Actions speak louder than logos

The BP oil crisis and its aftermath – from a brand that had tried to reposition itself as sustainable – has raised the question whether rebrands can ever really work.

To read Mark Ritson’s response to this week’s cover story please click here.

To view the Top 10 mistakes marketers make when rebranding – and how to avoid them table, click here

They say a leopard can never change its spots. But many businesses hope to restore their company’s fortunes through a rebranding exercise. With brand equity now recognised as an essential part of the balance sheet, this seems a good way to eradicate past reputations, enhance core values and move in a new direction.

Except when it all goes wrong. Last month, Marketing Week columnist Professor Mark Ritson declared that “repositioning is almost always impossible”, claiming that just 1% of repositionings are successful. He didn’t stop there, warning that “changing a brand from black to white… is a ludicrous notion. Even when you can fool the people into believing the change has occurred… you cannot change the fundamental nature of the way a brand does business.”

Ritson uses the example of oil company BP, which ten years ago rebranded itself from its traditional moniker of British Petroleum to Beyond Petroleum to reflect its intentions to explore “new ways to live without oil”. With a recent explosion in Texas and now an oil spill off the US coast, the company does not appear to have moved much beyond its original brand values.

O2 head of brand communication Shadi Halliwell warns: “You cannot cover up a business that’s not working properly just by rebranding.”

But can repositioning be so easily dismissed as a weak attempt to conceal problems under a new name, design or outlook? One brand’s experience does not a marketing rulebook make and it is still a popular strategy. In the last few weeks, airline easyJet has confirmed its board has considered a rebranding due to a dispute with its founder, while the Home Delivery Network has adopted the name Yodel. And food brand Bernard Matthews has signed up highbrow chef Marco Pierre White to move away from its associations with its criticised Turkey Twizzlers product.

Beyond Petroleum was an interesting and relevant repositioning for BP and it was going so successfully until the world was dramatically reminded that its business is still very much because of petroleum, rather than beyond it

Marc Smith, G2 UK

Aviva chief marketing officer Amanda Mackenzie, who has undertaken a rebrand in the last 12 months, describes the process as a “corporate version of Ikea’s advert Chuck Out Your Chintz”, where a firm can revisit every aspect of its operations and make sure they are relevant. “It acted like a catalyst for us to change quite a few things,” she enthuses.

Marc Smith, director of branding services at agency G2 UK, agrees that repositionings are often desperately needed. “Generally, brand repositionings are relevant and necessary. Brands that stand still are in danger of getting run over and being made obsolete. Brands need to reposition to maintain competitive advantage, to stop competitors encroaching on their space, to catch up and be relevant to consumer attitudes.”

Verity Evans, creative strategist at global brand studio VentureThree agrees: “All the great modern brands grow and change over time because no marketplace ever stands still. If brands want to compete, they have to continually reinvent themselves.”

G2’s Smith says the most important aspect of repositioning is not simply plastering a name change on the business but genuinely altering its purpose and operating methods. This was BP’s mistake, he warns. “Beyond Petroleum was a really interesting and relevant repositioning for BP and it was going so successfully until the world was dramatically reminded that in fact its business is still very much because of petroleum, rather than beyond it.”

After helping HMV improve its customer proposition with its Get Closer initiative (see Viewpoint, below), VentureThree creative strategist Verity Evans worked on the rebranding of sister company Waterstone’s, aiming to take the chain into new areas such as ebooks. Evans says the brand realised it needed its external look and marketing to reflect its move into new media.

“It was about taking Waterstone’s out of just the physical books area and into ebooks, championing great writing whatever its format,” she says.

Getting staff on board is vital for a rebrand to succeed, explains Richard Buchanan, director of consulting at agency The Clearing (see Viewpoint, below). He warns it is very hard to talk externally about any repositioning without it being understood comprehensively internally. “Your people have to buy it. You have to hardwire the brand inside the business. The best brands are embedded into the culture and that’s not just a box-ticking exercise. It’s about building an environment and an organisation that people are proud to work for – that starts with the leadership team,” he explains. 

Evans agrees: “It has to be the kind of clear positioning that your staff will support and believe in because they are the people who are talking to your customers every day. If they don’t, it’s going to be an incredibly hard sell.”

With employees behind a rebrand, the business has a far greater chance of being able to fulfil its marketing promises. G2’s Smith says that this is where the brand needs to make sure it can “fundamentally walk the talk”.

Aviva’s Mackenzie says following through on a repositioning with the whole brand experience it is vital to ensure it endures. “What’s important is that we follow through on our promise so that customers really experience the different kind of brand that we’ve been trying to create.”

This is where BP went wrong, thinks VentureThree’s Evans. The brand’s new positioning was simply too advanced; the promise was far greater than the reality could be at that point in time. If the firm had already had 10,000 wind turbines ready to switch on from the moment it rebranded, with an increasing share of the business to come from renewables, it would not feel like such an empty message, she says.

Verity Evans, creative strategist, VentureThree

Music retailer HMV rebranded itself four years ago with the new vision that “No one gets you closer to the music, film and games that you love.” Yet when it started out with those values, it was seen very much as a music supermarket which didn’t necessarily have a huge amount of other things to offer.

By adopting those values about “getting closer”, it led the company to a new way of doing business. It brought the emotion to the fore. We worked with HMV on this over the long term so it was the same group of people pursuing the same idea, over a period of time.

Now HMV has launched a new loyalty scheme – purehmv – where you can meet your idols, go backstage, go to an awards ceremony or even own the jacket that Madonna wore on tour. All of that is money-can’t-buy stuff, as well as offering more standard loyalty scheme deals.

The repositioning has taken HMV into live music. It now sells 2 million tickets a year and owns several live music venues across the UK. It is also beginning to roll out a new chain of cinemas in its stores. There has been a four-year period of change that has really taken the business into new spaces and reinvigorated it, as well as reinforcing this idea of HMV as a place that can offer many different experiences.

The rebrand succeeded because absolutely everything joined up. It was simple and clear so that everybody could understand it. It had a chief executive that was prepared to make massive changes and was hungry for new opportunities.

We involved the staff in the project at every stage. They’ve been key in making things like the loyalty scheme a success. We initially thought it might be quite a hard sell because you have to pay £3 to join it, but because all the staff were already members, they loved it and promoted it. Now it’s got over a million members and counting – that’s just in the first year.

It’s about being very joined up and single-minded in your message. People will see it and believe it. You can’t just tell people – you have to demonstrate it and that’s when it becomes meaningful.

Viewpoint: Rebranding to differentiate a brand

Richard Buchanan, director of consulting, The Clearing

We worked on the Home Delivery Network changing its name to Yodel last month. Yodel operates in a market where there is a lot of spare capacity, so people start undercutting each other. Combine that with the recession, and people are scrabbling for business.

Delivery businesses like FedEx, UPS and DHL Domestic UK are about overnight couriers to business customers – these brands are built on delivery. As a result, the names in the sector have tended to tell you what the companies do. Parcelforce sends parcels; City Link delivers in cities.

Home Delivery Network had already changed its business before its name – buying DHL Domestic UK to become a full-service delivery business earlier this year. The purchase allowed the company to explain to its business customers that it offers a full range of services. It can say: “We carry out delivery when you need it, but we can also start tailoring the services that we offer to specific sectors or customers.”

There is a need for change in this market. If you look at what’s happening in US, when you buy something on Amazon you can choose who delivers it, so the power shifts towards the consumer. Dinosaur businesses are going to seem less relevant. You have to make it more convenient for people to take delivery and make sure they get what they want, when they want it, first time.

So developing Yodel was about creating a brand that was built on this concept. We already had the proposition: having the breadth of offer, but a depth of service that was superior to anything in the market. We needed to find a brand that was going to back that up.

There have been lots of cases of flippant brand names being created. We are really cautious of the types of name that we recommend to businesses because we know it can get really lambasted in the press – then, you’re dead in the water before you even start.

We came up with this idea for a brand line: it’s your delivery, it’s your call. It’s a service message, so we put the “y” and the “o” of your and the “del” of delivery and you get Yodel. Everything comes out of this promise, which is all about delivering. It’s going to be about a personal service and the name is born from that.

The company has got a big job to stitch together the two networks – DHL Domestic UK and HDN – but once that is done, the new proposition will be able to look really different. The Yodel brand still aims to be grown-up and professional, but it’s intended to be a bit more contemporary.

The new identity moves away from HDN simply being another delivery brand. We think Yodel brings something different to the market, which is built on finding what consumers want and delivering that to them.

Viewpoint: Rebranding from a functional to a lifestyle brand

Nick Sunderland, strategy director, Heavenly

A really good example of a rebrand is telecoms company O2 in 2002. It was originally BT Cellnet, which was a mobile network that existed in four other territories and I think most people were quite indifferent to it. O2 was a coming-together of those five companies and a corporate rebrand, and it worked very well.

O2 understood that when it came into the marketplace, it didn’t have to teach people how to use a mobile phone or educate people about the benefits of using one. It realised that its only point of difference was that it realised people want to take what they themselves require from a brand.

Rather than saying: “This is how you use a phone, this is what you do”, the new O2 brand says: “You know what you’re doing – here are all our products. Just come and take what you need.” That breath of fresh air gave it a lifestyle statement, which was actually quite cool in its market.

The company took an identity that was working on a logical level and gave it a really emotive brand. Even though you might think the product service package

is pretty identical to Vodafone, Orange or T-Mobile in terms of handsets or add-ons, the O2 brand washes away all of the complexities of the marketplace and presents a really simple and clear identity.

O2 is a name that works really well too because it’s non-language-specific. It works in any language across the planet. You’ve also got this really refreshing, uncluttered visual identity around oxygen and water. And you’ve got a very powerful strapline: “See what you can do”.

The brand went from nowhere to first place where it remained until Orange and T-Mobile’s merger completed in the UK. Recent rebranding work, such as its work on the Millennium Dome, has been successful at bringing an entertainment equity into the brand.

O2 even had the Apple iPhone first, which is a market-leading point and probably would have been the territory of brands such as Orange and Vodafone before the rebrand.

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