When rebrands go wrong

(And how to avoid the pitfalls)

Pointless slogans are a waste of time

It started nine years ago. I can remember the actual week when it all began because I was teaching brand management at London Business School to a class of MBA students and we spent the first hour of class discussing it. That morning Unilever announced that it was introducing a new corporate logo featuring a smooth, rounded U made from an amalgam of 24 icons representing all the businesses that it was engaged in. I beamed the new design onto the screen behind me and my class debated its merits.

Mark Ritson

There was no doubt that the new logo was an improvement on the old square thing that Unilever had previously used. Wolff Olins had done an excellent job. But the bigger question related to the strategy behind the logo. Unilever had not previously existed in the consumer’s mind and was now committed to not only changing its logo but also its brand architecture, pumping brand equity into its corporate name for the first time. Perhaps, my class mused, it was an attempt to save money, exert control at corporate level, combat private labels, aid expansion in new markets or build a single CSR platform.

Whatever the rationale, Unilever soon applied its new logo to its packaging and advertising along with a new corporate slogan “Bringing vitality to life”.

Think about that message for a second because it’s a fascinatingly mundane bit of marketing. Bringing vitality to life is literally meaningless. It’s like saying that you are hydrating water or opening the aperture. It’s bloody obvious and totally pointless.

You might have expected the combined might of Unilever’s marketing teams to come up with something a bit better. But there is a classic marketing explanation behind the bland emptiness of Unilever’s corporate approach. Marketers are trained from an early age to go after a tighter target segment and ignore mass marketing.

A tighter target segment gives you a distinct group of consumers who are usually buying a very specific competitor - meaning you can usually position your brand on specific consumer needs and against a very short list of potential rivals. This makes for tight positioning, better execution and superior results.

But when you try to position a corporate brand like Unilever across the world, across more than 40 brands, across its combined target consumers and against competitor brands, you get the opposite result. You get empty, pointless stuff like “bringing vitality to life”.

And, of course, it is not alone. As more and more brands have moved from a house of brands to an endorsed approach in which their formerly silent corporate brands have been activated as a consumer entity, we have seen the same empty results each time.

There’s no greater fan of Procter & Gamble than yours truly - it literally invented brand management. But its current efforts are a sad echo of its formerly great heritage.

It was impossible not to be moved by Wieden+Kennedy’s emotional “Thank you, Mom” ad from 2012 in which mothers are shown coaching their children to greatness at the London Olympics. But step back from the lovely execution and look at the message behind it. P&G spent hundreds of millions of pounds to point out to the world that mums are awesome and you should love yours. Once again, the generality of targeting, combined with the enormous range of competitors that it faces, multiplied by the diaspora of brands being amalgamated produced inanity.

It’s the same story at Reckitt Benckiser where the marketing maestros behind the successful brand management of everything from Strepsils to Finish could only manage “the power behind our powerbrands” when challenged to come up with a slogan for its increasingly exposed corporate brand.

And now we have Johnson & Johnson. I thought we’d reached the nadir of inanity but I was wrong. J&J is to spend a fortune in 2013 to promote its corporate brand with pictures of people kissing babies and the message “Love. It’s the most powerful thing on the planet”. No shit. Love is certainly a lot more powerful than all this corporate branding that’s going on.

I despair for the big brands. They’ve collectively lost the brand building plot. And so I say to small independent FMCG brands that it’s your time to go after them. Focus on your consumer brands, target a specific consumer segment and position against your formerly untouchable rivals that are blunted by their corporate brand inanity. Pick up your sling, Goliath has forgotten how to fight.

Readers' comments (7)

  • Amen.

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  • Read 'How Brands Grow' by Byron Sharp. You will never be a big brand if you only want to target a small segment. The big players have got it right - go for something with mass appeal. That's how you become a big brand. You get bought in mass. It's mass that counts. You have to do it right, though, and harnessing a universal truth can work. Especially if you make it your own.

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  • If it was so simple, Mr Ritson, particularly in Britain. The FMCG retail sector in your country is a vivid example of the current "socialistic capitalism" underpinned by a lovely relationship between big business and those in power. It's always been like that but recent decades have witnessed the apogee. Only big companies (I do mean big) are supplying a handful of retailers dominating the market. These big boyz are capable to deliver margins per unit that Tesco et al desire and of course, the usual deal sweeteners that put competitors away for good. You wrote about it recently, didn't you? From key stakeholders' point of view it doesn't really matter what happens to SMEs - those joining the army of ~3m unemployed Britons receive generous benefits so that they continue shopping with the good old Tesco et al. Borrowed money will pay it all, at least that had been the thought until recently, hadn't it? And, very cynically to notice, that is kind of the market - adapt or die. Well, is it really?

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  • Thinking about the Unilever slogan, maybe they mean 'life' in the sense of 'daily life' i.e. Unilever products bring a bit of sparkle to the drudgery of everyday existence. That would make "Bringing vitality to life" a pun. If so, someone was being too clever for their own good.

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  • Agreed, put the broad brush away.

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  • Blandness is spreading too! Whilst many smaller competitors should adopt the "David v Goliath" strategy as Mark advocates, my experience is that the adoption of blandness and generic corporate messaging gives the unimaginative smaller guys the excuse to simply follow suit: they've got a slogan so we should have a catch-all one too! And it doesn't stop at the slogan. So many organisations spend hours of otherwise productive time coming up with 'visions and values' that are also similarly bland, meaningless and undifferentiated (and often quite inaccurate versus real organisational culture and politics) that the soul and real passion of the folk in the organisation is lost and worse disillusioned along the way.

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  • Slogans really rind my gears, they never seem to have any thought applied to them. A lot of older executives seem to rattle off slogans every time they conceptualise a brand, its almost second nature to them.

    Brands with a small, loyal following, or companies that rely on radio advertising sill revel in slogans. For corporates though, it makes them look horrendously dated.

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