Friday, October 28, 2011

Messing with the Brand

My dad loves newspapers. He pores over each page, carefully folding and refolding each section as he reads a story of interest, works on a crossword puzzle, or notes something that he wants to show to someone in the family. And then he piles them on one of the side tables next to his chair or on the floor around and even under his chair—but never in the perfectly-sized basket my mother carefully selected and placed next to his chair to hold these items while awaiting the weekly collection for recycling.
Last Sunday, I was circling my father’s chair, picking up several days’ worth of papers for the recycling basket, when I happened to note that his paper was open to an article in the Star Tribune business section entitled, “Agency Takes a Shot at Rebranding Jack Daniels.” My initial reaction? Oh, no! Another misguided MBA or overzealous marketing executive who is going to toss aside years of brand investment in the belief that it will change the company’s fortunes, or make the company attractive to a new or different market, or for no reason other than because the logo has been around for a long time and is due for a facelift. 
Does Brown-Forman (owner of Jack Daniels) remember Gap, which not that long ago introduced (and quickly withdrew) a new logo that moved their signature blue box surrounding the word “Gap” to a small box sitting on the “p”? Or Tropicana, which tried to exchange its “straw-in-the-orange” carton design with a boring orange color block. Or Seattle’s Best, which replaced its classic “cigar band” logo with a sleek circle and “drip design” best described by one Seattle journalist as suggesting something between Target and a Red Cross blood drive. (Seattle’s Best is owned by Starbucks, which itself “updated” its logo by dropping the classic “lifesaver” imprinted with “Starbucks Coffee,” leaving the mermaid design to stand alone…).
What prompted these decisions? What is the intended outcome of the change? What marketing research suggests that a change would be good for business? Did anyone do any market research? I can’t speak for the above situations, but in many cases, there is no clear reason for a change.
Instead, there is a failure to question change, a lack of understanding of the difference between a brand and a marketing campaign. While even the truly awful trademark changes are not being credited with any direct long-term negative financial effect, these changes can be very costly to implement (and even more so to unwind), and if poorly received, may create some hard-to-repair trust issues with loyal customers.    
Not all brand changes are bad. I’ll bet most readers will not remember the original Apple logo, which consisted of a detailed drawing of Isaac Newton sitting under an apple tree. At a glance, it looked like a Gothic-style engraved book plate. Switching to the sleek bitten apple design was a smart moveboth as a recognition-based branding strategy, as well as one of sheer practicality. Imagine trying to stamp that original design on an iPhone. I’m not sure that there was a great deal of thought put into such a substantial change, but the company was young and hadn’t developed much brand recognition in its early design. There wasn’t much risk in that change, and certainly no long-term negative impact.
But Jack Daniels? It’s been around forever. You don’t need to have perfect vision to recognize a bottle in a restaurant or on a liquor store shelf, even from across the room. Why would anyone mess with that?
When I finally located the now-read Sunday business section tucked into the cushion of my dad’s chair (a new place no doubt selected to annoy me), I learned that my fears and anxiety for Jack were misplaced. The old and new bottles, displayed in a side-by-side comparison, were, at first glance, indistinguishable. But upon further examination, there was no question as to which was the new design. The shoulders of the bottle were more boldly squared and the label was significantly cleaned upunnecessary and excess elements were removed while preserving core items most identifiable to the consumer.
To me, this was a perfect job. Subtle but important changes were made to truly improve the packaging without destroying the historic brand elements. My congratulations to Cue, the Minneapolis-based brand design agency that managed the project.

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