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Thursday, 25 June 2009 14:11

Aspiring celebrities and global insurance companies, confectionery brands and even the postal service have all experimented with changing their names. But how best to ensure that stakeholders aren’t alienated by the rebrand? David Benady reports:

Creating catchy stage names for the stars is easy enough. Richard Starkey Jnr became Ringo Starr, setting him on course to become the world’s most famous drummer. Walter Willis morphed into Bruce Willis, creating one of Hollywood’s most bankable action heroes. But trying to explain to staff, customers and investors why a large organisation needs to be re-christened is altogether more challenging.

Insurance giant Aviva’s recent celebrity-filled ad campaign sets out to justify why it has ditched the trusted and popular Norwich Union brand name in favour of a new global moniker. The company is axing long-established local brands such as Norwich Union in the UK, Hibernian in Ireland and Commercial Union in Poland to bring them under the Aviva name. Its ad campaign explains how Ringo Starr, Bruce Willis and a clutch of other A-list celebrities benefited from being re-named. The ad implies that rebranding as Aviva will help the insurer on the journey to global greatness, just as new names have spurred on the careers of Alice Cooper, Elle MacPherson and others.

A criticism of Aviva’s international rebranding is that it comes just as the public’s faith in global financial institutions is at an all time low. Following the financial meltdown, people are looking for trusted financial names with long heritage and a local, smalltown appeal.

But Aviva argues that, in many of its markets, Norwich Union has zero heritage and Americans and the Chinese alike struggle to pronounce the name. There are also huge cost savings to be made by branding all parts of the business with one name. However, it is unclear how these considerations are to the benefit of Norwich Union customers and staff in the UK. Key to the success of this re-naming exercise will be persuading all stakeholders that re-inventing the brand will help equip the business for the future. 

“It is vital to take people with you when rebranding, not least the employees,” says Amanda Mackenzie, Aviva’s group marketing director and head of communications who is overseeing the re-naming venture. “There isn’t a set formula for doing it, but with an organisation like ours with lots of heritage, we took the decision to do it gradually in order to ensure that everybody, especially the staff, were on board with the changes,” she adds.

Crucially, the rebrand has become an opportunity to redefine the business and decide what makes it different from its rivals. “We did international research and what came out was that people across the world missed being treated as individuals and felt insurance companies did not recognise them for what they are,” says Mackenzie. “So we developed a brand promise – ‘No one recognises you like Aviva’. To get eople thinking on-brand, every employee in the UK has gone to a workshop or session where they swap stories about what it means for them to be recognised. This helps them understand the brand proposition.
The power of sharing stories is incredible. Internal communications is not just about telling people things – they have to bake the cake themselves.” 

Stakeholders require leadership to carry them through the rebranding process and a vital facet of Aviva’s relaunch has been the contribution of chief executive Andrew Moss. He has driven through the name change and made the shift a key part of his leadership strategy. Without such high-profile backing, organisations can struggle to persuade people that the re-brand is more than just a new name and a few
pretty colours.

Mackenzie has wide experience of corporate name changes, having worked on many during her years in the advertising industry. She saw how changing the name of the Spastics Society to Scope in the early 90s
raised the hackles of some members who said they were proud to be called spastics. Then there was the creation of O2, the former BT Cellnet mobile phone brand which was spun off from BT. This showed that sometimes rebranding needs to be done in a “big bang”.

But it was her experience watching the name changes of Mars confectionery brands like Opal Fruits to Starburst and Marathon to Snickers that showed her how gradual transformation could be effective in ensuring stakeholders buy into a re-naming exercise. The measured approach has been used with Aviva, where the line ‘Norwich Union, an Aviva company’ has been used in advance of axing the NU name completely. On the other hand, some observers point out that the slow burn can be expensive, requiring a
phase of joint branding. These costs can wipe out any intended savings. Having said that, most believe that the cost of failing to get stakeholders on board is much higher.

Brand overhauls can, after all, go horribly wrong. Many companies have suffered from poorly executed re-naming exercises, usually because they have failed to convince staff and customers of the logic behind the move. BA’s tail fins fiasco, the Royal Mail’s shortlived conversion to Consignia and Pricewaterhouse Cooper’s cack-handed rebrand of its consultancy arm to Monday are three notable examples. (See box)

“Rebranding is an area where a lot of companies get it wrong,” says brand consultant Rachel Fairley, former head of brand engagement at Landor and now managing director of Rachel Fairley Associatess. “Most organisations don’t do it very often so it is a real challenge to know what is best practice. A brand overhaul combines so many areas of communications and painting a portrait of the future is a patchwork quilt so it is difficult to come up with a comprehensive plan.”

Rebrands are ultimately intended to improve the company’s bottom line, and that means improving the ustomer experience. But this can only be achieved by changing the employees’ behaviour, she says. Where
the process goes wrong is often because of a failure to communicate a new set of values.

“There has to be a new era of thinking about stakeholders in a more integrated way,” she says. “For too long we have been thinking about communications in silos, saying public affairs owns Government, marketing owns customers and investor relations own shareholders. You end up with fiefdoms and specialisms. There is a strong argument for having a board-level chief communications officer who oversees all the stakeholders.” This is the case at Aviva, where group marketing director Amanda Mackenzie sits on the operating board and oversees corporate communications.

Some of the rebranding disasters of the past have made companies think more carefully about how they arry out a brand overhaul. As Terry Tyrrell, chairman of branding agency Brand Union, says: “Companies are a lot more careful about how they go about it these days. We will see no more big bang changeovers in the UK.”

But he adds that in developing markets, peoplem are far more prepared to welcome corporate rebrands. He points to Vodafone renaming the Hutch brand in India after it took over its parent Essar. “There is more
affinity to brands in India and consumers are more brand orientated,” he says. “They don’t have the same
mis-trust of big brands that we have here.”

At mutual life insurer LV=, the overhaul two years ago was undertaken in order to modernise the Liverpool Victoria brand, which had come to be seen as a rather stuffy and old fashioned. Nigel Snell, LV’s corporate communications director says the firm undertook a lot of focus group work with customers – many of whom own the mutual – and with financial advisers and employees which revealed a general sentiment that the business needed modernising. “We didn’t just come up with a new logo,” says Snell. “We did an internal restructure and made a new statement about our reason for being here. We decided that the best way to differentiate ourselves was to have the warm, human side of a mutual with the rigorous business platform of a plc,” he adds. 

Jettisoning the previous brand entirely can be risky. Paul Twivy, a consultant with agency The Partners which helped create the LV rebrand, says a common mistake in repositioning is to distance the company too far from its past. “There is always something about a company’s history that can be re-integrated,” he
says. “People make the mistake of making everything horribly superficial and ditching their heritage.” This,
he adds, was avoided at LV, where the “=” sign signals the mutuality and equality at the heart of the brand.

Many brands do not go as far as changing the whole company name when updating their image. Eddie Bowman, global marketing director at accounting partnership Ernst & Young spearheaded the introduction of a new positioning and brand design for the firm in March 2008. “It was a massive programme,” says Bowman. “We are a $25 billion organisation working in 140 countries with 140,000 staff. And it is a partnership so it has its own unique set of challenges.

“We did it because we genuinely believed we could serve our clients across geographical borders better than anybody else and we didn’t think the visual identity nor our positioning reflected that,” he says.

Ernst & Young’s global board appointed a taskforce of senior partners to work on the project. Bowman led the rebrand, working closely with the public affairs and public relations directors. A pitch was held and WPP branding agency Landor was appointed to help create the new positioning and redesign the branding. The agency ran workshops andcarried out research with staff, clients, prospects and regulators to uncover a suitable positioning and design a visual identity to go with it.

Bowman explains: “We are a very big recruiter, we bring in thousands of new staff from around the world
and give them professional qualifications. We know some of them are going to leave and go into client companies to join finance departments and ultimately become our clients. We want them to leave with a
good impression of Ernst & Young.”

Many observers believe a new burst of corporate rebranding activity will be triggered next year if the economy starts climbing out of the downturn. Just last month (26 May), Santander announced that it would rebrand its UK high street businesses Abbey, Bradford & Bingley and Alliance & Leicester under the Santander name. This is further evidence of a financial institution seemingly moving in the opposite direction from consumers’ appetite for localised, smaller banking services. But Santander has already gone some way to establishing its name in the UK as a brand suffix for Abbey.

In the years to come, communications chiefs will need to ensure that the reasons for changing an organisation’s corporate ethos, name or identity are carefully explained to those most affected by the transformation.

When rebrands fail

BA – Its tail fins fiasco in the late 90s, when it attempted to relaunch as a global brand and shake off its fusty British image, ended in a humiliating retreat. The new designs were introduced during one of BA’s periodic bouts of industrial unrest and cabin staff used the move as a stick to beat management. Some blamed poor stakeholder management which led to staff being unable to explain the reasoning behind introducing the new logos to passengers. The final nail in the coffin came when Margaret Thatcher expressed her dislike of the new designs and the airline was forced to paint out the ethnic tail fins.

Royal Mail - Its short-lived rebranding as Consignia was unpopular with staff, lampooned by the media and quickly reversed.

PricewaterhouseCoopers – In 2002, it spun off its consultancy business under a new name ‘Monday’, to much mirth in the media. IBM snapped up the consultancy and dropped the Monday name like a hot potato.


On Target
Consultancy Greentarget helped rebrand Halifax Employee Share Services (HEES) after it merged with Mourant Equity Compensation Solutions. The agency helped integrate the organisations and cultures under a single set of “values, behaviours and expressions”. The rebranding aimed to established the newly-created HBOS EES as the premium operator in the sector.

Nick Glanvill, managing director at Greentarget, says: “In all the re-branding or sub-branding work, we get involved in we make a point of consulting a broad range of stakeholders. Initially, this is to help us gain a thorough understanding of the organisation. As the project progresses, we continue to consult with them so the project benefits from their input and we can take them with us on the development journey.” He adds that external stakeholders can be more difficult to manage and involve, but must be consulted where feasible.