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When is a rebrand not a rebrand?

Despite years of ingrained and hard-bitten journalistic cynicism, I still get quite excited when I see a subject line for a new email in my inbox about a company rebrand.

After all, a rebrand should be exciting: it’s when a company has embarked on a pretty fundamental evaluation of who it is, what it does, how and for whom. It requires in-depth strategic thinking, should encompass the whole organisation, and – if executed effectively – should energise all employees and re-affirm the role and relevance of marketing. It’s a good story. So what’s not to like?

Unfortunately, however, not all ‘rebrands’ are worthy of the name. Many are just window dressing, or an attempt by an organisation (or worse, it’s PR team) to paper over the cracks of a failing proposition. It is instances such as these that give the discipline of branding a bad name, confirm the view of detractors that “it’s just a logo”.

So what about some examples, I hear you say? When is a rebrand not a rebrand? Here are two examples of bad practice in rebrand announcements that landed in my inbox recently (their real names have been hidden to disguise their identity).

1. The “we’ve just added dotcom to our name” rebrand
There’s an unhealthy obsession with the ‘dotcom’ URL that is a hangover from the original Internet boom. It was a good idea at the time: owning a dotcom address allowed you to turn an ordinary phrase into a brand (hence and to indicate that you were an online business. In the 12 years since abrupt cessation of those heady days, the obsession with those four characters at the end of your URL has dwindled, due in no small part by the plethora of other URL options now available (including the new dotbrand option). More significantly, stating your online credentials in your branding is simply no longer necessary. These days, if a company (particularly a B2B company) wants to be seen as credible, they simply have to be online. It’s not an option, so there’s no reason to shout about it.

Hence, in my experience the URL suffix is increasingly redundant: even Salesforce, until recently one of its most vociferous proponents, appears to be quietly dropping dotcom… whether the company acknowledges it or not. More to the point, rather than helping your brand, making a big deal out of becoming a dotcom and proclaiming this as a major brands statement just looks painfully out of step. It’s like Dad dancing: it’s just bad practice and it must not be encouraged – or even tolerated.

The brand responsible for this particular press release won a few categories at our awards last year, so it really should know better. On the other hand, perhaps it’s switched agencies. Whatever the reason, I felt personally a bit let down.

2. The “we’ve just added ‘International’ to our name” rebrand
It’s a global economy, and if as a company you’re capable of showing that you can function anywhere in the world, you would want to do so. I get that: it’s logical. So fine, add the word ‘international’ to your name, but don’t pretend that it’s a rebrand because it’s not. It’s just another suffix.

More to the point, if your brand identity is an apparently meaningless acronym, with very little visibility and providing minimal differentiation (as was the professional services firm who sent me this press release – let’s call them ABC), you should be focused on addressing that as a matter of urgency, rather than being distracted by whether or not to make additional claims about your global credentials.

Is ABC international seriously telling me that they went through the comprehensive and potentially exhaustive but certainly expensive process of thoroughly examining their brand identity, what it means and what it stands for, and after all that cost and hassle, just added one, relatively boring word? No wonder too many people think marketing is a waste of time and money. In this case, they’d be right.

Alternatively, perhaps they didn’t go to these lengths. Perhaps the CEO woke up one morning and said: “goddammit, we need to be more International,” and went and told the marketing team to change the name. Either way, it’s still not a rebrand.

It seems that the word ‘rebrand’ is generally misunderstood. Worse, all-to-often it is hijacked by the PR team/agency as a means of adding further gravitas and validity to what may be, at best, a minor identity tweak (and potentially a misguided one at that, particularly if you’ve added ‘dotcom’).

So in branding – or at least rebranding – not all is as it seems. The irony is that by claiming to be something that they’re not, these press releases have only served to undermine the standing of these brands, rather than boosting them – in my eyes at least. In other words, turning a good PR story into a bad one.