Thursday, August 13, 2009

On rebranding (not the kind that involves actual fire, although sometimes it feels like it does)

Okay, so I am, of course, just a little bit of an advertising nut, and branding fascinates me. That's why I loved this link from @BirminghamWorks, where Fortune magazine looks back over a dozen old branding efforts and their updated looks. It follows Apple from its Isaac Newton logo through the rainbow-striped disco fruit to the current, sleek chrome apple and Starbucks from its naked siren to its more stylized, less-naked siren.

The piece also looks at questionable brand renovations. The new Kraft logo, note the writers, is kind of nebulous and devoid of real meaning and also resembles the Yoplait logo, which is a General Mills product. The new "smiley" Pepsi swoosh could be a loser, and the Tropicana glass of orange juice was such a loser that they changed everything back just two months after its debut. The biggest stinker, they seem to feel, is the new Blackwater logo--they say it looks kind of sinister and spy-ish. I guess I can see that a little, particularly if you know what Blackwater (now "Xe," pronounced "zee," which everyone's definitely going to figure out on the first try) does, but to me, it looks more like a computer company. My first instinct is to wonder if they offer netbooks. Blackwater has a lot of bad press to overcome, but I don't really know where they're trying to take the company now, and this logo certainly doesn't give any clue.

Mentioned not in that article but in one from the beginning of July is Sci Fi's rebranding effort into... ugh, "Syfy." When I first read the press release that announced the change, I thought it was a clever prank designed to horrify viewers and marketing professionals alike before coming clean and giving everyone a relieved chuckle (and maybe an affectionate, "Oh, you're so bad."). And yet no. Now known as "seefee" around my household, the network hasn't really changed its programming--just its name, really. It's still, for the most part, a mix of Science and Fiction. They've added shows like "Warehouse 13," which is "a human story--about relationships, about isolation" that is also about... a warehouse full of supernatural relics. And shows like "Caprica," which is... a futuristic other-planet prequel to space-wars show "Battlestar Galactica." "It isn't about abandoning our dedicated fanbase," says Chris Czarkowsi, ad and sales rep for Seefee. "It's about including all those people who don't realize Syfy has anything to offer them. The point at which we change identity is when people don't see us so narrowly."

And the answer is a new, weird-looking brand that still doesn't tell people what the network has to offer?

I'm not promising that the new brand won't work out; the article reports that Seefee has drawn 12 new advertisers in the first quarter and that the rebrand did well with focus groups. But the question remains: How well will the brand do at attracting the new viewers, the ones who don't self-identify as sci-fi fans, to their programming? My biggest concern is that "Syfy" doesn't mean anything. It doesn't tell me anything about the shows they offer, the fact that sci-fi has been going mainstream for quite some time (Transformers, The Matrix, etc.), the fact that many of its shows are just as character- and plot-driven as they are techy or fantastical. It's just... seefee.

My instinct would have been not to convince potential viewers that seefee is the kind of TV that they want to watch but to convince potential viewers that sci-fi is what they've been watching all along anyway. A marketing campaign could easily push the more human tilt of some of its more human-tilted shows (the kissy bits from "Battlestar Galactica," the teary bits from "Primeval," the bits from "Sanctuary" that--wait, no, best to leave out "Sanctuary") to demonstrate the more human tilt of the network without having to rebrand it entirely. But maybe my instinct is wrong. The answer will be borne out in future viewership and advertising figures. But I hate waiting.

In the meantime, I'm sticking to my guns: A good brand needs to give some indication of the nature of the product or service you're offering, because you won't always be around in person to decipher your new logo for confused customers. The UK's "Consignia" lasted all of 14 months before switching back to a far clearer "Royal Mail." Where did Cingular go? Back to AT&T Wireless. And what the hell is an Altria?

Hint: It may or may not be Phillip Morris's attempt to escape Congressional-hearing notoriety; it's almost certainly not a beaver-looking critter with the tail of a rat.

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