The tumultuous branding year in review
We have witnessed a dynamic year for brands in 2018. As brands continue to proliferate and saturate our collective attention, technology is giving consumers more ways to control when, how, and where they interface with brands. Think of your smartphone like a dam holding back a swelling river of brands trying to reach you. Could this new reality for brands be at the core of what is causing companies to take bigger risks or why they are playing fast and loose with their most prized possessions? With many brands struggling to find organic growth, are all branding rules open to challenge?
Here is this year’s selection of brand moments that defied convention, challenged titans, and redefined the relationships of trust with consumers. We believe the marketing aftershocks from these seismic events will reverberate for years to come.
It seems like a quaint memory that consistency was a brand’s core trait and best practice. This year, two brands looking to fight through and build greater awareness and consideration used their core assets—their names—as the basis of campaigns.
Can you recall the social media storm created by the IHOP-to-IHOB-back-to-IHOP name change? Faced with a perception challenge, this brand decided to use a name change to draw attention to the less known parts of its offerings (“B” is for burgers). IHOP President Darren Rebelez declared the name whiplash a huge success, citing how the brand gained 20,000 news articles and 36 billion social media impressions. If you are wondering what business success this generated, the comparable same-restaurant sales increased 0.7 percent in the most recent quarter (as of Aug 2018). Although this statistic makes one wonder if it was worth the potential backlash, it is impressive to see the reported hamburger sales quadrupled following the promotion, contributing to a significant lift in lunch and dinner sales. Still, we are curious if the business lift will counter the potential for consumers to feel cheapened, disenfranchised, or manipulated.
Relatedly, Dunkin’ Donuts dropped the “Donuts” from its name in a similar move to shift its brand perceptions. In a less dramatic measure than IHOP’s, the brand used a name change to drive itself into broader conversations, using the conversational or coined name that many consumers already use. We can add Dunkin’ to a long line of shortened brand names, including Federal Express, United Parcel Service and—this year’s best example—American Express (now AMEX).
While it is probably safe to say brand name changes shouldn’t be gauged solely by their meme potential, it is undeniable that the power of our social networks and the influence they generate are now major levers in the marketer’s arsenal. For some, even a brand’s core asset, its name, is fair game to leverage.
This year, we saw the effects of brands growing wildly and behaving poorly, reminiscent of adolescents having temper tantrums.
Amazon used the addition of its second headquarters (HQ2) as a public beauty pageant, where more than 20 cities were shortlisted with the privilege of wooing Amazon. The process gained Amazon plenty of coverage and excited municipalities across the country. While the buzz grew, Amazon was busy doing what it does best: gaining an intimate understanding of its customers (in this case, local markets, tax incentives, and other critical demographic and urban growth details). The HQ bake-off ended unceremoniously with predictable winners, leaving many to vent their frustration and wonder how viable the entire opportunity was.
Politicians in the winning cities tempered their enthusiasm for fear of being perceived as aiding an industry behemoth with unnecessary tax breaks. What was intended to be a strategy promoting Amazon as a job creator left many with the sour taste of a corporate giant overextending its leverage.
Few brands can claim the kind of achievements that Elon Musk’s Tesla, SpaceX, and The Boring Company had in 2018. The Model 3 gained production acumen, the new Semi transport truck wowed, and the image of a roadster flying into space was seared in our minds. Tesla recorded a profit, but despite these and numerous other achievements, Musk faced a growing amount of criticism, skepticism, and scorn, ultimately losing the chairmanship of his company and facing SEC fines. Instead of being revered as this generation’s greatest innovator/inventor, he’s losing the battle of public perception. Even a very public intervention by Ariana Huffington couldn’t stem the tide of attacks on Elon Musk’s character and leadership abilities. Musk, embattled by analysts trying to accurately quantify his vision and sleep-deprived by the process of bringing his vision to life, took body blow after body blow, and his brands suffered a crisis of confidence in the biggest way.
Not since the financial meltdown of 2008 have we seen consumers’ trust in brands this severely affected.
In an attempt to polish a tarnished reputation with drivers, investors, and regulators, Uber has started the process to regain stakeholder trust. The new leadership and branding was an attempt to recast Uber in a more friendly and approachable way. This emerging ethos seems to be permeating all of its communications and practices. As with any fast-rising brand, navigating the inevitable speed wobbles remains a key challenge to achieving long-term success. Uber does seem to be on a path of recovery.
Fittingly, our last example is a brand that suffered the most in 2018. Facebook experienced the single worst one-day fall in a company’s market capitalization in Wall Street history, plummeting from $631.2 billion to $511.5 billion on July 25, according to Sentieo. CEO Mark Zuckerberg is reported to have lost around $11 billion of his personal worth, and his stock went from a high of $230 to $110 (as of 12/27). These market realities are symptomatic of the challenge the brand faces in trying to rebuild the trust of its stakeholders, and, by extension, the trust of governments, partners, and investors. Compounding the earlier data breaches, the company is now facing mounting criticism over its attempts to repair the long-term damage it has done to its own brand after selling consumer data and ineffectively managing the unintended consequences of trying to win at all costs.
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