How To Execute A Mediaworthy Rebrand

Rebrands are almost always tricky, but they can pay big PR dividends. (Just ask IHOB!) Seriously, that was a publicity stunt, but this week, no less than three companies officially unveiled new names. Despite heavy news competition, they all grabbed public attention. The undisputed champ, if you measure by quality and quantity of positive media coverage, is Dunkin’ Donuts. Yesterday the chain announced with great fanfare that it was officially dropping “Donuts” from its name. Media and social coverage even referred to a (barely existing) backlash, which only made the news more shareable.

The Dunkin’ move was a win because it’s not really a stretch, but the coverage was a nice visibility boost. There’s a legitimate business reason for the change; for starters, the company sells more beverages than anything else. But “Dunkin” has been used in DD marketing for years, and it’s already a nickname among regular customers. And as smart marketers know, an affectionate nickname is branding gold.

A brand nickname is like a viral video. You may want it badly, but it can’t be forced. It grows out of a personal relationship or iconic status, and that’s a rare gift. Coca-Cola has not been shy about using “Coke” in its marketing. Harley-Davidson even tried to trademark its “Hog” moniker, although it was ruled too generic to be done. A few years General Motors found out that it shouldn’t mess with “Chevy” after its effort to legislate the use of the official “Chevrolet” name ran into a brick wall of customer resistance.

Consider those nicknames that have backfired. Pizza Hut tried to adopt just “the Hut,” but consumers turned it down cold. It was reminiscent of the late RadioShack’s short-lived nom de cool, “the Shack,” which flopped badly. In both cases, the corporation was trying to dictate the change rather than responding to something that happened organically.

Dunkin’ Donuts clearly knew what it had in the Dunkin’ sobriquet, but the brand did the smart thing in hyping the announcement and tying it to a menu expansion for the future. A rebrand should always signal more than just a name.

For Weight Watchers, which also rebranded this week, the challenge is heftier. It unveiled a new identity as WW, supported by the tagline “Wellness That Works.” In a media tour by photogenic CEO Mindy Grossman, the company explained the move as a rejection of the short-term “diet” mentality and embrace of long-term wellness and healthy lifestyles. The change drew a harsh reaction from some dietitians and body-positive advocates. Critics accused WW of hiding behind the wellness movement to push the same old diet messages, of being “diet culture in disguise.”

I don’t agree. WW has been trying to lose the “weight” since I worked with the brand two decades ago, and with good reason. The vocabulary of “dieting” is outdated, and WW is probably more geared to living and eating in the real world than its stunt diet competitors. The problem is that as a term and a product category, “wellness” carries its own baggage. But Weight Watchers needs to move beyond its church basement origins, and I think the change will be a healthy one.

The most awkward renaming of late was one that most people missed. At an advertising conference yesterday AT&T announced that its AppNexus ad-tech unit will be rebranded as … wait for it — Xandr. In my view, it’s an interesting name, but one that violates two unwritten rules of branding. First, the pronunciation isn’t intuitive – it’s meant to be “Zander” but could be pronounced “X-ander” or even “Ten-and R.” It was explained as a nod to Alexander Graham Bell, but you wouldn’t know that without being told. Yet for a B2B brand the stakes are lower, and advertising people are accustomed to such names, so they may not be bothered by it.

The name itself matters, and there will always be those who throw stones at it. But the most important thing about executing a rebrand is to maximize the PR value of the investment. A new name that’s not tied to forward-looking news is wasted. For this week’s announcements, each communicated the rebranding decision by tying it to business growth or changes, customer needs, and innovations for the future. That’s how you add meaning to a name change and real depth to a brand story.

What’s In A (Brand) Nickname?

Al Ries’ recent column in AdAge, “When It Comes To Names, Corporations Just Aren’t People” got me thinking about the PR of brand nicknames. Corporations may not be people, but their brands can get pretty darn close. That’s why “pet” names for products and companies can be powerful, from the classic shorthanders like Coke and AmEx to the more creative “Tar-zhay.”

Truly organic brand nicknames are rare. They speak to a bond between brand and customer that usually takes years to develop. Or they can be the sign of an insider, like how journalists and PR people will say “WaPo” or “the FT.”

To have staying power, the brand name has to feel authentic and grow out of consumer usage.  That’s why RadioShack’s nom de cool, “The Shack” didn’t gain traction. It just wasn’t how anyone thinks or talks about the stores. And though most consumers would recognize “Citi” as Citibank, few would use the nickname with affection. I’m still not sure about “Brown” for UPS. That’s trying to nickname a nickname, and it never felt quite natural.

In Ries’ view, J.C. Penney is also vying, – wrongly, he says,  for nickname status with its new ad campaign and redesigned logo that features only its initials. I disagree. Penney’s (now, that’s it’s true nickname) does sport a new look to announce its “Fair and Square” pricing strategy. The red, white, and blue brand evokes patriotism, and the initials inside the square suggest…well, fair and square. Makes sense.

It may be following Target’s pricing and marketing strategy here, but I disagree that it’s going for a cutesy nickname. It’s all about a friendlier, more helpful brand image and a move back to sensible pricing, nicely underscored by Ellen Degeneres in the only ads I stop my DVR fast-forward to watch.

There are better and more natural candidates for perpetual nickname-dom. One that’s nearly there is Dunkin Donuts. It’s been using “Dunkin'” in its tag lines, though not exclusively, and it feels right. Another is Trader Joe’s, which, since its incursion into Manhattan has not only threatened my loyalty to Whole Foods, but had me shortening its moniker to “TJ’s” in no time.

A brand nickname is, above all, a gift. As 99% of marketers know, it’s never a good idea to fight a name born of affection or even nostalgia. General Motors found out in a hurry that it shouldn’t mess with Chevy after its effort to legislate the use of “Chevrolet” crashed and burned a couple of years back. You can’t force it if it’s not happening; but when it does, by all means, don’t get in the way.