Is Debranding the New Branding?
In 2018, Weightwatchers did something drastic. To the mockery, and admittedly, bewilderment, of others - they opted to remove the word “weight” from their name and present themselves as WW. That’s right. WW.
The move was not met with perhaps the gushing reception they expected. Critics were quick to note that “WW has twice the syllables of Weight Watchers and ‘double u, double u’ may not be the best messaging for a wellness brand” whilst confusion reigned throughout their customers - most of whom still refer to them as “weightwatchers”.
But where did Weightwatchers go wrong?
By trying debranding.
What is Debranding?
Debranding is a type of branding strategy where a brand or corporation will typically overhaul its entire visual identity. Usually brand names may change or be removed from visual identities, a company's logo will be completely redesigned and all of its marketing collateral such as its website, packaging and branding will also be altered.
The motivation behind debranding is usually the brand or corporation wanting to make itself seem more consumer-centric than corporate-centric, which is why the process of debranding is sometimes still referred to as “decorporation”. To put it simply, debranding basically means promoting what a brand does for its customers, as opposed to what it does in its industry.
However since Coca Cola successfully deployed a debranding strategy in 2013 and boasted of notable results including a 7% increase in consumption, and an 870% increase in traffic to its website, many multinational companies have attempted to hop on the bandwagon. Most of them, unfortunately, have fallen right back off.
The reason? The debranding problem.
The Debranding Problem
Yes, it's a real thing. The problem with debranding and the reason as to why so many major brands have failed to hit the mark (like Weightwatchers) with their debranding attempts is because not many people actually understand what it really is.
Most critics when writing about Weightwatchers debranding used other examples to back up their points, but the examples they used were mostly brand refreshes. Take the music magazine Rolling Stone for example, one of the brands heavily cited at the time.
Many critics attempted to label this logo change, “a debrand”. But it wasn’t. Why? Because its name still appears, and apart from a very slight visual tweak, nothing else about the Rolling Stone brand was scaled back, or made more personal.
In comparison as seen below, British American Tobacco did debrand, and did so successfully. Not only did their entire name and logo change, they also very obviously positioned themselves as more consumer-centric by removing their bland and boring corporate name, and instead outwardly displaying their (perhaps ironic) brand promise to their customers.
A brand refresh, that is to say: Any type of updated logo, new colour palette, and/or new visuals, does not a debrand make. The clue to a successful debranding strategy is in the prefix, “de” which means to remove or reverse. With a debrand you’re losing - usually your name, your prior positioning and/or your entire visual identity. With a brand refresh, you’re keeping your name and just making subtle tweaks to your identity.
Simple stuff, really.
The 3 Types of Debranding
There are three types of debranding, each that serve a different purpose. Depending on the reasoning behind the debrand, whether it’s to become more consumer-centric, lose some edginess, or transform from traditional to modern, will depend on which set of debranding guidelines to follow.
Decorporatising is the main type of debranding, and it’s the one we’ve spoken about in this blog. To decorporatise, brands completely remove their name and/or logo from their products either permanently, like our British American Tobacco example, or temporarily, like Coca Cola did in 2013 when they swapped their name with people’s names.
The motivation behind decorporatising is in its name: The marketing campaign or the permanent transformation should be fuelled entirely by the brand repositioning itself as more consumer friendly.
2. Transitioning to Generic
Transitioning into generic is the type of debranding strategy that Weightwatchers tried and got horrendously wrong (sorry Weightwatchers, or, er, WW). Transitioning into generic is when a renowned brand changes its name and/or its logo to something either generic or simply unnamed. Weightwatchers opted to change its name generically to WW, but other examples include KFC who, facing conflict regarding their use of fried in 1991, shortened their full name to an acronym and plastered that across their logo instead.
The motivation for a brand to transition into something generic could occur for any number of reasons. The brand may want to draw less attention to something within its name, like Fried or Weight, or it may be trying to come into line with more modern principles if it’s traditionally been an outlier or has used a rebel brand personality.
Rebel personalities? Yes they’re a thing. Find out your brand’s personality.
3. Modern Debranding
Modern debranding is a bit of a misleading strategy. You’d think from the name that the process of modern debranding would be stripping a brand’s visual identity back to something much more refreshed, updated and in modern design to attract modern consumers… But it’s not. Modern debranding is the process of removing a brand name from a logo, but not changing it, in order to acquire other brands without completely overhauling the parent brands branding.
Sound confusing? Good. An example that explains this strategy much more clearly is chocolate brand Galaxy/Dove. In the UK, the chocolate bar is referred to as Galaxy. In the US, it’s Dove. It’s the same product, the same font, and the same branding -- just a completely different name.
Spot the difference!
The motivation behind modern debranding can be seen just in that example: It’s predominantly used for bigger brands to swallow smaller brands without needing to completely redesign the brand identity to cram them all under the umbrella.
Need to strategise your brand? Use our no-blathering guide.
The Factors You’ll Need to Meet to Debrand Successfully
Once you’ve decided exactly which key strategy your debrand will be pursuing, and why, you’ll need the following factors to ensure its success. Another reason so many brands have failed to debrand successfully - apart from not knowing the definition, nor why they’re doing it - is that they haven’t had one or two of the following to support the move.
Debranding can alienate consumers if the change is not clear, obvious, or recognisable, or if it feels out of keeping with what drew consumers to use the brand in the first place. Consumers form stronger relationships with branding that is clear and that they can instantly connect to, so taking away elements of that awareness (like an identifiable name and tagline and leaving only the symbols). Try to ensure your brand is ticking at least one of these boxes before ploughing into a debranding strategy.
- Having a mature brand
Ok so by mature brand we don’t necessarily mean grown up in the type of way that Saga Holidays is. What we, or more accurately, Brad VanAuken from The Blake Project, means is that the brand should meet the following criteria which recognise it as “mature” and therefore safe, and recognisable enough, to undergo the debrand.
The brand should:
- Be capable of communicating its meaning and customer value beyond its products or services.
- Be able to flaunt high levels of awareness in the present and then succeed in increasing its awareness over time.
- Be progressive and visionary, but with its values, promises and meanings already firmly rooted within customers’ minds, making them difficult to forget or change.
One such example of a mature brand is of course, Apple. Apple can afford to debrand itself to just the icon of an Apple because everybody already recognises the brand, brings to mind their values, and its consumers are mostly visionaries themselves which makes the transition wholly easier.
If your brand fails to meet these generally accepted criteria, debranding could do more harm than good. If the brand is not yet iconic, nor well known, you could lose your share of the market and competitor advantage because consumers will suddenly be asking “Sorry, who is that?”
2. Not being a corporate powerhouse
Alongside having a mature brand, another thing you’ll need is the right stature. If your brand is too megalithic and a debrand would likely alienate or confuse your consumers, it’s best to avoid trying one.
You’re likely to risk your profitability because you may lose credibility from bewildered customers. This of course then has knock on effects for your competitive positioning, and your status as an industry leader.
If you are a corporate powerhouse and you want to change things, it’s better to consider a brand refresh.
3. Being in a debrand-friendly industry
Innovation is tough, and it’s a fine line to walk when you’re trying to change your positioning, and keep your customers.
One such example is the tobacco industry which in 2015 opted to debrand completely. Recognisable logos like Marlboro and Mayfair were wiped from packages and instead replaced by graphic health warnings as part of a wider public health marketing strategy. The debrand was important for public health, obviously, but it cost them: Sales and profits dropped, and competitors who vehemently opposed the scheme were able to profit from consumers opting to choose their brands instead.
Whilst the pharmaceutical industry is a pretty far out example, it’s still best to consider your consumer base when thinking about stripping back. Depending on the demographic factors involved in your target audiences will depend on whether a debrand will be embraced or rejected, and trying to be “ediger” than competitors could risk the brand integrity.
4. The right resources
Debranding is not straightforward. Just like with any brand refresh, or rebranding strategy for that matter, changing an entire visual identity takes time, money and yes, some business strategy.
Depending on which debranding strategy you will be following depends entirely on what needs to change. If you’re decorporatising, everything - no matter how temporarily - needs to go, including marketing materials, packaging, and website design. If you’re transitioning to the generic the same applies, and if you’re swallowing another brand you need to be prepared to run both brands simultaneously alongside one another with double the costings and double the resources.
Failure to synchronise the debrand across all of your customer touch points is all but guaranteed to make the debrand fail because there will be confusion and distrust over who you are, what your brand does, and the reasoning as to why you’re seemingly running two different identities.
Thinking of taking the leap?
As we’ve established, debranding is not necessarily the new branding -- especially when some companies still fail to get it right -- but it is still a form of branding that is increasing in popularity. At Huddle Creative we can take the time to add innovation and creativity to your brand, without losing you custom. Find out more:
- Learn about our innovative Huddle Hacks
- See the success we’ve had in the past
- Get in touch with our team of experts