How to Rebuild a Brand — This Time with Integrity.
During the recent weeks, we’ve all been hearing about brands with seemingly racist, sexist, exploitative, or offensive (in some way) names, logos, mascots…or all of the above.
It would be easy to spend the next few paragraphs piling on, impugning these brands & their owners, and demanding reparations be made. Instead, I’m going to offer some principles for their current stakeholders to consider and challenge them to act with conscience. And now.
Why? Because, with nearly 30 years in the world of professional brand building, I kind of get it. What do I get? That many of these brands have been bought and sold from one company to the next, numerous times. Contrary to the uninformed public, there’s usually not a 6th generation family member (picture the Hollywood portrayal of an evil tycoon) sitting upon billions of inherited dollars made since the 1800s, all by selling porridge on the backs of others. The creators of these brands—regardless of how undesirable their conduct appears to us in 2020—are long gone, and the present-day stakeholders had nothing to do with the past.
But, and a big but. This doesn’t absolve the current owners and stakeholders from doing what’s right. For example, if you’re the new Brand Manager on the job and this is your first big assignment. Even you, the newly promoted Brand Manager should take action! Now is the time to lead your business out of and away from its dark past, and set a positive course for the future!
But what about those research reports touting your brand’s awareness % or perceived equity rating? Trust me. If your products themselves create inherent value for your users, you will not alienate your current loyalists. They’ll respect you for the change.
You’ll also be opening the door of opportunity to potential new loyal consumers—especially if you’re transparent about why you’re changing. You can even choose to do something positive as part of the change. Create a college fund, donate a percentage of future sales to a cause, and like Nikki Eddins tweeted; put your packaging in a museum so future generations can learn from the past.
Take a different perspective.
So, this is for those brands that didn’t clearly or easily recognize they need a brand new start. In this instance, you might not be sure. For example, you might not see the negative things others see or feel when they observe your brand.
- You might feel the St. Pauli Girl merely is wearing traditional Bavarian garb. Someone else might perceive that this mascot is demeaning to women and that the brand is just using sex to sell more beer.
- Others might look at KFC and see everything they feel was wrong with the antebellum south. Yet, they might not be aware that Colonel Harland David Sanders, who ultimately became the brand’s symbol, doesn’t share much with that image. In contrast, he was a poor but persistent young man. At the age of seven, after his father passed and with his mother at work, he looked after his siblings at home. He later served in the army, held jobs as a farmhand, railroad laborer, and was a failed attorney and business owner—all long before obtaining a patent for his method of pressure frying chicken and selling his first franchise.
- A sports team named Redskins? You should have figured this out back at principle #1. Definitely a slur. But, what about one named the Chiefs? Is it paying homage to the strength, leadership, and other positive attributes an Indian Chief would have embodied? Or is it exploitive of Native Americans?
- One person may look at the Betty Crocker logo and feel it represents a time women were relegated to the kitchen. They might also wonder if poor Betty’s image was exploited to sell cake mix. They might not be aware that Betty is a fictional character, simply meant to provide a cheery & approachable face for the brand. With their competition named Duncan Hines, maybe General Mills simply wanted a female persona to create contrast? Additionally, her image has endured several generations and has been frequently updated; adapting to changing social, political, and economic currents to stay relevant.
I can go on and on. The above are just a handful of the numerous examples of brands that could be perceived VERY differently by different audiences. Loved by one, found offensive in some way by another. This is territory more difficult to navigate than the brands obviously in need of a reset. So here’s some counsel. In this case, you should try to empathize with the critics of your brand. Yes, even if they’re not your target audience.
- Whether you agree or not, can you at least understand their point of view? How would you feel if you were in their shoes?
- Does their negative perception of your brand (name, logo, or mascot) have a legitimate basis?
- Is your brand’s heritage, values, and promise unknown by many or simply misunderstood?
I’d challenge you to seek out these critics as a sounding board. You could even collaborate with them regarding potential solutions and a path forward for your brand; what kind of change and how big of one is needed?
On January 29, 2018, MLB commissioner Rob Manfred and Indians’ owner Paul Dolan retired Chief Wahoo, but kept the Indians name.
Keeping the name is probably not what we at COHO would have recommended. I’m even speaking as an ex-fan who grew up listening to them on the radio late into the summer evening.
Now, as of July 3, they just announced plans to ‘consider’ a name change.
Build a better brand life.
Whether you came here directly from principle # 1 or via #2, you have your work cut out for you. First, if you found meaning in your brand’s original story that is relevant to your target consumer. And, you understand how you are perceived. You can now make an informed choice to evolve and/or eliminate certain components of your brand’s image.
The important thing is to do sooner rather than later. If you wait too long, you could be seen as merely caving under pressure or pandering to not lose a few dollars. When in fact, I hope you’re doing it for the right reason; that you want to be recognized as a brand that heard the message, and then took the virtuous steps to make a meaningful change for the better.
The nice thing is that brand-building tools already exist—as well as available branding experts—to help you lead this brand and business transformation. I recommend beginning with a brand charter, starting with your new brand’s values. Then, with a sound strategy in place, you’ll be able to easily move on to define your brand’s new experiential choices.
Lastly, while this kind of change may feel scary or chaotic to you now, remember, out of chaos comes order. In your case, the new result can be a very successful brand reset. Maybe one where you and your brand can make up for the past and do some good? Whether an all-new brand or an awakening of sorts, you’ll have acted with integrity. And, your consumers—current & new—will respect you and reward you for it.