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From X to Barbie: Marketing Faculty on the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly of Rebranding

In a midnight rush, Elon Musk announced that Twitter is now called X, and that the company’s iconic bird logo would fly away. Time will tell if the rebranding is successful.

Musk changed Twitter to X because he wants the company to be more than just a social media platform. He also really likes the letter x.

While many pundits agreed that Musk’s rebranding is driven by ego, School of Communication Dean and Marketing Professor Brent Smith said there is one main reason why companies rebrand.

“Essentially change is necessary. That may be because of a perception promoted by bad reputation or just bad positioning,” said Smith. “It’s important to have some kind of narrative that explains or accompanies the change. Even if it’s not explaining, there should be something accompanying the change in the brand that takes people from what they’ve known. The narrative could be a pathway or journey from what is anchored in their minds.”

Headshot of Brent Smith
Brent Smith

Smith said the need for a narrative is to help people accept or cope with the change. 

“People buy products for what they mean, not just what they do. The brand is an extension of themselves,” said Smith. 

Director of Business of Creative Enterprises and Graduate Program Director for Strategic Marketing Communication Brenna McCormick tells her students, “Branding is for longevity, while marketing meets the moment.” 

“Brands should be designed for longevity. This is the goal of brand strategy. In order to have a relationship with your consumers which lasts a long time you have to think about how you reinvent the brand to meet your evolving consumers. How does your brand connect to the audience, so you’re achieving your business’ strategies?” said McCormick. “Brands have increasingly moved into the very interesting space of relationships. We meet them in a place that is more human than what can be a very transactional experience in marketing. Branding is about values, storytelling, and identity. As consumers we like to interact with brands because it helps us build our own identities.”

Brenna McCormick headshot
Brenna McCormick

“I think it’s much deeper than a logo change. I think about the context of the brand and what It means. It includes the name, the logo, the brand’s meaning and it’s positioning,” said Senior Executive-in-Residence and Marketing Communications Professor Walter Mills.

Smith said the richest man in the world has a cultural positioning of being a big thinker due to his spacecraft and satellite communications company SpaceX, and leading Tesla to bring electric vehicles to the mainstream.

“He could be on to something to say Twitter is a better platform than the name allows people to understand. X, for many of us, is an unknown like a variable. It’s a multiplier,” said Smith. “He’s leaving it up to everyone to decide what it can mean. Maybe X doesn’t mark a spot in this case. It points to a future.”

While the jury is out on X, Emerson marketing faculty shared their thoughts on a gamut of rebranding campaigns including classic cola wars, the disappearance of well-known brands, and the current re-envisioning of Barbie. 

What’s In a Name?

It’s a given if a brand is associated with death or slavery, a name change is a good idea. Smith spoke about several noted brands that needed to change their reputation and get out of the spotlight.

Smith on Phillip Morris:

The real life Phillip Morris was a British tobacconist and cigarette importer who died in 1873. The Phillip Morris multinational company was founded in 1902. It would be many decades later when the company decided to change its name to get away from its reputation of peddling tobacco.

The Phillip Morris rebranding was about survival. Phillip Morris was associated with tobacco and smoking when society was really angry with the cigarette companies. Phillip Morris also owned Kraft. Cigarette brands and consumer food brands don’t go well together. They renamed it Altria, which didn’t mean anything at the time for the mainstream. It turned down the negative energy coming at the company. 

The everyday person might not call it a win, but the everyday person isn’t thinking about their brand being under siege, and they just want to make it out of one fiscal quarter into the next and plot a future for the next fiscal year. That’s a win. 

Smith on Blackwater:

Blackwater was a mercenary for hire company that was embroiled in an international scandal when a group of its employees killed 17 Iraqi civilians and injured 20 in 2007. Needless to say, the company wanted to get away from its notorious name.

Blackwater was renamed Xe. It went through a number of purchases, and that name is gone. [Now it is Academi.] Blackwater was an attractive name in the private, for hire mercenary business. Blackwater was working until it wasn’t, and then they had problems in Iraq. It made a turn for the worse really, really quickly. The name change got them out of the press, so they weren’t making news. They had brand awareness in a bad way. It was good to get them out of the press. It wasn’t good for potential customers knowing who they were. Sometimes after rebranding you may have to reeducate people and say, ‘That’s us.’ You don’t know how much you can say, ‘That’s us’ – because you’re trying to get away from the brand name. That’s a challenge as well.

Smith on Aunt Jemima:

Logo for Pearl Milling Company
(Photo from facebook.com/pearlmillingcompany)

Maple syrup, pancakes, waffles, and flapjacks — for many decades the Aunt Jemima brand was synonymous with breakfast. But the Aunt Jemima character, a plump black woman who was wearing a headscarf was also based on the common enslaved “Mammy” archetype, who was regarded as a devoted and submissive servant.

In 2020, facing a public outcry, Quaker Oats announced they were pulling the brand from shelves and that it would be replaced with a new name and image. Can you name the new brand and image?

What comes to mind when you hear Pearl Milling Company? If you don’t know the name, probably nothing. It wasn’t just removing the picture. It was a wholesale change to the box. But Pearl Milling Company. Where does Pearl fit in? Where does milling fit in? Where does it fit into consumers’ minds? Are people saying, ‘Oh yeah, that’s the former Aunt Jemima pancake brand.’ People can feel however they feel about it and cultural issues, but it sold really well. It’s not so clear this Pearl Milling thing has been successful. 

Smith on Yahoo:

Yahoo! logo

Sometimes brands grow out of their names. Yahoo! wasn’t always named Yahoo! Did you know that Yahoo is actually an acronym for Yet Another Hierarchical Officious Oracle?

Smith explained how one of the most well-known brands on the internet settled on its named: 

A throwback rebranding is what people came to know as Yahoo! Yahoo was named after the founders, and called Jerry and David’s Guide to the World Wide Web. Brands like that don’t go far. One — who are Jerry and David? And why am I following their guide to the world? People got to know Yahoo when the internet was becoming more of a mainstream thing. 

McCormick on Barbie:

Barbie is going through an incredible rebranding right now thanks to the stylized movie. McCormick spoke about how the 60+ year old doll is undergoing a resurgence:

The Barbie movie has currently accomplished one of the most significant rebrands we’ve seen in a very long time. Everybody is talking about the film’s amazing marketing and tactics, but what Mattel has accomplished with this huge Hollywood gamble is a new relevance of the brand.

The film gives us a new story about Barbie, and leverages the respected talents of Margot Robbie, who plays Barbie, and director Greta Gerwig. The storyline of the film has permitted a self-examination of the brand, and allows it to meet a new cultural moment. Robbie is very compelling as an actor. She’s been Harley Quinn, and she provides depth to the characters she portrays that are often nontraditional female roles. Then the amazing writing and directing of Gerwig – that made people curious. 

The marketing campaign invites multiple generations to interact with Barbie as a brand. It isn’t just about the doll, or the content, or your past relationship. They’ve created a cultural moment where we get to think about the role Barbie plays in the female psyche and general cultural psyche. They’ve allowed us to point out and laugh about things that are imperfect and problematic of the Barbie brand. They’ve invited that brand to be examined. And done so in a way that is fun. There’s some irreverence that Mattel permitted. Brands tend to be highly controlled. Mattel took a big risk, which paid off with what feels like a revitalization of the Barbie brand.

McCormick on Tropicana:

Sometimes brands rework their logos and it goes poorly. McCormick explained what happened after Tropicana changed its logo that everyone recognized:

Tropicana orange juice advertisement
Tropicana’s current brand image. (Photo from facebook.com/Tropicana)

In 2009, Tropicana rebranded and redesigned their packing to a minimalist modern look.  It was a complete disaster. One of the basic functions of branding is to allow us to make decisions as a consumer. Brands make things easier. When you’re standing in an aisle at the grocery store and there’s 100 cereal boxes around you, you know your brand and can shop quickly. With the Tropicana redesign, consumers couldn’t find their product on the shelf. What they were looking for was the branding, the iconic straw stuck in the fresh-picked orange, not a minimalist concept of orange juice. 

Tropicana's failed logo
Tropicana’s failed logo (Screenshot from youtube.com/watch?v=n4DiFjV1zZY)

The other aspect at play here is thinking about what is conveyed in the brand identity.  When we drink orange juice, we’re thinking about our morning, our health, and we have deep reasons why we interact with the products we do. Especially with food, you want to see a lush beautiful orange, and you’re responding to all those concepts about what you want and who you want to be. By making it modern and minimalist, they took it completely out of context. Customers lost instant recognition. They couldn’t see it. That speaks to the power of brand identity.  Luckily though, they brought back the original design.

Mills on Apple and Netflix:

Two big tech companies that went through successful rebranding campaigns were Apple and Netflix. 

When Steve Jobs went back to Apple, they were pretty close to being out of business and he had a vision of what he wanted the brand to be: people who Think Different. People who use computers to help spur their ideation and their own personal vision for things, as opposed to something you just use at work. Quite frankly at the time, they didn’t have the products to pay that off, but he was working on it. It was aspirational to suggest to potential customers as to where Apple was going, and to employees where you want the brand to be going. 

Walter Mills headshot
Walter Mills

Netflix is what Kodak didn’t do and what Polaroid didn’t do. The market moved and they recognized early on that the market was moving toward tech broadband usage and that people would be watching movies on phones and computers. Netflix was a DVD mail-in service. They moved that first to a streaming entity where you can stream almost any TV show or movie you wanted to watch. Then they semi-rebranded it from offering existing content into creating original content. Very few other companies have been able to make that leap. Think about that from a rebranding perspective — the level of technology and key success factors to be successful in a mail direct DVD business versus a streaming movie technology-driven production-driven business – they are two totally different things.

The Never-Ending Cola Wars

And finally, when talking about worldwide recognizable brands that rebrand regularly, it’s impossible to not mention two of the most prominent arch rivals: Coca-Cola and Pepsi. They’ve introduced new flavors, rocked and rolled with pop stars, and continued to broaden their reach around the globe. Through the years they’ve had a lot of great successes, and some very big failures.

Coca-Cola trailer
Unsplash.com/Maximilian Bruck

Mills on New Coke:

People think New Coke was a disaster. That’s an example of a brand recognizing their market, and that their brand product wasn’t fitting the needs of a younger audience. And rather than rethink how they approach the brand, they decided to rebrand it and formulate a new product that was sweeter, and less carbonated — and it was a disaster because customers wanted the real thing and then Coca-Cola came back with the original recipe.

Coca-Cola recognized something from New Coke: if they wanted to reach that younger audience, they needed to think in context of what their brand stood for. And then they created Diet Coke, and that offered what Pepsi and other brands didn’t — the real taste of Coke in a diet product. They took back off from there. That’s an example of a negative one that turned out ok long term. Usually, they don’t. Usually when people make mistakes like that, it is the end of the brand. 

Coke and Pepsi have consumer loyalty with people who really like their brand and have been with it for a long time. People don’t necessarily like to switch. 

McCormick on Pepsi:

A failed Pepsi ad campaign in 2017 starred model Kendall Jenner. Pepsi was criticized for trivializing Black Lives Matter.

Their last rebrand was about nine years ago. That’s when Pepsi as a word went away, and they launched the new logo, a minimalist circle and the wave in the middle became a smile. This is about the same time when Starbucks dropped the word Starbucks and just became the logo. It is a status symbol for a brand to just be an image, as it shows that the brand has become so recognizable the name is not needed. 

A logo is your brand visibility and what people recognize. Starbucks had this moment that said we don’t need to tell people we’re Starbucks, we’re just the mermaid. Pepsi did the same thing with the logo with a smile. But, now they’re going back to using the word Pepsi as the centerpiece. This is about recognition and regaining ground, but they are also changing their brand strategy to be maximalist, because, according to Pepsi, what they were doing with the brand identity felt too restrained. The jury’s out. 

Pepsi needs to make this shift after the whole Kendall Jenner commercial where they appropriated the Black Lives Matter movement. Their misinterpretation of youth culture resulted in them losing their connection to a very solid strategy. Coke is classic, sharing, happiness. Pepsi has always been about being new, youth culture, and that has always been connected to pop musicians. That’s why they own the Super Bowl halftime show. It’s always been defined by music. They need something to give them momentum because they’ve been uncertain in their identity in the past decade.

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