When Elon Musk recently announced his intention to rebrand Twitter as ‘X’ some thought the maverick entrepreneur had finally lost it. But had he?
It remains to be seen what transpires from the audacious move, but it certainly got noticed, not least by those in the worlds of branding and media.
If we were, for a moment, to credit Musk with deep insight he might be on to something: making a change before most of his customers are ready to, stealing a march on competitors in a fast-moving sector, repositioning the offer more comprehensively for the future, using surprise to disrupt the market. More cynical commentators may divine desperation and the downward spiral of a failing business. We shall see.
The conscious creation and management of brands as a business discipline has been around for a while. Much of the thinking influencing brands is not new. Ideas are recycled regularly. True innovation is hard, especially when you’re not prepared to bet the farm. Platitudinal branding signifiers are easy to come by – distinctiveness, authenticity, agility – but not so easy to put into practice, let alone maintain.
Some worry that the rapid development of generative AI will have a dulling impact on brands. Based on algorithms AI may lead to more similar or copycat brands. Brand owners might be tempted to de-risk their decisions by relying on AI to guide them. Once again, time will time.
It’s natural for long-established brands to be conscious of their heritage, to keep reminding themselves of their values, of what made them successful in the first place, then making regular incremental adjustments to their brands. Coca-Cola is an old hand at this, and despite the occasional misstep the brand has pretty much stuck to the knitting.
It’s amongst start-up and insurgent businesses that branding is often at its most radical and risky. Perhaps that’s because they’ve got less to lose if things don’t work out. Take the launch of ‘Who gives a crap’ recycled toilet paper. Being provocative by challenging accepted norms in this product area is proving to be a success as it also boasts its environmental credentials at the same time. The oat drink brand Oatly with its self-mocking on-pack copy has successfully stolen market share from milk – an essentially commodity product – and is helping to change tastes for a whole generation.
Arguably brands like these have stories to tell that make them more relatable to some consumers while others may be suspicious of virtue-signalling. Either way design plays a crucial role in how these stories are told.
One noticeable phenomenon in branding is the way brand owners sometimes get bored before their audiences do. Newly appointed CMOs or brand managers often want to make their mark by trying something they can take the credit for – fair enough if they make the right judgement call. If not, they’ll likely be off to a new role somewhere else. While brands are expected to have longevity it’s ironic those who run them often don’t stick around long enough to see the impact of their decisions.
Naturally, there is an understandable desire by many brands to be constantly relevant, contemporary, and even ‘hip’. The surprise is when stolid financial players feel the need to follow trends. When Standard Life Aberdeen, the investment managers, rebranded as ‘abrdn’, a few eyebrows were raised, not to mention some supressed sniggers. It seems as if one can try too hard. The respectable Scottish heritage of canny investment strategies gave way to social media’s digital shorthand.
But as John Cage once said: “I can’t understand why people are frightened of new ideas. I’m frightened of the old ones.”