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The Tricky Business of Rebranding

November 20, 2009

MATT BROWNELL, Editor

Here’s the dirty little secret of rebranding: it’s not always popular.

The truth is, people fear change. And when an established brand undergoes a face-lift, the gut reaction is often a combination of nostalgia and anger. Companies that wish to revamp their image are thus caught at a crossroads, simultaneously hoping to keep their brand current without alienating their loyal customers.

Nowhere is this more true than in professional sports, where brand loyalty isn’t just a corporate buzzword – it’s a prerequisite for fandom. Numerous sports teams have taken the plunge and overhauled their logo and uniforms, with mixed results. The Buffalo Sabres ditched their long-time logo, a charging bull over two crossed swords, in favor of a stylized animal that didn’t sit well with fans. Ten years later, they went even further in stylizing the logo, but their latest attempt was even less popular. In the eyes of the team’s loyal fans, the classic and powerful logo of their franchise’s storied past had been replaced by… a banana slug.

That’s not to say that a team can’t rebrand successfully. At the beginning of the 2008 season, the Tampa Bay Devil Rays dropped the “Devil” from their name, ditched their teal uniforms, and replaced their manta ray logo with a simple sunshine theme. It was a smashing success, in large part because it coincided with an astonishing turnaround in the franchise’s fortunes – they went from perennial cellar-dweller to a World Series berth in one year. It also helped that the old brand wasn’t very good to begin with – the uniforms were ugly, the logo uninspiring. The new brand was more notable for what it wasn’t, and that was just fine with the fans.

This all gets to a larger point: changing an established brand can be a tricky thing, and it’s hard to tell when you’re bringing much-needed modernization and when you’re just messing with a classic. Why has Coca-Cola endured for so long while Pepsi gets a new logo every decade? Why is Jack Daniels’ simple, rustic label design so enduring? Why is it that the Detroit Red Wings’ winged wheel logo is superior to anything conceived by a design firm in the last 30 years?

I’m not a graphic designer, but I still know a classic when I see it. Perhaps the goal of every rebranding is to create exactly that – a classic that no one will want to rebrand.

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