I once had a conversation with the Marketing Director of a brand that is a household name in which he suggested that no products had updated their brand identities.  We were having the conversation because his main brand was so tired that sales were in decline and customers didn’t see its packs on the shelves of their supermarkets: it looked exactly the same as it had a decade earlier (and it was hardly the most relevant product back then).

When I used Skoda as an example, he moved the goal posts to FMCG products. 

Then when I referenced other FMCG products that had dramatically redesigned their brand without disaster he argued that these weren’t in the same category as his product.

So his point was, that since none of his competitors had successfully updated their brand identity, he shouldn’t be the first one to risk it.

Except, of course, all of his competitors were either so new they hadn’t reached the point of needing a freshen up, or else they had updated their brand, he just hadn’t noticed.

It must be said, this manager was one of the most risk averse people I’ve ever met: it was a surprise that he took a chance of putting his feet in socks each day – who knows what could have been lurking inside them!

One of the best examples of rebranding is the British Royal Family (granted they aren’t a fast moving consumer good).  Before 1917 the royal family was a branch of the House of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha.  However, by that point in World War I associations with Germany weren’t desperately popular.  Matters were hardly improved when the German’s starting dropping bombs from their Gotha G.IV on England.

George V (or his advisers) decided a rebranding and repositioning job was called for.

It was decided, presumably without the need for a million pounds of design consultancy and consumer testing, that the rather more quaintly English ‘Windsor’ would do a better job of endearing the monarchy to the masses.

Crucially, this wasn’t just a case of calling the same snack by a new name and hoping people would accept it.  Yes, pretty much everything remained as it had been before. However, there were some important tweaks that, given that the broad support for the monarchy hadn’t yet been entirely eroded, were sufficient to edge things back in their favour for the next century or so.

He changed the rules about marriage; it was now possible for members of the British royal family to marry British people. 

The King also allied the monarchy to the emerging social forces: the honours system was changed and anyone in the country could receive an OBE (Order of the British Empire) award if it was felt they went beyond the ordinary: this included trades unionists and people who did voluntary work.  Now the monarchy wasn’t the enemy of “the people”.

One less fortunate change came when the Russian Tsar, a cousin of George V, turned to him for help when the Russian revolution took hold.  The King, fearing he would be seen as putting other nation’s interests above those of the British, refused to provide him with a safe haven: the Tsar of course was executed by the revolutionaries.

I think there are good lessons to learn from this event about the nature of rebranding and human (or consumer) psychology:

  • If you want people to perceive your brand differently, you need to do more than just change the name – but changing the name gives you a chance both to create new associations and to harness those that already exist (provided you choose wisely).
  • Provide a clear benefit that people can positively associate with the change.
  • Once you’ve made a stand for something new, you need to act consistently with those values if you want them to be credible.
  • Rebranding can’t easily transform ill will.  But it can catch people before they feel alienated and can give people a reason to reappraise how they feel if they are becoming ambivalent.

Back to that marketing director I mentioned.  Eventually he was persuaded to accept a minor updating of his brand.  It wasn’t everything that it could be, but it turned the brand from declining sales to growth for the first time in years.

Philip Graves

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