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.

Rebranding The Government Shutdown

As any PR or branding professional knows, words matter. And in politics, as in marketing, a product or event can be better positioned with a more precise or more upbeat label.  (Does anyone even remember what TARP stands for? Me neither, but it was better than “government bailout.”) At worst, it sugarcoats a distasteful or controversial idea or event.

Case in point: the recent government shutdown. Fox has already tried to minimize it by calling it a “slimdown,” which gave late-night comics more fodder to poke fun at both sides. But the war of words persists. Redstateblog insists – I hope with tongue in cheek – that all we need is a better name, preferably a term that involves the word “super,” since Americans are already super-crazy for that particular superlative. The blog suggests “supersequestration.”  It might work if making everyone glaze over in confusion is the goal, but I think we can do better.

In that spirit, here are our nominations for rebranding the shutdown. (Note that none has been poll-tested.)

Recess. This gets points for being innocuous. It may also be appropriate, given that members of Congress are behaving like schoolchildren, but since it already refers to periods when Congress is not in session, it’s superfluous. Maybe even super-superfluous. In rebranding, originality counts!

Intermission.  The word has a kind of dignity, and admittedly, much of what’s happening is great theater, but it’s a little bland and may be too upscale. A sports term might be more populist. Halftime? Seventh-inning stretch? The whole things is one big game, after all.

Breather or break.  This one could work well for government website messaging, as if they just needed a little “space” from a suffocating relationship. “We’re taking a break,” as a user update might help forge emotional connections with single voters.

Siesta.  Now we’re getting somewhere! This word adds a super-festive connotation to the also-likable “holiday.” Plus, it’s multicultural, which is very important. “Supersiesta” might be a winner.

Slimfast.  Granted, this one might have copyright issues, but it would poll-test well!  Alternatively, we could go with “Diet” or just “Government Fast” to try to tap into pop culture trends, but the former might be confused with the Japanese legislature. Actually, no one knows anything about the Japanese legislature, but both words signify deprivation. That’s a downer.

Power down. I like the appropriation of tech language here, but it could be perceived negatively to the Washington egos who think they’re still in power.

Superslimdown. Now, this one would delight the GOP, as it marries two conservative buzzwords. Plus, it has great alliteration.

Staycation. This one gets points for not going overboard. First, it suggests austerity, which is appropriate, yet somehow has a peppy, “can-do” connotation and implies a temporary state of affairs.

I’ve just scratched the surface here. Give us your best ideas for a shutdown rebrand and we’ll update the post!

When A New Name Is Bad PR: A Rebranding Gone Sour

A new name often brings a reputation lift – suggesting renewed relevance or sweetening an unpalatable handle. Which would you rather eat – Patagonian Tooth Fish or Chilean Sea Bass?

But beware the rebranding for reputation reasons. It can make news, but not always in a good way. Right now, a bitter battle’s brewing over the corn syrup industry’s plan to rebrand its product as “corn sugar.”

As any nutrition-minded consumer knows, high-fructose corn syrup has been blamed for a myriad of ills, from tooth decay to our skyrocketing national obesity rate.

Now, Big Corn is moving to challenge that reputation. It’s cooked up a new, more natural name and backed  its rebranding with TV spots that position corn syrup as natural, and as virtually identical to sugar. The commercials are beautifully choreographed scenes of a wholesome family wandering through sunlit cornfields. Each culminates in the tagline, “Sugar is sugar.”

Not so, says the beet and cane sugar industry. The corn syrup competitors allege that because HFCS doesn’t occur naturally and must undergo a chemical process to be created, Big Corn is trying to, uh, sugar-coat the facts.

The government seems to agree. This week the FDA issued another warning to the corn refiners industry about use of the term. Though the FDA can’t regulate the industry, they can cite individual companies who claim it as an ingredient in their products.
So far, Big Corn has not backed down. But the rebranding campaign has done the opposite of what it intended. A new name may be easier to swallow, but reputation management goes beyond sweet talk.