30 November 2022

Is less always more? Challenging the trend for simplicity in brand design

Throughout the years we have seen many companies adopt changes to their branding, particularly their logos and designs.

Looking at the examples shown in this article (BBC, Instagram, GSK and Starbucks), you might ask, “Why the change?”

There is no simple answer to this and a number of factors are likely to be involved.

A company needs to keep up with marketing trends and its competitors. Technology has a major influence and it is important for a business to keep up with these trends or it is likely to be left behind.

When a brand grows, expands, and develops, it is natural for a company to want to change alongside this success. This goes beyond tweaking the font or colour scheme and extends to the motivations and ethos of a company. Content such as logos, designs, and videos may also change to keep up with these ongoing core values.

One of the biggest trends seen in recent years is companies adopting a simplistic approach to their brands, to convey a clear message to consumers. A simple logo is likely to create an instant impact as it allows a consumer to readily identify a brand’s character and may work better in various social media formats that require the use of icons. However, with the potential benefit of a simpler rebrand or brand refresh comes the risk that the logo is so pared down that it lacks any protectable elements, or worse, becomes similar to a competitor’s branding and risks infringing those rights.

It is important to review your IP assets when contemplating a rebrand or brand refresh. Before investing time and resources, it is essential to consider the legal implications involved and carry out checks and searches to make sure the changes will not infringe third party rights, as well as to consider the inherent capability of the new logo to perform the essential function of a trade mark to identify the source of the products, be they goods or services, as those of its owner. In the case of a rebrand, additional protection will be needed. For a brand refresh, the existing trade mark protection in place may be sufficient to protect the changes made, although this is unlikely unless the changes made are minor.

A rebrand or brand refresh is likely to require further IP assets that go beyond a trade mark for your new logo. These may include, for example, further trade marks for variations of the logo such as , perhaps, an animated version, designs, domain names, and social media handles. Copyright protection should also be considered.

A logo can be protected with a registered design in the United Kingdom and Europe. Registered designs can protect the appearance of the whole or a part of a product resulting from the features of, in particular, the lines, contours, colours, shape, texture, and/or materials of the product itself and/or its ornamentation. Although there are limitations as to what features of a “product” can be protected, both logos and icons can be protected, along with graphical user interfaces (GUIs) including animated GUIs.

The fact that two-dimensional designs are protectable in the UK and Europe means that it is possible to obtain protection to a GUI per se, without showing any hardware (for example, a smartphone or tablet) in the design drawings. This is in contrast with registered design requirements in some foreign jurisdictions, for example, China and the United States, where it is necessary to depict the GUI displayed on a device screen (although some jurisdictions, such as the US, permit that the device is disclaimed by being shown in dashed lines).

The maximum life of a registered design is 25 years from filing, renewable every five years, and it is generally unlikely that a design registered 25 years ago would still be the same when the term comes to an end. This contrasts with trade mark protection which never ceases provided the registration is renewed every ten years. One benefit of filing a registered design, in addition to your trade mark, for your logo, icon, or GUI, is that they can offer complementary protection to one another. A registered design has no use requirement and it is the design that is protected, without limitation to the class or category of goods that is specified on filing.

Trade marks and designs should be considered to be complementary rights because a design application must be novel on filing, so potentially an earlier unregistered design might be used to invalidate a registered design. Novelty is not a pre-requisite for trade mark protection, but a simple logo may lack the necessary distinctiveness to be capable of registration as a trade mark. However, design registrations are not examined as to the quality of the design, so provided the design meets the basic formalities requirements set by the relevant authority, registration should be straightforward.

Copyright subsists in a work as soon as it has been created. It is generally not registered, so independent evidence of creation including the date of creation will be needed, and the quality of the work is a relevant factor in determining whether the logo qualifies for copyright protection. For both designs and copyright, authorship is also relevant as the first owner of both unregistered design right and copyright will be the creator and not the commissioner, unless there is a contractual arrangement in place to the contrary.

If you choose to have a complete rebrand, it is important to look at any existing IP assets you already own and whether to continue protecting them, at least during the transitional period while moving to the new branding. You will want to continue to benefit from the goodwill created by your business in the previous branding so some thought must be given to ways of transitioning to a new brand so that the experience is seamless for the consumer, while fully protecting your rights throughout.

Keeping up with marketing trends through a brand refresh or rebrand requires significant thought and planning — our team can assist you in managing this effectively and efficiently.