Good, Bad and Ugly: New Automaker Branding Efforts Earn Mixed Reviews

Powertrains and brand emblems are getting a makeover in the new electrified vehicle era. BMW, Rolls-Royce, Aston Martin, Nissan, Kia, Cadillac, Buick and General Motors are among the growing roster of brands that have recently changed their logos out for fresh, digital-friendly versions that will carry their brand into the new vehicle era.

Flatter emblems that echo design trends championed by the likes of Google and Apple are on tap, as well as simplistic fonts that are easy to read online, where potential buyers are spending a significant amount of time while shopping for a new car. Not all the moves have been well received.

According to the 2021 Car Buyer Journal Study by Cox Automotive, car buyers spent an average of 7 hours and 14 minutes shopping online for a car in 2020. The same study noted that 86 percent of shoppers spent the time online to cut down on the number of hours they would have to spend at a dealership.

"These have been busy times for the marketing departments for countless automakers, as brands rush to reinvent their image ahead of one of the biggest transformations in autos ever: electric vehicles," said Dave Undercoffler, editor-in-chief at Autolist.

"Brands like Kia, Cadillac, Volkswagen, Nissan, and BMW have made a big deal of their new logos. They're hoping to present a fresh new face to the EV-buying consumer who might not have ever considered that brand before.

Rolls Royce double R logo
Rolls-Royce reached into its archives for inspiration to create its modern double “R” Badge of Honour logo. Rolls-Royce Motor Cars

But to be successful, these rebranding efforts will need to be far more than skin deep. They'll need to represent well-executed products that give buyers all of the familiarity of gas-powered vehicles that they're used to, with a modern and refreshing electric update.

Failure will be a new logo on a vehicle that alienates or intimidates by trying too hard to be cutting-edge, or on a vehicle that relies too heavily on its brand's earlier reputation without offering something new and compelling."

Among the brands, super luxury automakers have been the least adventurous with their brand makeovers, opting to simplify rather than wholly remake.

The August 2020 reveal of the fresh look of Rolls-Royce Motor Cars showcased a modernized double 'R' Badge of Honour that was inspired by typography found in the company archives from the 1930s.

The company went further, choosing a new Riviera Nights typeface and signature colors (Purple Ecstasy and rose gold), as well as remaking the Spirit of Ecstasy emblem into a silkier version of itself, primed for use in a digital landscape.

Rolls-Royce Motor Cars Logo 2021
The Rolls-Royce Spirit of Ecstasy logo was revised for modern digital use, including as an Instagram profile photo. Rolls-Royce Motor Cars

In a blog post on Medium, critic Dheeraj Nanduri, who writes about product, marketing and design philosophies said, "I love it. While it does seem very simple, it's not. Every aspect has been well-thought out by Pentagram, the agency behind the rebranding."

This week Aston Martin revealed its new wings. It's the first major update to the brand logo since 2003 and marks the eighth time in Aston Martin's 109-year history that the look has been significant adjusted. The fresh design was accomplished in partnership with acclaimed British art director and graphic designer Peter Saville.

The handcrafted version of the emblem will appear on a vehicle for the first time this weekend when the Aston Martin Aramco Cognizant F1 Team competes in the French Grand Prix.

BMW and Nissan took a different approach to their rebranding efforts, pressing forward with distinctly flat design. While the BMW changeover, which favored a variety of simplified shapes, was widely panned by critics, the Nissan design was viewed more favorably. Both emblems are currently featured on new models, BMW's on the M4 CSL sports coupe and Nissan's on the Ariya electric SUV.

BMW M4 CSL logo hood ornament
The hood of the BMW M4 CSL wears the company’s fresh take on its logo. BMW USA

Rosie Hilder, Creative Bloq's acting editor, called the new GM logo "a missed opportunity". Social media users were less kind with comments ranging from one Facebook user's "Did they dig this out of a trash can from 1995? The hell?" to @reckless_youth_ writing "Somebody been playin around in Photoshop. For about 5 min." on Twitter.

Kia opted for a fresh design that features its letters in a stylized look where the "I" and "A" are close enough together many critics have remarked that instead of "Kia" it looks like the logo reads "KN".

Mike Rutherford, chief columnist at Auto Express wrote in a January 2021 op-ed that the rebranding was "unnecessary" and is "a disaster".

"Successful branding efforts tend to be ones that are perceived as contemporary, with the times, and authentic," said Ed Kim, president and chief analyst at Auto Pacific. "Recently revised logos for the Kia and Cadillac brands communicate the fresh and high tech directions that both are going towards these days, and also serve to distance them from past brand deficits. Unsuccessful branding efforts can come off as head-scratching, confusing or just plain uncool."

2023 Nissan Ariya logo
The Nissan Ariya wears an illuminated version of the company’s new logo. Nissan North America

A March 2021 prank by Volkswagen had journalists told that the company would be rebranding in promotion of its new electric vehicle strategy, changing its public name to "Voltswagen". Company public relations personnel lied to journalists, seemingly confirming the name change before coming clean.

The marketing move was widely panned, with Slate's web editor Nitish Pahwa calling it, "A confusing publicity stunt" that "reminds the public of the carmaker's untrustworthiness".

It also led to an investigation by the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) after VW's stock price rose on the fake news.