Advix Blog

How Not to Change Your Identity: Branding Failures

Product Marketing and branding
In the previous article, we discussed how to approach brand strategy and what it actually affects. To further emphasize that branding is crucial, it would be sensible to provide some counter-examples of how bad (well, sometimes even not that obviously bad) decisions affecting the vast domain of branding end up in a real mess for companies.
Let’s explore some of the real cases that companies, often prominent and established, have faced. In this piece we will avoid extreme examples like the 2016 ‘Finger Lickin’ Good’ edible nail polish by KFC here, focusing instead on the true-to-life cases: hopefully, this will bring you some confidence that you do not want to copy their mistakes.

Case 1: Adapting to the new world

Weight Watchers has helped 4.5 million people worldwide improve their health and lose weight. It all started back in the 1960s when its founder, Jean Nidetch, realized she succeeded in losing weight only with significant community support, so she decided to create a community for herself and others, naming it Weight Watchers – a clear and straightforward title.

However, the values of the society changed over time, and by 2018 Weight Watchers realized it was no more ethical and inspiring to focus so explicitly on weight problems, so they decided to undergo a rebranding which implied more focus on Wellness that Works – this is how they now called their company, saving the two W’s from the old identity. This change was also intended to broaden the target audience to not only the segment who wanted to lose weight, but also those who were in one way or another concerned about their lifestyles, introducing new values like, for example, mental well-being and sustainable fitness.

Weight watchers branding evolution

Unfortunately, although the new identity seemed correct and up-to-date to many, it was never truly accepted by the members. The sales went down and, most importantly, those who were considered loyal users, started abandoning the service. The company reported a loss of 600,000 subscribers just within the second half of 2018, which definitely was not the expected outcome from their rebranding.
What could be done to prevent it?

Speaking generally, there were two main slips in the new brand positioning the company missed.

First of all, in the pursuit of ethics and audience growth they completely disregarded the real needs and values of their existing audience, as well as those of the prospects. The primary value that Weight Watchers provided to customers was quite plain and basic: if you wish to lose weight, turn to us. The new ones became much more ambiguous to attract new segments, and it also made the existing clientele feel embarrassed, as if the company was now telling them they actually did something wrong – so they just abandoned the service to avoid this discomfort.

So the first, and the crucial, lesson we learn as brand managers (and marketers as well) is: know your clients' desires and remember that you and your audience should guide your product, not the broader society. Speaking of what you definitely have at hand, analyse the statistics you have about their activities, design researches that will help you understand your audience and prospects better, and implement any drastic changes only after having gathered the sufficient data and weighed the pros and cons – preferably in the terms of financial models. And if you eventually find out that the new model will bring more benefits both to you and your clients, first introduce the new values, prove the reality does not contradict your models, and change the positioning only afterwards – not vice versa.

The same principles apply to the recent case where Bud Light, a brand traditionally preferred by conservative men, ran a campaign featuring a transgender person. Know your audience, appreciate them and never go too far from the values you transmit.

The second oversight WW allowed was to change the visual identity of the brand too drastically and too rapidly, which inevitably affected the recognition, but this will be the point we will see more clearly in the next case.

Case 2: Changes overnight

One night, and everything’s changed – this is the story of Gap and their out-of-the-blue (literally) rebranding attempt of 2010. They only wanted to change their logo, someone would say, but we would argue that they almost ended up ruining their brand identity by mere oversight. It’s been over a decade since then, but this example of how not to rebrand still remains classic.

At some point Gap decided to freshen their look by getting rid of their iconic logo: white letters GAP on the dark-blue background. It looked outdated, they assumed, it was also hard to work with in typography, so why not just change? The company reached out to a prominent branding agency, paid them $1m for the new identity, and once it was ready, just changed the logo overnight.

Long story short (not so long, though) this new logo together with the identity and rebranding costs lasted on the web for only 5 days, never (luckily) reaching the merchandise. After the avalanche of criticism from literally everywhere, from designers to customers who managed to notice the change within a short time, the company just reverted to the old identity, to which it remains faithful until today.

Gap logo evolution

What could be done to prevent it?

The story of Gap basically teaches us not to underestimate the power of visuals our brand brings with itself. The customers normally remember the impression, not the details, so your brand identity is stamped in the brain as a holistic picture that creates a strong sensory connection to what you do, and neglecting this fact dramatically affects brand awareness. To put it easy, people just stop recognising you, as if you just started something from scratch. The same could also be applied to the Weight Watchers case – but in their example it might have been efficient if done in the right order. If you need (and you can prove it) to introduce some major changes to your visuals, disregarding how powerful you consider your brand identity to be, do it step by step remaining recognisable – just in case for some reason you underestimate how you’re being perceived.

Case 3: A successful brand does not equal successful extensions

The history of Starbucks shows us many unfortunate examples of how you can try to extend your brand to new audiences or product lines – and fail. Having been able to find their niche and soaring in it (more or less) until today, each time they prove that your name means nothing if you access a wrong market, or launch a product that does not correspond with your identity.
Starbucks logo
Quite a long time ago, during the 2008 recession, for example, they decided to launch instant coffee to cover the losses caused by the deteriorating demand. Well, that's also coffee, after all, nay? So they experimented with it, despite the fact that, basically, the Starbucks brand is all about sensual identity, it is designed to experience coffee, not just drink it: to be welcomed to enter the iconic cafés, smell the aroma, watch a barista prepare the coffee for you, and finally joyfully read your misspelt name. Expectedly, their instant coffee was never quite as successful as its competitors targeted at the quick and easy resolution of the lack of caffeine in one's body, so they just shut it down.

Quite at the same time they were experiencing another struggle, this time with a new market. Starbucks decided to conquer Australia, inspired by the striking success in Japan and China, but they never seriously thought of what could ruin their plans there. In this case it was the local market itself: the coffee culture in Australia was so strong that it just did not let the giant in. Moreover, Starbucks admitted having neglected their primary value proposition in this region – the quality of experience – for the sake of the rapid expansion. In the end, this resulted in shutting down 61 of the 84 stores the chain had on the Australian continent.

Another case was with Teavana – a tea brand purchased by Starbucks in 2012. Initially, they intended to replicate the success of coffee stores with tea stores (which already were somewhat successful, in any case.) Afterwards, they focused more on the product, promoting it as specialty tea which, in the end, did not manage to cope with the competition of online sales and just disappeared. The most common example of coming across Teavana today will be at Starbucks' normal coffee store.

Actually, the list of Starbucks slips is almost endless – nevertheless, the company remains the most successful in its niche all over the world (okay, almost), and still has one of the strongest brand identities we have ever seen. They are going to continue their expansion for the years to come, going more digital, signing strategic partnerships with other giants, opening 8 new stores per day until 2030 to reach the target network scale… The crucial thing is that now they explicitly strive for the quality – and hopefully this will save us from filling up the Starbucks failure piggy bank in the future.
What could be done to prevent it?

Starbucks has done loads of really amazing things to build their brand, and it is really worth admiration how they manage to experiment (sometimes unsuccessfully) and not lose the track. For us, however, there are several outcomes from their path.

The first will be, again, to respect your values and the ones of your clients. It is crucial to understand that if you are valued for the experiences you provide, it is highly unlikely that your clients will accept a dramatic shift to convenience and robot-like service.

The second, and, generally, the crucial one in all of the Starbucks' cases is, basically, the homework. Every time you wish to enter a new market – both geographically and product-wise – research it. Does the product cover the needs of its segment? Is the market you are going to enter too competitive? It looks as though the corporation relies on their brand power so strongly that they sometimes just hope that the Starbucks name will save anything. It does not work – especially when you are not Starbucks.

To sum up

In conclusion, it is worth mentioning that, if you are a new business and think about your brand strategy and positioning seriously from the very beginning, it is highly unlikely that you will face the same issues because you will cherish your values, audience and conduct regular assessment of what and how you are doing. Brand integrity is king, never give up on that – or start building it as soon as possible.