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Pardon Our Appearance: A Few Lessons on Rebranding

The term rebranding can be misleading. Cosmetic changes don’t change who we are.

August 30, 2018
 
 

Please pardon our appearance. We’re rebranding. Or we’re renovating our look and feel. With marketing budgets being what they are, you may see inconsistent marketing collateral as we transition — an undergraduate publication that doesn’t align perfectly with an online ad, a website not entirely in sync. If you look hard enough, you’ll probably also find letterhead from twenty years ago coming out under some department head’s signature, but I try not to think about that.

It’s an unnerving time and with good reason. Search “rebranding fails” and you’ll get headlines like “10 Major Rebranding Disasters and What You Should Learn from Them,” “Five of the Worst Rebranding Fails Ever,” and “10 Rebranding Failures and How Much They Cost.” Obviously, rebranding is a bloodsport and not for the faint of heart.

As I peruse these rebranding failures trying to avoid their fate, I can find some comfort though. For every fail scurrilously written about, none seem to have been fatal and most were merely cosmetic. The Gap reverted back to its old logo, Tropicana to its previous packaging. No one seemed to like Holiday Inn’s new logo, but they stuck to it and seem to be fine. Ditto with Capital One.

I’ve found that while the term “rebranding” is bandied about liberally as click bait, the work that we do to keep our brands current has a lot more nuance as the following lessons hope to clarify.

Lesson One: Redesign Does Not Equal Rebranding

The journalists who perennially take on this topic would be the first to tell you that most were not truly rebranding efforts to begin with because the culture and mission of the companies had not significantly changed. The Gap still sells sturdy, casual clothing at thousands of locations, and Tropicana, never-from-concentrate orange juice. The Holiday Inn is still a moderately priced hotel chain, Capital One, a credit card company. While their look and feel may have changed, nothing had really changed at their core.

We too have not really rebranded. As an institution of higher education, we are much more than our logo, color palette, or any one ad campaign. Our culture and mission hasn’t changed in our 177-year history. Fordham is a research university in New York City, founded by Jesuits, committed to bettering the world through education. Contemporary use of language, white space, and photography doesn’t change that. Even if we had gone further — a new tagline, even a logo redesign — it wouldn’t have changed who we are.

Lesson Two: Redesign is Rediscovering the Brand

A key element of a redesign process undertaken with consultants — whether it be website, viewbook, or logo — is the discovery process, purportedly, to help the outsiders understand the brand. In truth, bringing together voices from on and off campus to talk about our institution’s brand promise and the ways it hits or misses its mark is an exercise that has as much value internally as it does externally.

I am always energized by seeing themes repeated across discussions, whether with students or deans or alumni. Yes, the stakes are high — the publications, website, and video that we produce have to appeal to our target audiences, our potential customers — but done right, redesign is a reaffirmation for everyone involved of what’s at our core and its relevance, not only to the higher education marketplace, but to the time and place in which we find ourselves.

Lesson Three: Rediscover Often, Redesign on Occasion, Rebrand Rarely

While I wish that our brand rediscovery could take place annually, redesign needn’t so, and rebranding, maybe never. Many of the experts deriding companies for rebranding failures will note, that in many cases, the redesigns were undertaken without cause, that they were change for change’s sake.

I think we largely avoid this pitfall. We probably resist change for longer than most. Our last look and feel served us well for the better part of a decade. I know of one university with a wildly popular video that has simply edited in new students as necessary and even a new president because why mess with success? Some well-endowed institutions could get by with an email address and a couple of postcards and still keep the lights on. But as marketing materials are often an easy target for new administrators looking to make their mark, I think it’s essential to keep in mind that, as the saying goes, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

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