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Package and logo redesign is a slippery slope for a brand when consumers are struggling in a troubled financial environment.

This story first appeared in the April 8, 2009 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

“In this economic climate, the old saw is turned on its head: familiarity breeds contentment, and unfamiliarity breeds contempt,” said Stephen Doyle, creative director of Doyle Partners, a New York-based graphic design studio devoted to branding, packaging and marketing communications.

Exhibit A is Tropicana Pure Premium orange juice, which is reverting to its longtime symbol of a straw stuck into an orange on its containers because of negative customer response to the new image of a glass of orange juice, introduced in January, which was intended to symbolize freshness.

Stability, reassurance and core images are among the fundamentals that brands need to convey against the backdrop of economic volatility.

“When the world as we know it has turned to quicksand, the last thing people want is to have the things they thought of as dependable change,” Doyle said. “Tropicana ultimately was a bust because it lost its authenticity. It became an ordinary glass of juice, instead of an illustration of freshness. And which OJ drinkers want to turn their heads sideways to read a genericized version of a logo that they used to trust?”

That doesn’t mean there isn’t a potential upside to change. Another PepsiCo-owned brand, Pepsi-Cola, also has been redesigned but to a far different reception. The new logo is a modification of the old and not a complete revamp. The logo retains its red, white and blue stripes, but the white resembles a half-smile, and the “Pepsi” lettering is presented in a lighter typeface.

Pepsi also revealed last month it is introducing a premium, all-natural cola (made with all-natural sugar instead of high fructose corn syrup), called Pepsi Natural, in 10 markets this month, and it plans to roll out throwback versions of Pepsi and Mountain Dew this month for eight weeks. The colas will have Sixties- and Seventies-inspired retro packaging and will have a distinctly different flavor than the current beverages.

Snapple (a streamlined bottle with a label emphasizing tea leaves) and Heinz Ketchup (an image of a tomato growing on a vine replacing the pickle) also have recently tweaked their trademark images.

“The Pepsi rebranding is incredibly ambitious, and luckily for them it turned out to be very much in step with the times — basic and honest,” said Evan Gaffney, principal of Evan Gaffney Design. “The new logo makes Pepsi look responsive, which is exactly what consumers now expect from corporations, no matter the size. Also, the type is a custom font that is expertly drawn, sober and reassuring.”

Doyle agreed. “Pepsi has done a gorgeous job of an update, and it has followed other category leaders by stripping all the extraneous ‘noise’ from the package.”

If “basic” and “honest” are linchpin qualities for consumers, should brands stick with the familiar?

Martin Lindstrom, a marketing expert and branding strategist who is the author of “Buy-ology: Truth and Lies About What We Buy” (Doubleday), said maintaining a comfort zone is important.

One of his recession survival tips suggests that brands “spend the money on making your marketing communications advertisements appeal to more than one of the senses” rather than focusing on a splashy new logo.

“We are stressed as consumers right now,” he said. “When we are stressed, we turn to things that make us feel safe. When the brands that we use every day suddenly change in the middle of a recession, they’re changing what is safe, what is comfortable for us.”

If a brand is intent on changing its look, the process must be gradual. “It’s critical right now for brands to stay steady,” Lindstrom said. “If a brand desires change, it can incorporate old values and looks that the brand was founded upon. That keeps its authenticity.”

Doyle agreed, and cautioned that although redesign during a recession is possible, “the trick is to make the redesigned package or logo masquerade as a more thorough expression of what the old version offered.” In other words, don’t abandon your entire look so much that consumers will no longer recognize your products.

Gaffney, however, contended “bold moves” are necessary in a time of crisis.

“Consumers are buying less, but they are paying far more attention to how companies operate and present themselves,” he said. “They’re interested in the business of doing business, the race to survive….Who will win this elimination round and why? Consumers want to be inspired by companies weathering the economic storm with innovation and agility. Now would be the time for a major auto company to reposition itself, for example — to speak clearly during a quiet economy and to an audience that’s hungry for a good comeback story.”