Founder of Dixon|James Communications and Rebranding Experts, the only firm purposely designed to rebrand organizations successfully.
Companies and organizations rebrand for a variety of reasons. Increasingly, they are responding to changing external environments that create a hostile or unsustainable environment to successfully run their business. The list of external pressures is growing to include international conflict, racist stereotypes and a variety of social awakening issues.
We find that organizations rebrand either out of need or opportunity, and often a combination of the two. The “need” to rebrand is often the result of a merger/acquisition, new funding, leadership change, or the external environment has evolved and your brand is no longer a promise but a liability. The external factors may not be of your making or in your control, but they can create too much distraction to effectively engage customers. Sometimes those conditions become so severe that a revolutionary rebranding is required, including a new name for the organization to distance itself from the growing threat.
For context, rebranding is the process of “renewing” a brand’s corporate positioning, including its corporate purpose and customer promise, name, visual identity, and even its culture and go-to-market strategy.
External Pressures Are Nothing New
The dynamic of external market pressures has long existed. Think back a couple of decades ago when the militant Islamist terrorist organization ISIS emerged on the scene and quickly became enemy No. 1 in the United States. Several unsuspecting businesses and organizations that already used the acronym for their brand were suddenly faced with conflict and the possibility of confusion they hadn’t expected. These organizations—Wikipedia counts more than 20 of them—were forced to rebrand to avoid a negative association with the terrorist group.
Changing Social Viewpoints: Another Key Driver
Responding to social unrest in 2020 initiated by George Floyd’s murder, several well-known brands reassessed their branding away from racist stereotypes. Examples include Uncle Ben’s and Aunt Jemima, the Washington Redskins and the Cleveland Indians.
More recently, as public concern has grown over mental health issues, the Suicide Six ski resort in Vermont announced a rebranding following concerns about the insensitive nature of the mountain’s historical name. Florida Gators quarterback Anthony Richardson distanced from his “AR-15” nickname (composed of his initials and uniform number) because of the ongoing safety threat of the automatic rifle by the same name.
Harry Potter was the most recent to take a hit. The sport of quidditch distanced itself from its creator with a new name—quadball—citing what they called “anti-trans positions” of Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling.
Even Country Names Change
Imagine the rebranding challenge when your country’s president decides to change the name of your homeland, and you have a brand named after your country. Turkish President Erdogan’s government announced it was changing its 100-year-old anglicized name in favor of being known as Türkiye to “preserve and glorify the culture and values of our nation.” Among the largest companies impacted was Turkish Airlines, which was rebranded as Türkiye Hava Yolları, certainly with a hefty price tag to relabel aircraft, airport gates, service vehicles and more.
Apparently changing a country’s name is not all that novel: The Week points out several countries making the move in recent years, including the Kingdom of Swaziland to the Kingdom of Eswatini to avoid confusion with the nation of Switzerland. And Upper Volta rebranded to Burkina Faso to break from its colonial past. Just imagine the number of U.S. businesses that would need to rebrand if the federal government were to change from the United States of America.
What You Can Do To Be Prepared
Though it happens rarely, organizations always need to be mindful of their external environment and changing dynamics that may become a threat. As part of your brand tracking, keep a constant view on upticks in their usage or the emergence of new slang uses of the brand name. A simple Google alert will help.
Then, as part of your risk management efforts, establish a process for elevating any growing concerns to your PR and leadership teams.
Good forward-looking brand management can ensure that your brand is able to navigate changes in the external environment likely to cause turbulence.