The tragic misnomer of “re-branding”

by Billy Pittard on June 2, 2011

It drives me a little bit crazy when I see the word “re-brand” used to describe what is actually a design update. It shows a lack of understanding of what branding is actually about. It might not bother me so much – except these are professionals who should know better.

Branding is about building a sense of relationship between a brand and its customers or constituents. And just like relationships between actual human beings, the things that count are mutual interests, understanding, communication, and trust. This is the essence of true branding. It’s not about logos, graphics, and packaging – although those things are important elements. Branding is about creating cumulative positive experiences and meaning in the minds of customers and constituents, so that they feel a sense of personal relationship with the brand.

If you think of a brand as a person, the logo, graphics, and packaging are more or less like the way the person dresses and grooms himself or herself. In fact, “trade dress” is the term used in the industry to describe the outward appearance of a brand. Trade dress encompasses the overall look of a brand including logo, graphics, packaging, signage, architectural styling, and anything used to give the brand an identifiable look and style.

Taking the brand-as-person metaphor a bit further, you can change a boorish slob’s clothes, but unless there is a significant improvement in his or her behavior, he or she will remain a boorish slob no matter how beautiful the clothes. The point is that branding has more to do with the experiences it creates for its customers than with the clothes it wears.

However, “dress” is as important for brands as it is for people. A brand must dress properly for what it is – just as a policeman needs to be in a proper uniform, and a big city lawyer is expected to wear a nice suit. Anything less would cause people to question their authority.

If my definition of branding is correct, then changing the look of a logo or some other external element is definitely not “re-branding,” but simply a new suit of clothes on the same old brand.

The misuse of the term “re-brand” has a detrimental effect on marketplace understanding of what branding is about. The cynical side of me will tell you that it is an attempt by some to elevate the perceived importance of what they do. It may also be a vain attempt to make one’s mark on the world whether it’s good for the brand or not.

Just like everyone needs news clothes now and then, brands need to stay fresh and relevant. Just remember that a brand should build constructively upon the mental equity that it has been nurturing in the minds of its customers. Being recognizable is important, as is being authentic.

Any time I have a chance to help a company build its brand, I strive to build on its positive brand equity. Case in point is Canada’s CTV. My former company, Pittard Sullivan had a chance to do a brand makeover for the network. At the time, their programming was good, but their visual identity and packaging were very weak. I suspect many people in our position would have jumped at the chance to design a new logo and therefore make their mark on the world. However we believed CTV had a fundamentally sound logo that had not been treated well. The logo consisted of a circle, a square, and a triangle with the capital letters CTV within. The way the network was using it was old-fashioned and dull, but at its essence the logo design itself was very smart. Our solution was to add color, play off of the three geometric shapes, and display the graphic identity proudly in the beautiful Canadian landscape. We used the colors red, blue, and green to represent the three major kinds of programming CTV carried: entertainment, news, and sports. It was a major brand makeover, but I would not call it a re-brand because we built on the positive equity the network already had.

There are times when “re-branding” is the appropriate thing to do, but only when the business entity is being re-positioned in the marketplace. In a true re-branding scenario, the old brand is being terminated and a new brand is being born.

A good example of a re-brand is when Outdoor Life Network changed its brand to Versus. The old brand had some good programs, but was hampered by an unwieldy name that actually limited its programming. The new name gave it a lot of room to grow and a shot in the arm with ratings.

Another good example of a re-brand is when Philip Morris changed its name to Altria. It’s a much better name for a corporation that owns General Foods, Kraft Foods, and Miller Brewing. The re-brand was a smart move to get away from the negative image associated with tobacco. Don’t you love the way the name “Altria” reminds one of “altruism.” Pardon me, did I just sound a bit cynical?

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