Is Your Company Rebrand A Reflection Of Who You Are, Or Who You Want To Be? Lessons From Southwest Airlines

It happens like clockwork and you see it all the time:

  1. A company decides to change its name or logo as part of a “rebrand.”
  2. Then the corporate communications department does a PR blitz to launch, explain and justify the rebrand — and get the wheels in motion for broad adoption.
  3. Then armies of Monday-morning quarterbacks marketing gurus, with limited knowledge of how the sausage was made, come out of the woodwork to offer their reactions and analysis.
  4. The rebrand creates high engagement and emotions among a small percentage of people, especially the company’s marketing leaders and a small segment of customers and non-customers. Ironically, rebrands-as-news-events usually create anticlimactic responses, even among customers and marketing insiders.
  5. Because multiple rebrands take place during the year, marketing gurus publish annual roundups, lessons learned, and scorecards.
  6. Yet nobody knows how a rebrand will impact the business until the many layers of hard execution play out over many years. To be fair, the more credible marketing gurus disclose this fact following their own self-serving commentary.
  7. Dry academics and historians will conduct more meaningful analyses as years pass. Even if the rebrand was successful and contributed to company performance, most people — even customers and employees who love the brand — still won’t care about the actual rebrand event.

And 2018 was no different. Insider published its “most controversial rebrands of the year.” I’m not sure how controversial they are, though they are the most prominent rebrands of the year.

  • Weight Watchers to WW
  • Dunkin Donuts to Dunkin’
  • Céline to Celine
  • Uber changed its logo to just Uber
  • Toys ‘R’ Us to Geoffrey’s Toy Box
  • IHOP to IHOb, the International House of Burgers

Now, answer this question honestly:

Do you care about any of these brand name changes?

Probably not consciously, unless you are a super fan, an investor or a marketing insider.

Of course, whether you consciously care is not the point of a rebrand. Naming and logos are material artifacts that contribute to a brand identity, which melds with the total experience and perception among stakeholders. Name and logo effectiveness is linked to revenue performance. And that is especially true with large multinational conglomerates.

I have no doubt the companies above had good reasons to rebrand; a common reason is to create relevance with evolving value propositions and business operations. Dunkin’ believes it is more than a Donut chain. WW thinks it is a wellness platform, not just a weight loss program. IHOb wants to be recognized for all the hamburgers it sells. You can bet there are a ton of factors behind the scenes, which you’ll never hear about. This is the sausage factor of branding, after all. 🙂

Logos and names are important artifacts, though they are only fractional components that contribute to brand experiences and perceptions. Collectively, things like user interface, service, product, cost, and availability matter much more. Those things are truer reflections of how companies live out their brand fundamentals. Names and logos are more often superficial, and more often a reflection of what a company wants to be, or how a company wants you to perceive it.

Brand fundamentals include: defining and articulating company mission; vision; purpose; values; along with stakeholders and product value proposition (or promise). And then you have to align the company internally with those fundamental concepts, and establish a disciplined execution plan to live them out authentically so they are what customers experience. That is extremely difficult to do.

Identity schemes, names and logos? They should be pursued only after the fundamentals are fulfilled.

That’s why the news in January 2019 of the death of low-cost no-frills Southwest Airlines founder Herb Kelleher is so timely. While his passing is sad, the celebration of the brand and culture he built is a great reminder to all who run companies or work in marketing and branding. Kelleher created a breakout company and a great brand based on brand fundamentals, less so on corporate names and logos.

Sure, Southwest Airlines had its own share of corporate rebrands over the years. Today, upon Kelleher’s death, we don’t remember the heart logo refreshes and changing fonts so much as we cherish a simple brand promise, an even bigger expectation through execution, upheld year after year. The way Southwest Airlines has behaved — less how it brands itself — has far more bearing on our collective brand perception and loyalty.

So when you get the urge for a rebrand, first check to be sure your brand fundamentals are in order. You don’t want to make the mistake of putting lipstick on a pig (otherwise lying), or trimming the hedges while your house is on fire (failing to manage what matters most).

And if you disagree with me, we can arm wrestle. That was one of Kelleher’s preferred methods for solving disputes.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *