How to lose friends and alienate people

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In marketing, there are usually just two types of organisation: those which invest in marketing to make their brand stronger and those that do not. But occasionally we encounter a third type: those that invest in their brand and end up weakening it as a result. And last week presented us with a prime example in the form of Avios – formerly known as Airmiles.

The brand manager in charge of the debacle had been clear in his “ambition” for the Airmiles rebrand: “To make the points a much more desirable and valuable currency.” But whatever the objective, it is now quite apparent that it is brand strategy of the very worst kind.

Many commentators are already comparing the Avios saga with the dreaded Consignia rebrand. They’re wrong. It’s considerably worse. Even Royal Mail was not dumb enough to rebrand and put up the price of its stamps at the same time. Avios not only rebranded last week, it also made huge alterations to its offer with taxes and fees added to a product that was, until now, based around completely free flights.

Read managing director of the Mileage Company Andrew Swaffield’s explanation for the changes, here

When you alter a well-established service, there is bound to be tension and suspicion. So why make the situation even worse by rebranding the company at the same time as altering its offer? In times of transition – whether it is a takeover or new product launch – it pays to stick with your identity and brand equity.

And then there is that name itself. Chris Davenport, the head of verbal identity at Interbrand, which came up with the concept, says: “We wanted something that felt like it had value and was collectible. There is definitely a jewel-like quality to the identity and also a dynamism, with the angle suggesting take-off.”

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Most of us thought that the days of invented, Latinised names were a thing of the Noughties. Back then swish brand consulting firms would bamboozle naïve clients with contemporary identities devoid of any meaning or heritage.

Their logic was always the same. You need a name that is not locked into one category – so you can extend the brand in the future. You need a name that has global appeal and that isn’t limited by any one language. And, most important, you need a name that we can create for you, and therefore charge you money for.

While Interbrand was perhaps telling Airmiles that a logical name built from two conjoined words was old fashioned and inappropriate, the brand manager might have pointed out that it seemed to be working pretty well for the brand consulting firm. Why hasn’t Interbrand renamed itself Marquos, Bonlogosia or Identico?

And despite Interbrand’s claim that the Avios name is “distinctive in the marketplace”, it’s become clear that at least three organisations are already called Avios and one of them owns some of the web rights. Poor, poor, poor.

Airmiles had a perfectly good name and a well-recognised logo. Perhaps not particularly cool or contemporary but, then again, Airmiles and its customers are neither of those things. The brand had heritage too. It celebrated its 21st anniversary recently and had built a strong and distinct brand equity among its customers.

Avios has been born into a crucible of ill will, suspicion and scorn. Great work from Airmiles and Interbrand

Compare that with the new Avios brand. Barely a week old, it has been born into a crucible of ill will, suspicion and scorn. Great work from Airmiles and Interbrand – they have taken a trusted brand and turned it into a much maligned joke surrounded with negative customer sentiment. And they spent money to achieve the result.

The timing of the rebrand is also bonkers. The communications campaign for the new brand does not start until 16 November. It’s madness to announce a new brand and new mileage system, then wait ten weeks before you start advertising.

Even if a rebrand was necessary, it’s schoolboy stuff to recognise that if the original entity has lots of residual brand equity you do it over time. You start with endorsement: Airmiles from Avios. You move to sub-branding: Avios Airmiles. And, when the brand tracking tells you that Avios has greater brand equity, you phase out Airmiles. No fuss. No negative PR. No anguished customer response. You can kill a brand and keep your customers – if you know what you are doing.

Last week, Avios was expecting some customers to have questions about the simultaneous product changes and rebrand, but believed the organisation was well prepared.

“We’ve started writing to members and we have enough support in our customer contact centre to deal with the uplift in enquiries,” a spokesman said, adding: “We’re engaging in social media platforms to help guide customers through the changes.” That’s OK then.

My brand strategy might be total balls, but we can rely on the magic bullet of social media to sort things out.

Trust me, it’s going to take a hell of a lot more than Twitter and YouTube to fix this one.

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