Mark Ritson’s response to cover story ‘Actions speak louder than logos’

I am honoured to have sparked such a vibrant and open debate within the pages of Marketing Week on the merits of repositioning and rebranding. But let¹s be careful with our terminology ­ the two concepts mean very different things. In a rebrand the company changes both the identity and positioning of the brand ­ for example BP, Yodel or Consignia. In repositioning the identity stays the same, but the marketer tries to change the things that the consumer associates with the brand ­ for example Bernard Matthews or HMV.

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I have been asked several times by clients to help them either rebrand or reposition their brands. Each time I have tried everything in my power to dissuade them from the task. I explain that the vast majority of brands are fixed to their original positions by consumer memory, core competence and brand heritage. I challenge the managers to explain why they are in such a hurry to impose their own agenda onto a brand that usually existed within the business long before them. Then I try to introduce them to a third option ­ brand revitalisation.

Brand revitalisation is a two-step process. First go and find out what your brand¹s intended, original positioning was. Use historical archives. Use interviews with the founder of the brand. Visit the original home of the brand. Talk to the original consumers who have adored the brand since its inception and ask them why they first loved it. Boil all this down to the core DNA of the brand. Don¹t change it. Don¹t modify it. Just humbly decode and articulate it.

Then re-interpret this original positioning for 2010. The great paradox of branding is that to be consistent to a position a brand must keep changing. What sexy meant in 1970 is very different from 2010. And yet if a brand is to retain that association across the decades it must alter its tactics, product mix and communication. Not because it is changing its positioning, but because it is trying to stay true to it.

You cannot call yourself a brand manager until you visit the places, people and period in which the brand was born. If more marketers did, they would be much more reticent to attempt brand repositioning and the inherent arrogant ignorance for the past that it inevitably entails. Rather than focusing on a few brands that have successfully changed their spots, let¹s instead list the great brands that have stayed leopards through the constant revitalisation of an unchanging core position. Instead of O2, Bernard Matthews and HMV – let us speak of Chanel, Heinz, Rolex and the BBC.

And let us also speak about respect. Respect for heritage. For provenance. For authenticity. And for brands.

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Andy Fennell’s call for marketers to take risks in aiming for ten out of ten performance is an inspiring one (Architect behind a global brand-branding mission, MW 3 June). But his message about the need to balance this with accountability for profitable growth and return on investment presents a difficult challenge. As Andy argues, achieving brilliant success might require some three out of ten failures along the way. So how can marketers minimise the potential commercial downsides of taking braver decisions?

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