Sometimes, It Makes Sense to Walk the Tightrope of Rebranding

'When you make something no one hates, no one loves it.'

Rebrands have dominated the headlines in the 2020s. From Burger King's nostalgia-filled facelift to Burberry's rebuke of minimalism as it reverted to its rich heritage, brands in all sectors have taken long, hard looks in the mirror and overhauled their images.

Such updates can ensure distinctive and purposeful identities that speak to their cultures and products. But before jumping blindly on the rebrand-wagon, what must companies consider to guarantee they're heading in the right direction?

Consumers are more opinionated than ever, and their expectations of products and services are high. So, choosing an unpopular font risks catalyzing an angry mob in the Twittersphere. Think of HBO Max's recent misstep. Who knew that losing three little letters and changing color would cause a frenzy dubbed, "the brand mistake of the decade?"

Embarking on a rebrand, or even refresh, isn't easy. Balancing change with continuity is a challenge. It's a surprisingly fine line between Hilton's "For the Stay" and the heavy-handed, much criticized "We ♥ NYC."

But, like Charles Blondin as he prepared to tightrope walk across Niagara Falls for the first time, brands should remember there are potential rewards for taking risks.

Learning from past rebrand fiascos and triumphs

Some brands fear facing similar fates as Tropicana or Gap in the 2000s. However, by learning from past rebrand mistakes, businesses can be better equipped for the future.

In the cases of Tropicana and the Gap, it felt too much like change for the sake of it. They undermined their brand recognition, loyalty and reputation—all in a matter of days. Ultimately, both reverted to their original design templates.

Keeping customers at the heart of the rebranding process is central to success. Look at Old Spice, once firmly fixed as an older men's aftershave, now a leading deodorant that engages with its existing core while also reaching a new demographic. (And it's won plenty of awards along the way.)

What is the purpose of the rebrand? Focusing on this helps businesses ensure they are still liked and respected amid tweaks—and that any activity is being done for the right reason. A rebrand should never be a knee-jerk reaction. It should be an evolution that signifies a change in direction, internally or externally. Example: Peloton recently shift its proposition from exclusivity to "Anyone, Anywhere."

Peloton adjusted its target from high-earners looking to maintain their gym-lifestyle in lockdown to, well, everyone. Thus, it peddled itself as a tiered mainstream fitness option for a broader customer base. The company ditched its black and red color scheme, opting for a bolder, brighter palette. The change came from a business imperative, but we must wait and see whether consumers will climb aboard.

Authenticity is always essential

When I worked in the music industry in the '90s, respected hip-hop artists started to incorporate more R&B in their tracks. They reached new fans without diminishing their street credibility. However, when R&B singers or pop acts tried the reverse approach and put out rap records, listeners found it disingenuous. It was all about believability—much like branding.

Of course, we can over-index on the need to please everyone. In today's world, that's becoming increasingly hard, even for mass brands. As the esteemed graphic designer, Tibor Kalman, once said: "When you make something no one hates, no one loves it." So, while many brands worry about potential backlash and social-media fallout, wouldn't it be worse if nobody noticed at all?

Disapproval from some quarters is not to be feared. And it shouldn't be a reason to hold back good work.

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