Rebranding can work wonders—if there’s substantive change behind it

Slapping a new coat of paint on a brand to reinvigorate it doesn’t help much. You have to make a serious, substantive change.


Last month, I caught the following tweet as I was watching my Twitter feed:

I didn’t attend New Media Expo this year, and I haven’t seen or heard Scott Stratten‘s talk. Because I have no context for the remark, it would be foolhardy to critique anything Scott had to say. But I was reminded of the tweet as I read Daniel Kraft’s post recently on the Sitrion blog. Don’t feel bad if you don’t know Sitrion. There is a good chance, though, that you know the company Sitrion used to be: NewsGator. The name change is part of a rebranding effort. Under NewsGator’s circumstances, rebranding is anything but bullshit. It is, in fact, exactly the right thing to do. Rebranding is what happens when an organization introduces new names, logos, and other identifying elements or takes a 180-degree turn in the way it presents itself to the public, in an effort to alter the image of the company or its products or services. There are other sound reasons to rebrand. If a marketplace gets flooded with companies that look and sound the same, you may want to rebrand to do a better of job representing what makes your company stand out from the crowd. As for products, remember the diet candy called Ayds? Rebranding earlier might have saved the product from extinction as awareness of AIDS soared in the 1980s. Having missed Scott’s talk, I’ll go out on a limb and guess he was talking about companies that rebranded in an effort to breathe life into a company or offering when there was no actual substance underlying the change. The company name or logo was new; what it represented was the same old thing. (The biggest difference between Altria and its previous name, Philip Morris, is that most people don’t know Altria makes the same brands of cigarettes Philip Morris did.) More than a facelift Rebranding is, however, an incredibly effective tool when an external image symbolizes substantive change to the organization or product. Kraft, Sitrion’s CEO and president, makes the case for a new identity for NewsGator in his post. If you’ve been around long enough, you remember NewsGator as one of the earliest companies to focus on RSS. They had a great RSS reader, but made their bones in the enterprise, making it easy for employees to aggregate both internal and external news from within their intranets. Some people believe RSS is dead. RSS news readers have been largely replaced by tools like Twitter and Facebook, where links are shared, and Flipboard and Pulse, where RSS feeds along with other sources are aggregated and presented in more of a magazine style. RSS remains a vital part of the Web’s infrastructure, making it easy for content to migrate from one platform to another. The uproar over Google’s decision to phase out its reader—along with the surge of subscriptions to alternative reader Feed.ly—casts doubt on the idea that it’s time to write RSS’s obit. Even if RSS lives, there’s no future in a pure RSS play, something the folks at NewsGator had to see coming. The question for the staff, according to Kraft, became, “How can we take the next step in the evolution of work?” The answer is to take the company in a new direction, beyond news aggregation. The vision—outlined in a SlideShare presentation—involves unlocking the power of connected people and making work better. What emerges from this pivot will retain a lot of the core values that made NewsGator a preferred vendor for a lot of organizations, but at its heart, it will be a different organization. The same old branding not only wouldn’t reflect who the new organization is, it could even hinder understanding of who they are today. Hence, a rebranding is not only appropriate, it’s necessary. Prime examples The history of business is full of great examples of rebranding done well. Target (which is suffering other woes these days) once belonged to the bargain basement category of stores. By brightening the outlets and offering better-quality merchandise through partnerships with name designers, the company was able to alter customer perceptions. Though the company didn’t change names, it did undergo a shift in its graphic identity to symbolize the “new” Target. Various writers have pointed to Old Spice, which transformed its image from what your grandfather wore to something that would appeal to a much younger demographic. (Have you seen the hysterical and creepy commercial with mothers singing a lament about their sons becoming men because women have smelled the Old Spice they wear?) This rebranding isn’t even about a change in the company or the product—just in the way people think about them.

To Scott’s (assumed) point, these examples (and many others) aren’t meant to suggest rebranding can’t be perilous. The Sci-Fi channel rebranded as Syfy, which people still make fun of. If there’s something genuinely different the rebranding can symbolize—whether it’s the company or the customer—a rebranding can be just the ticket for helping people develop the right perceptions about your organization or product. Shel Holtz is principal of Holtz Communication + Technology. A version of this story first appeared on his blog a shel of my former self. (Image via)

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