The ‘Brandwagon’ of Obscurity

OPINION

The ‘Brandwagon’ of Obscurity

When done tastefully, rebranding can create legacies and help brands redefine its positioning. But one can’t help but wonder if some rebranding exercise in Malaysia are mere attempts to shed a new skin?

We begin with a simple question – ‘If you slap red lipstick on a cow and call it a horse, and bring the cow to the Royal Windsor Horse Show, would the cow have a chance of winning?’

Depending on how one answers this question, the next proposition will either baffle or strike a warm chord in your collective consciousness. Most would think that the cow would not even be allowed near the parameter of the horse show because, well, a cow is still a cow no matter what you decide to call it.

Now, let’s apply the logic into a more tangible and relevant context in our society. Changing the name and designing a new logo on an old idea or initiative does and can never make it a completely different thing.

Neither do these acts constitute ‘rebranding’ – a term so vehemently abused time and time again to completely erase the origin of something to make way for a new association.

In Malaysia, the word ‘rebrand’ is often associated with the change of the logo and name, keeping most of the brand’s services intact. This behaviour of window dressing constitutes dishonesty in the way rebranding is utilised as a legitimate communications strategy.

Rebranding is an exercise most brands work hard to evade; not just because it is costly, but it also signals a brand in need to keep up with the time or suffering from a dire crisis that the only way to save it is by starting over

We expect the consumers to diminish their mental, social, and emotional association with the brand’s past by calling it by another name and slapping a new look and feel, despite not putting in the work to define what the rebrand is about.

Globally, rebranding is an exercise most brands work hard to evade; not just because it is costly, but it also signals a brand in need to keep up with the time or suffering from a dire crisis that the only way to save it is by starting over.

Remember that small commodity and energy firm from Texas called Enron? We still associate the name Enron with one of the biggest fraud conspiracies the world has seen and yet not many know that the same people in Enron created the globally respected consultancy firm Accenture.

Or how about Wells Fargo? Once synonymous with being a great financial institution, the financial scandal destroyed its century-old reputation into the most hated bank in America—costing the bank millions.

The bank recently rebranded – with a sleek communication campaign that reiterated the brand’s longstanding legacy as a pivotal financial player in America’s history. The executives pledged new reforms in hope to save the bank, but despite an extensive counter strategy, it couldn’t keep the bank from further conspiracies, condemnation, and financial loss.

Rebranding is also a strategic commitment for brands to rejuvenate its position in the most competitive market place -- the consumers mind.

When done right, a rebranding exercise can save a brand and help businesses stay relevant for decades. 

Rebranding is also a strategic commitment for brands to rejuvenate its position in the most competitive market place -- the consumers mind

In the late 1990s, a Danish company that manufactured toys for children were facing bankruptcy. By 2003, its sales were down 30 per cent year on year and it was more than USD1 billion in debt. At a time when children were beginning to explore learning and playing on digital platforms, where video games and Internet were becoming more accessible and a more diverse set of toys were available on the market, the company knows that it would not just weather the storm.

Taking inspiration from its direct competitors, the company created an ecosystem surrounding its main product. Despite bleeding money, it’s only salvation lies in spending extensively to create new product opportunities. It created a line of clothing, opened theme parks that cost almost half a billion each, built video games and collaborated with known brands such as Star Wars and Harry Potter.

In just a couple of years, the company overtook Ferrari to become one of the world’s most powerful brands. Sales finally topped USD1 billion in North America and the nearly defunct company recorded a solid profit of over USD600 million. The company is Lego. 

When done tastefully, a rebranding can create legacies and help brands redefine its positioning. Take the world’s first brand valued at a billion US dollar – Apple. In the early ’90s, Apple was suffering from a devastating financial loss, low sales, heavy competition, and constant confusion in its values.

It didn’t stand for much and didn’t manage to stand out amidst the booming IT crowd until Steve Jobs took over in 1997 and introduced a new meaning to the phrase ‘Be Different.’

Jobs did not change the logo nor the name of Apple brand but did the right thing by redefining the meaning and values of Apple as a brand.

Jobs mantra emphasis the importance of ideas and experience over products and purchase, setting an unprecedented trend in marketing and communications still copied and studied today. 

For Apple, today to be able to ride on the momentum of success during Job’s time decades ago is not by chance. Jobs did not change the logo nor the name of Apple brand but did the right thing by redefining the meaning and values of Apple as a brand.

He made sure the communications that followed are consistent with the messages he intended to share about Apple. These strategies are the result of hours upon hours of understanding the consumer, the brand, and the context of the environment he lived in. He followed a proper process and respected the consumer enough to do the right thing.

And doing the right things often take a mountain of effort and consistency, and most importantly, time, to bear the seeds of success.

Time is a sensitive construct in this country. We tend to associate time-consuming labor as a reflection of inefficacy. So instead of taking lessons from some of the most successful rebrands in the last decades, we take shortcuts and hope for the best.

Announcements upon announcements on a nationwide-scale of window dressing initiatives have opened the floodgates of rebranding. Nowadays, everyone wants to ‘clean up’ an image by hopping on a 'brandwagon' of obscurity – each racing against one another to see who can diminish a brand’s association with its tainted past in the least amount of time.

We love to rebrand or what we collectively accept as the definition of a rebrand. In the past 12 months, there have been more rebranding announcements than the past decade.

In fact, as I was writing this, the Minister of Agriculture and Agro-based Industry Minister Salahuddin Ayub announced that the controversial National Feedlot Cooperation (NFC) might be rebranded once it is sold to a new company.

On April 15, Education Minister Maszlee Malik said Permata – the early childhood development programme – will be renamed ‘Genius’ – after transitioning from the Prime Minister’s Department to the Ministry of Education and shedding its association with the wife of former Prime Minister Datin Seri Rosmah Mansor.

Four days after the announcement, on April 19, Youth and Sports Minister Syed Saddiq Syed Abdul Rahman said the government-backed youth volunteering programme ‘iM4U’ would be rebranded to Impact Malaysia to remove its association with the former ruling coalition Barisan Nasional.

Nowadays, everyone wants to ‘clean up’ an image by hopping on a 'brandwagon' of obscurity – each racing against one another to see who can diminish a brand’s association with its tainted past in the least amount of time.

The same week, a viral document proposing the change of name for Kuala Lumpur International Airport (KLIA) to Sepang International Airport (SIA) sparked fury among netizens who were left baffled with a solution to a non-existent problem.

One can’t help but wonder what these ‘rebranding’ exercises constitute and whether they are mere attempts to shed a new skin? When done right, a rebranding exercise can be the curtain raiser of a new legacy, redefining what a brand stands for and ultimately who it serves. The most important stakeholder remains the consume.

At the end of the day, a brand serves as a promise and every action beyond that constitutes the effort to fulfill the promise to the consumer. And the only way a rebranding exercise can succeed is when the consumers can experience it.

In true honesty, we should pay more attention to the practice of branding and rebranding because it is ultimately a reflection of our identity, sense of belonging and purpose. If we fail to properly define ourselves and understand our purpose, what are the chances that we would be successful in fulfilling our objectives?

If we don’t take pride in the things that represent our existence in the overly saturated marketplace of attention, then what hope do we have against a bigger, more experience competition?

There is value in doing the right things and it is time we realise that a rebranding exercise can be a significant waste of time, resources and money if those tasked to do it fail to respect the brand’s most important stakeholder: The People.

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