Rebranding can be a powerful tool for any company looking to signal change. But if not done carefully, it can go wrong fast. Like when a star goes under the knife in the hopes of looking better and only winds up looking worse (insert your favorite celebrity plastic surgery fail here). Some examples come to mind:

Lead PhotoAmerican Airlines: When American merged with U.S. Airways, naturally they wanted to tell the world, “Hey, we’re new.” So they ditched Massimo Vignelli’s classic logo from the 1960s (foreground) and came up with a sleek new face for the brand (rear). Not bad, given the huge challenge this presents for such a large airline, but I can’t help but miss the Master’s handiwork. Besides being a veritable poster child for Helvetica, it had that old world equity (like the dearly departed Pan Am). Worse, as critics have noted, the new logo lost the strength of the old one and now includes the same swoops and colors as two of their biggest competitors—British Airways and Air France.

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A new logo isn’t enough. A better way for the carrier to signal change would’ve been to differentiate themselves by improving the total customer experience (not hard, given the low bar airlines are setting these days). Ironically, American did just that around 2000, when they removed two rows of seats in coach, giving everyone back there more legroom. Wouldn’t you rather have that than a shiny new (mediocre) logo?

Airbnb: Airbnb is a brilliant business model that is taking a big bite out of hotel revenues in major markets by changing the game. But rather than focus on fixing some of their business problems and fighting their legal battles, they opted to undertake an expensive rebranding exercise. After reviewing hundreds of options, they came up with the logo below, and were promptly vilified in the trade press and mocked to no end on the Internet, most of which can’t be shown here. Memo to Airbnb: if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

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1280px-Holiday_Inn_Logo.svgHoliday Inn: Some people like the new Holiday Inn logo (below, top). Me, not so much. It seems to lack soul. Maybe it was all the times we slept there while crisscrossing the country in my parents’ Ford Galaxy 500 and Volkswagen Beetle back in the day. But the old Holiday Inn logo had a reassuring cheesiness to it (has anyone ever put those two terms together before?) that I find comforting. And I bet it would also resonate with the coveted Millennial target. Again, fix the product, then the logo.

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So enough about the misses. How about a few hits?

Peru: A great example of brand identity in the travel space, the logo conjures up images of the country’s Incan ruins as well as the colorful patterns on local clothing.

Peru

Inuit Airlines: Cheers for the little guys. Tiny Canadian carrier Inuit did a stunning rebrand a few years ago that involved a proprietary typeface and a powerful color scheme. It’s at once eye-catching and culturally appropriate. No mean feat.

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Adventure.com: Since it’s a new brand, this one’s technically a bit off the reservation, but for this client of ours, purveyors of bespoke travel, we created a hand-drawn logo that captures the spirit of the brand. It speaks to the fact that every traveler’s definition of adventure is different.

Adventure

So before you put your brand under the knife, keep a few things in mind:

1)  Changing the logo is fine, but make sure you’re also making corresponding improvements in your service offering, delivery, etc. Address the things your customers are already concerned about. No clever logo is good enough to cover up those shortcomings. Worse, an expensive rebranding may make you look like you’re out of touch and trying to cover them up.

2)  Tread lightly. Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. Respect the value of the equity you’ve spent time and money building. In most cases, evolution trumps revolution.

3)  Work with a pro. Yes, crowdsourcing logos and ideas can yield results (even a blind squirrel finds a nut every now and then). But the best firms and designers will do their homework and approach the project from a place of experience and thoughtfulness that will pay dividends for years to come. Would you crowdsource an approach to a medical problem? Then why play games with your brand?

4)  Put it through the mobile filter. A design that looks great on a plane, a building or a laptop screen has to work on a smartphone screen too.

5)  That said, don’t succumb to the prevailing trend to “App-ify” everything. Your corporate identity doesn’t need to feel like an App (unless, of course, it is one). Your identity needs to communicate what your brand is in the cleanest way possible in all media.

We tell children not to judge a book by its cover, but the reality is, we can’t help it. We’re human. We’re all visual creatures. We’re wired that way. Which is why branding (and the inevitable updates that need to be done over a brand’s lifespan) can be one of the most powerful weapons in any marketer’s arsenal. That is, if done properly.

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