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How To Unbrand Wisely

Unfortunately, not all brands live forever. Some simply die from natural causes. They become too old, too feeble, and just can’t manage to stand on their own two feet. Like Sears. Other brands were just too short-sighted and their products became obsolete and unwanted. They weren’t agile enough to adapt. No market. No brand. Like the infamous Blockbuster Video. And then there were the ones who self-destructed. Like Enron. But other brands have disappeared or transformed for more positive reasons. They were acquired, merged, or rebranded into something entirely new. It’s a case when the brand goes away as it was but the company, product or service takes on a new life. Unbranding is the process of brand transformation leaving the old behind only to re-emerge as something new.

The Need to Unbrand

There are many situations that lead to an unbrand. It’s not a bad thing. There are good reasons that companies and products will go down the unbrand route.

  • Rebranding. There are many different types of rebrands. Some rebrands are internal only affecting the underlying strategy and culture. Other rebrands impact outward expression. It could be a subtle name change like Starbucks dropping “Coffee” or Dunkin Donuts dropping “Donuts.” Other kinds of rebrands have a more profound effect on the identity. When modifying or replacing the current logo with something new, the old one has to go away. When Pfizer repositioned from a “pill brand” to a “science brand” it rebranded through a redesign of its logo to reflect that positioning change. That required the unbranding of its old logo.
  • Incremental Transformation. Everyone is familiar with the FedEx acquisition of Kinkos back 2004. It took four years for FedEx to ease into FedEx Office putting the Kinkos brand to bed once and for all. Why did it take so long? Customer loyalty. The principal challenge of unbranding Kinko’s was to protect customer loyalty and transfer brand equity to the FedEx Office brand.
  • Re-incarnation. In 1998 Citicorp merged with Travelers Group to become Citigroup Inc. It is a classic example of how one company (Travelers Group) was unbranded but not forgotten. Their unbranding re-emerged through a Citi brand identity by virtue of a new identity that captured the spirit of the iconic Travelers umbrella. The merger of United Airlines and Continental is another example in which the unbranding of Continental resurfaced as the United symbol mark.
  • Assimilation. More often than not a merger or acquisition will result in the complete assimilation of one brand by the other. The merger between Wells Fargo and Norwest was considered close to being equal business entities. But the recognition of the Wells Fargo brand equity won out. Norwest was unbranded and disappeared only to live on as a distant memory.

5 Ways to Manage Unbranding

The worst possible outcome of an unbrand is to lose customers. The best way to manage an unbrand is to have a clear communication strategy.

1. Ensure All Employees Are Fully Informed.

Employees are on the front lines of customer relationships. They will be the first ones to be asked about what’s happening. It’s essential that they be equipped to respond. And that all employees are armed with the same information so that all messaging is consistent. If they don’t know the answers they need to know where to direct customers. That’s the easy part. Some customers will be critical. So it’s also important for employees to know how to handle complaints and negative feedback.

2. Start With a Soft Introduction

The first point of contact should be as soon as possible. The main objective is to ensure customers that it will be business as usual. There is nothing to worry about. And don’t forget to inform business partners and vendors. The relationship with a brand that is going away in one shape or form needs to be treated with careful consideration to the emotional connection with that brand. The first introduction has to recognize those emotional ties.

3. Keep The Communication Flowing

Make sure there is a comprehensive communication strategy in place through the transition period. Communication should be frequent across all channels. This may include direct mail, emails, website updates, PR, press releases, and even events. What’s most important is consistency. The messaging to all customers and stakeholders needs to be cohesive. Make available resources like FAQs. There also needs to be convenient access to address specific questions. A timeline of what will happen, when, and what impact on the customer is invaluable.

4. Follow-up

Once the unbrand has fully transitioned be sure to follow up. There will be lingering questions. The sooner they are attended to the better. It’s important to demonstrate continuity through and post-transition. That builds confidence. It’s also a great opportunity to reinforce the benefits of the change.

5. Anticipate Blowback

Some people just don’t like change even if it is to their advantage. And they are usually the most vocal about what they don’t like. Social media makes it easy to complain. So plan on how to handle that. Be able to back up the change with good reasons on “Why.” A sound rationale will add credibility. However, accept that not everyone is going to agree or be happy.

Life After Unbrand

Unbranding is part of brand life. Some brands disappear forever. Some transition into something else. And some evolve through incremental steps. Design and messaging will solve the manifestation of the brand. But it is communication that is critical to managing the change. It’s communication that will ease the anxiety and lead customers to embrace the change.

The goal of How Brand Works is to share our experience, perspectives and philosophy on the different facets of branding intended to enable an effective brand management strategy.

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