the real deal, and they’re prepared to pay for it.

When Palace approached Stella Artois for what is still one of their most coveted collabs, they leaned heavily on the ’90s identity. It makes sense that we look to the pre-digital identities of that era to be inspired for how we move brands forward.

Palace, Stella Artois

It’s all about distinctiveness

The concept of distinctiveness has finally started to shift from theory to practice. From the relentless voice of Ehrenberg-Bass, the teachings and swearings of Mark Ritson, Kantar, System1 and the brilliant Ipsos “Power of You” study, the data is irrefutable. 

Having the humility and bravery to revisit an identity that people can still draw on 30 years later, and that’s frankly way cooler than what they look like now, is the path forward. It isn’t retro, vanity or folly; it just makes smart business sense. 

Being distinctive is the most important quality your brand can have. You can forget optimizing your lower-funnel metrics if most of the content you create is not being recognized or attributed to your brand. So make sure you’re turning up as your best, most distinctive self. And if we must go “back to the future” to get there, so be it.