These days, there is a lot of discussion on rebranding, brand refresh and brand rethink in the advertising and brand communications industry. Not sure that is a good sign, because ideally brands ought to be consistent in their product offerings as well as in the way they relate to consumers. In fact, an article shared by a LinkedIn connection on rebranding reported that according to a study by Brand Finance, the number of global rebrands increased by 20% in 2021 alone. I am not sure if the Covid-19 pandemic was the reason. But to me, that is a sign of confusion in companies’ thinking on brands, if true.
And why wouldn’t there be confusion? After all, we are living in some of the most turbulent and disruptive times in business and companies are being forced to find and unlock value in every one of their assets. This, when an understanding of brands is itself low, even within the industry. Are brands intellectual property assets that companies can leverage to grow their business, their customer following and their valuations? Yes, indeed, they are, provided one doesn’t play fast and loose with them. Frequent rebranding, or brand refresh, in my opinion does constitute taking undue liberties with the brand and the consumer.
If we agree that brands are relationships that companies and their products have with consumers, we must agree that the relationship deserves respect, care and nurturing. From the launch of a new product/brand to the time it gains acceptance and traction among consumers, to the stage where consumers prefer it over others and grow loyal to the brand, the relationship is all the while growing in strength. Why would anyone want to upset the applecart, or rock the boat, when everything is going swimmingly fine?!
Well, there are times when everything seems fine with the brand and its relationship with consumers, but something else might come along and rock the boat. Such occasions ought to occur rarely and infrequently in a brand’s history, when it has to consider rebranding, or a brand refresh or a rethink. When an external or an internal event is causing the company or brand to change its terms of engagement with consumers and other stakeholders.
That said, let me try and help readers understand what rebranding, brand refresh and rethink really are and when companies ought to engage in any of these activities in this article. Through my long experience in the advertising and brand communications industry in India, I have had occasion to observe many of these from the outside, even though I never worked on any rebranding exercise myself, and some of the examples I might cite are even from outside India.
Rebranding – the what and why
Of the three brand-change related activities mentioned above, rebranding ought to be the most rare or infrequent. Most companies never have to rebrand ever, and that ought to be considered a boon. Some others are forced to consider a rebrand, when faced with a situation where it becomes necessary. Usually, the most common examples of a rebrand occur during mergers and acquisitions. When two companies merge into a new entity, then that new organization is born of a rebranding exercise.
We can think of numerous such instances surely, yet not all of them will be called a rebranding. That is because one of the two companies – the one with the controlling stake – subsumes the other as part of the new organization. Rebranding on the other hand requires the company to change its identity – starting with its brand name – to signal to its customers and stakeholders that here is a new company that you will be interacting with and these are the brands that we bring you. The new identity is usually also accompanied by a new business strategy, and therefore a new brand strategy.
Think of the time when BOAC changed to British Airways. I wasn’t aware of this piece of history even though I worked briefly on BA during my first stint at Ogilvy Delhi. But I happened to read online recently that British Airways was actually created out of the merger of four companies, BOAC being the largest of them. This, to my mind, is a good example of a rebranded new organization. British Airways was also later privatized in 1987, and in fact, the India business was handed to Ogilvy that very year. It soon went on to become the world’s favourite airline and you can read about the history of British Airways and its advertising here.
Not all rebrands go well, though. Think of the more recent rebrands we have seen in India in the telecom sector with Vodafone. It began in India as Orange, Hutch then changed to Vodafone and is now Vi. The last stage has been the biggest disaster if you ask me, even though I have remained Vodafone’s customer through all these rebranding exercises. Think also of Cadbury being acquired by Kraft-Heinz and then being rebranded as Mondelez. Made no sense to me whatsoever, though I have had nothing to do with Cadbury. I thought Cadbury ought to have stayed the company brand, since it enjoys huge equity and salience in the minds of consumers and all other stakeholders.
Incidentally, both these are clients of Ogilvy, and I must state that this is by no means a criticism of the agency; clients have a greater part to play in these corporate decisions. If I were advising either of these businesses, though, I would have advised against the decisions taken. I would have also advised Pernod Ricard to communicate the rebrand, through a campaign, when they acquired Seagram, telling consumers and stakeholders what to expect from the new company. This was all the more critical for India, since the company was still marketing a range of whiskies and spirits branded with Seagram. And ideally, part of the rebrand ought to have been to retain certain elements and values of Seagram, such as promoting responsible drinking.
There are other reasons for a rebrand such as the nature of the business changing to an extent that companies find that the old corporate name no longer does justice. This was indeed the reason cited by both Facebook when it rebranded as Meta and when Google restructured and branded the parent company Alphabet. One only hopes that given the pace of change in the technology industry companies will not have to rebrand often.
Another occasion for a rebrand is when a company decides to hive off parts of its business into new companies. The reason usually offered for doing this is that it helps unlock value. GE recently went through just such an exercise and I was not convinced of the reasons cited, as I have written before on my blog. Anyway, GE is now GE Aerospace, GE Healthcare and Vernova, formerly GE Energy. I am glad they have at least stayed with the GE brand even as they have broken themselves up into separate listed companies, but Vernova has me equally foxed. GE has itself dabbled in so many businesses in recent years, that only time will tell whether this split and rebranding was a wise decision or not. Worse, they communicated the rebrand by taking over the entire New York Times newspaper, with an idea that seems like PR agency mischief.
Another example of a great and successful rebrand is that of the accounting firm, Arthur Andersen after the Enron debacle. It successfully charted out new growth areas for itself, and re-emerged from the crisis, a new company, Accenture. It is today focused on consulting, technology and digital and has also made huge inroads into advertising via digital marketing. It is considered competition to IBM, and all the big Indian tech giants as well.
Brand refresh – what and why
If rebranding is a response to a significant internal or external force initiating change at the company, brand refresh is an effort to revive the brand in the hearts and minds of consumers. It is an attempt to reconnect with consumers and other stakeholders in a new way, but it is never a complete break with the past. The continuity factor is important, even as the brand recalibrates its connection with consumers.
A brand refresh doesn’t require a change of brand name, and is somewhat more common in the industry. Companies resort to a brand refresh in many forms:
- New improved product innovations, more common in FMCG brands
- New generation of vehicles and new product launches for car brands
- New services being introduced by brands in the services category, whether a tech, or financial services product
- Companies contemporizing their corporate brand identity, a la the Godrej group in India in 2009/10
Therefore, a brand refresh can take many forms, from innovating and launching new versions or new products, to contemporizing corporate identity in order to reflect a new way of doing business. I thought that the Godrej brand refresh, for example, was perhaps done to pave the way for the younger generation at Godrej who were taking new leadership roles in the company and to signal to all stakeholders that Godrej was becoming more contemporary as it creates a brighter future. I personally don’t think the rainbow colours add anything to the brand refresh and it could have done with a better idea.
In the automobile industry, the vehicle relaunch that I think deserves special mention is the iconic Volkswagen Beetle, when it returned to the roads early 2000s. The car itself had been beautifully redesigned, retaining the distinctive Beetle shape and retro elements, but contemporizing the design for the 21st century and enhancing its power as well. I can’t say the same for the print communication announcing the new Beetle in India which I am sharing from the blog site of one of my LinkedIn connections, or the TV advert, with its vulgar and sexist overtones.
I am disappointed to learn, though, that VW discontinued the Beetle in 2019 according to this CNBC article, as I thought it would have been a success in small electric cars. As a thought experiment, nevertheless, I have created a campaign for a new electric VW Beetle, if they were ever to launch one. Using the metaphor of electronic/digital gadgets that share a similar rounded shape, we communicate that the Beetle has gone electric. In the video advert idea, a computer mouse, a video game console and a VR headset hit the road, before we discover that it’s the VW Beetle that has gone electric! You may see the print campaign (adaptable to digital) by clicking the link below, and the video advert idea just below that.
The important thing to note is not just that the VW electric Beetle would have done well, price admitting, but that this kind of brand refresh also helps refresh the corporate brand VW.
A brand refresh also almost always requires communication to explain the new product/innovation or indeed, the new and more modern corporate brand identity to its consumers and other stakeholders, so that they may form a favourable opinion about the brand.
Brand rethink – the what and why
Yet another instance of the brand undergoing change, is the brand rethink. Here, I would like to focus most on line and brand extensions. As we all know when a brand has become successful in the marketplace and has gained traction, marketers like to repeat its success in other variations in order to grow the market. This takes place most commonly through line extensions, i.e., by introducing newer variants in the same product/business line. Sometimes this can also fall under brand refresh, if the introduction of the new variants is meant to reinvigorate the main brand.
On the other hand, brand extensions are ways in which marketers also seek to transfer the brand’s core values and its main features to a new line of business. It is like trying to diversify the brand into adjacent and related areas. However, there have been cases in India of brands that have tried brand extensions into completely unrelated areas of business. Think of Kingfisher, the beer brand extending its brand into the airline business. Or Wills, the cigarette brand from ITC, venturing into fashion with an apparel line called Wills Lifestyle. ITC even tried branding their personal care FMCG brand Fiama de Wills.
While none of them have been huge successes, and the jury is still out on whether brands can be extended into unrelated areas, I think they can under certain conditions. I think Kingfisher Airlines went under for a set of reasons that had nothing to do with the brand, but with poor management And, that given a different management team, the airline would have done reasonably well. Similarly, for Wills Lifestyle, I think the company did not invest enough in it, and it only served the purpose of a surrogate brand given all restrictions on cigarette advertising and promotion in India. Which is a pity, as I think the Wills Lifestyle brand has potential. As for Fiama de Wills, it is a strange anagram of mafia, something most people would like to stay away from! That said, ITC also launched Classic Golf Course (named after the Classic cigarette brand) and I can see the brand being easily extended into hospitality with ITC Classic Golf Resorts in the main metropolitan cities in India, since the company operates a large and well-known ITC luxury hotel chain in India.
The best and most successful example of brand rethink as extensions I can think of is Disney. Who would have thought that a set of cartoon characters created by Walt Disney decades ago would lead to the movie business, theme parks, merchandise retail, and now a media and entertainment giant.
And finally, before I end this piece, I must mention my old employer, Ogilvy, that has been rebranded several times in India, without one ever feeling that the company had changed overnight. It has had a long history of rebranding itself several times over, which I am afraid I don’t know fully myself and can’t find any reference of, online. I must mention, though, that at some stage in Ogilvy India’s 93-year history, the agency name had a Keemer in it. During those days, the great film-maker, Satyajit Ray, worked at the agency as a visualiser. Subsequently, the Keemer portion of the agency parted ways and became Clarion Advertising, which is where, Ray pursued the rest of his advertising career. Both agencies make a claim on Ray’s legacy!
In my own stints with the agency, I have seen it go from OBM (Ogilvy, Benson & Mather) to O&M (Ogilvy & Mather) and now to Ogilvy. What has stayed constant in the latter decades is the Ogilvy part of it, and that’s what links the Indian company to the global network.
Talk about brand power!
Images used in the VW Beetle campaign idea are from Pixabay and Canva, VW logo is from Brands of the World website, stock footage is from Pexels.com and stock music by Kevin MacLeod is from Chosic.com, and I am thankful to all of them.