We work with several associations, and recently, we have gotten into a series of conversations about the choice between rebranding an association versus refreshing its look and feel. While every situation is unique, I thought I would provide some criteria for the change when the time arises. And it will come, sooner or later.

Thought leadership is probably the most important benefit any association can
provide. Associations by their nature are credible, authoritative, and trusted
entities. Two of the associations we work with, the American Society of
Mechanical Engineers and the Hydraulic Institute are the authorities in their
respective fields, trusted by their members, the media, and the general
public. And thought leadership is what has given them that authority.

It’s this authority that becomes the basis of each association’s brand. Thus the brand needs to look and present as a leader. This is where the brand identity comes into play. And this is more than just the logo; it’s the overall visual expression of the brand.

The idea that every association should be represented by a visual identity that reflects its mission and its values is not a new one. What we have found is that many of these organizations, both for-profit and nonprofit, have great legacy brands, but the presentation of those brands is old and tired. They have often been neglected for years, decades, or sometimes longer. This typically leads to the question, “Do we rebrand the organization?”

To Rebrand or Refresh….
That, as they say, is the question. From our point of view, the answer is not always obvious, but it’s certainly solvable. Let’s start with a quick distinction between a rebranding exercise and a brand refresh.

We define a rebranding exercise as a total overhaul of an existing brand—retaining assets that still have value, but the overall organization has changed or evolved so much that the tenets of the original brand no longer hold true.

As an example, an organization formerly known as the American Society of Bariatric Physicians had existed for 65 years. The association was struggling to grow and retain its credibility among the other medical associations. As a general term, bariatric is often misunderstood. With this confusion around the key word in the name, the organization was clearly not in an advantageous position to grow its brand. This led to a major shift in the organization’s thinking about its purpose and direction regarding its members and the general public. It turned to the word “obesity” as it is a much more common word and clearly defined the specialty of this group of physicians. Along with the name change, the brand presentation was completely updated, and the association is on its way to its new future.


A brand refresh is a thoughtful revision and update of an organization’s presentation. In the case of a refresh, the organization’s values and mission still hold true, but its presentation no longer supports its credibility as a contemporary thought leader.

In the case of the Society of Women Engineers, it had also been 65 years since the development of the original identity. There had been a few modifications along the way but a refresh was overdue. After evaluating the assets and liabilities, the organization retained the basic concept, but successfully switched gears by stylizing its visual identity into something new and contemporary.


When to Rebrand…
As mentioned above, a change or evolution in mission or purpose is a prime reason to consider a rebranding of an association. This kind of change should trigger a complete review of the association’s brand—what it stands for, why it matters, and what the future could or should hold for the organization. This will affect themes, messaging, touchpoints, and the brand’s appearance regarding those touchpoints.

This essentially starts the brand development process from the beginning—drafting what the brand stands for and why and developing the messaging and the presentation of the brand. This process, of course, should always include the key stakeholders in the development—the board, key members, and strategic partners—to ease the transition.

The key to any successful brand initiative is building awareness. While developing and communicating the new mission and values of the new brand, it is equally important to deliver those messages. That’s where the touchpoints become so important. And designing these touchpoints strategically is critical to building awareness.

Most organizations don’t have the resources to launch a new brand across the entire landscape of their reach. Consequently, it becomes crucial to approach implementation strategically, analyzing and investing in high priority, big impact touchpoints first and developing a rollout plan to address the rest in due time.

When to Refresh…
If there are no significant changes in the association, no change in direction or no recalibrating of the membership target or market identification, but 10 or more years have passed since any kind of visual refresh was completed, then that should trigger an audit of the organization’s overall presentation.

What we’re looking for in this audit is the equity and liabilities of the current brand program. How well recognized is the current brand and its identity? How favorably is it thought of? It is the answers to questions like these that will be important in identifying the value that exists in the current program. Once that value is identified, then you can use it to update the brand. Particularly when branding an association, stakeholders are often very connected to the brand; therefore, any change should be thoughtfully considered and then implemented with care.

When reviewing the current brand for what’s still relevant and what’s not, begin by asking a few questions to start the conversation.
Does the name of the organization still resonate with stakeholders and constituents, and is it still in line with the association’s mission and values?
Is there high and positive recognition of the association’s logo?
Are the messaging and communications up to date, and do they reflect the organization as meaningful and contemporary?

If, for instance, the visual identity, the logo, still has a high level of recognition, it would imply a strong asset that should be retained in an identifiable way—not necessarily literally, but in a way that allows constituents, both inside and out of the organization, to retain their emotional connection to the brand.

Once the audit is completed, and the brand team has a good understanding of what equity is still relevant in the current brand, that becomes the starting point for any brand refresh.

And When Not To…
One thing to keep in mind is that rebranding or refreshing are not always the answer. If the brand presentation has been updated within a five-year period, then the organization should ask itself why it’s contemplating a change. Five years is typically long enough for most associations to realize a level of recognition and presentation of the brand. Unless, of course, it has been completely neglected.

If an association is wondering why the brand has not reached its potential, then ask the right questions. Here are five questions that can get an organization moving in the right direction.
1. How has the brand performed over the last year on a scale of 1-10?
2. What would drive it towards a 10?
3. What is the goal for the next year?
4. What are the three biggest challenges to reaching that goal?
5. How will we overcome these challenges?

Clarity around the answers to the above questions can go a long way to advancing the reach and recognition of the brand.


Rebrand (total overhaul) if your brand no longer reflects your values or mission.
Refresh (update) if there have been no significant changes in values of mission, but it’s been 10 years or more since the last visual refresh.
Know the equity and liabilities of your brand.
Be sure to evaluate the equity of the brand’s assets and carry them forward in an intentional way.
Design touchpoints strategically; it is in these touchpoints that you will build awareness for your brand.

For a broader view of what to look for when developing or updating your brand, download our 7 Principles of Brand Identity.

This is one of a series of posts that covers our approach and thoughts on identity design and brand development. Subscribe to the blog and follow the posts on this topic as well as the other musings of a group of design professionals.

Strategy Studio is a brand design firm developing and implementing identity systems, interactive experiences and visual communications that tell the stories of new products and established brands–from Fortune 500 companies to non-profit organizations.

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