How to Shred a Brand Legacy

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Corporate logos are far more than mere symbols; they are powerful representations of a company’s brand, values, and mission. They command recognition and can even add value—something acknowledged and litigated by intellectual property lawyers around the world. Here’s a simple example: Nike’s shoes command about 20% more than Saucony shoes—both use similar materials, the key difference is brand.  

Since Elon Musk decided to do a DIY rebrand of Twitter with his X logo, brand equity is now a part of everyday discourse. Suddenly everyone is a brand expert. While the design world spent the past weeks railing about X, I’ve been wondering about another logo that silently fell in the forest last March—the classic Lester Beall International Paper logo. If, according to NYU professor, Scott Galloway, Twitter tossed 17 years and $10 billion of brand equity, IP threw 63 years of brand equity into the woodchipper.

The Classic International Paper Logo

The original International Paper logo, designed by Lester Beall and Richard Rogers in 1960, is emblematic of mid-century modernism. It is an ingenious combination of the letters “I” and “P” with a pictogram of a tree. Its utility, whether spray-painted on trees or printed on reams, is a testament to its functional brilliance. Though there were recent concerns about its typography in social media and trade show applications, these issues seem easily correctable and not worth eliminating the symbol.

Old logo, copyright International Paper

The New Logo and Company’s Statement

International Paper is shifting its focus to cardboard and packaging due to a dramatic increase in online shopping and shipping. There’s not much content regarding the rebrand but the logo was described on International Paper’s website as follows:

“As the company celebrates its 125th anniversary in 2023, the rebrand highlights the resilience of International Paper, the sustainability of its mission, and its commitment to creating what’s next. The new branding is rooted in the company’s legacy of safety, ethics, and stewardship. International Paper is now a highly advantaged, corrugated packaging-focused company, well-positioned to grow earnings and cash generation,” said Mark Sutton, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer.

This statement carries the corporate ambition behind the change, (with typical corporate speak), but let’s assess the new logo’s design and how it aligns with these goals.

New logo, copyright International Paper

Clarity and Simplicity

The Beall logo’s pine tree was a visual haiku; the new design, comprising eight rounded parallelograms (representing the negative space between tree branches), is a baffling riddle. Intended to symbolize progress and environmental consciousness, these concepts are lost in translation.

Loss of Legacy

The company’s decision to abandon a logo considered one of the best, without a clear explanation, represents a concerning disregard for over six decades of brand heritage. The old logo’s connection to the product and its wide recognition are assets that the new design fails to capitalize on. The entire effort feels like a C-Suite vanity project.

Environmental Messaging

The green color in the new logo is intended to convey environmental responsibility. However, this critical message is lost in the complexity and ambiguity of the new design. A logo should be a clear visual shorthand, something this new design fails at spectacularly.

Rationale and Conclusion

International Paper’s rebranding serves as a poignant example of the intricate balance between innovation and tradition in logo design. The company’s shift seems to disregard the powerful legacy of the classic logo while failing to provide a compelling or clear new visual identity.

The lessons from this rebranding resonate beyond the design world. They underscore the need for careful consideration and clear rationale when altering a legacy, and aligning it with contemporary goals and values.

While International Paper’s intentions in emphasizing resilience, sustainability, and future growth are laudable, the execution falls short. The new logo’s lack of clarity, connection to its storied history, and missed opportunity to communicate environmental stewardship effectively stand as a cautionary tale for any corporation considering such a significant change.

Beginning in 1963, the original Penn Station designed by McKim, Mead, and White in New York City was demolished over three years. It was replaced by Madison Square Garden and a train station that is a blight on travel, referred to as “A polished turd, except it’s not really polished.” This event led to the founding of the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission. While I realize graphic design is not architecture, some efforts are worthy of preservation. Logos are more than mere symbols, they command attention and enhance shareholder value. The rebranding of International Paper serves as a reminder of the profound responsibility and care required in brand design and transformation. This rebranding isn’t just a misstep; it’s a monumental failure that turns its back on a storied past for a dubious future. It’s a lesson in what not to do, wrapped in a green hue of misguided intentions.

This post was originally published on Lynda’s LinkedIn newsletter, Marketing without Jargon. Lynda leads a team at Decker Design that focuses on helping law firms build differentiated brands.

Banner photo by David Maier on Unsplash. Logo photos: copyright International Paper.

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