With each passing month, COVID appears to be receding. Word is, the Biden Administration will remove the “national emergency” label in May. Perhaps that's symbolic, but it will change how Americans will pay for vaccines and tests.
The pandemic has also had a ripple effect in the worlds of media and technology. As we repeatedly saw at CES last month, COVID spawned innovations in at-work solutions, QR codes, and helping us de-stress.
And it turns out there may be another offshoot of the pandemic – a bandwagon of companies rebranding themselves and/or redefining their business models for these changing times.
A recent story in Axios reported on this phenomenon. In “The rise of corporate rebranding,” Eleanor Hawkins states that disruptive periods are optimal times for companies to explore their brands, positions, and perhaps, their names.
As we explored in yesterday's post about the Rock N' Roll Hall of Fame, all the players – from shareholders to advertisers to listeners – want to know what a brand stands for.
Hawkins lists several examples of recent rebrands, including the first new logo treatment in seven decades for Pfizer, a brand we've come to know quite well these past few years.
But a logo shift is merely cosmetic. A true brand refresh “has to penetrate the surface and there must be corporate action behind it.”
She offers up BP, the oil and gas giant, now repositioning itself as “beyond petroleum” as a key example of the trend.
We saw this trend developing at CES last month with both Caterpillar and John Deere, agri-brands undergoing major brand makeovers. “From “Nothing runs like a Deere” to “Feeding A Growing World,” these legacy giants are redefining themselves. And rebranding is at their foundation.
Speaking of CES, it is no longer the Consumer Electronics Show. Nor is NPR called National Public Radio. By abbreviating their respective identities, each organization has rebranded and even redefined itself.
Sometimes, companies try to use rebranding as a way to clarify its position, but only make it worse. Earlier this week, it was Paramount Global joining two of its streaming platforms into one.
The combo play was to have Paramount+ absorb Showtime. Unfortunately, the end result is now more confusing than when they started, making it even easier for well-defined brands like Netflix and Disney+ to remain dominant.
The trend has permeated radio broadcasters in a huge way, especially since the onslaught of COVID. Nearly two years ago, Entercom underwent major surgery with the debut of Audacy, the umbrella rebrand used for the corporate logo, the streaming platform (from Radio.com), and the stock exchange symbol (AUD) on the New York Stock Exchange).
In Public Radio, rebranding and entire makeovers are becoming more common as well. Last year, Vermont Pubic Radio and Vermont PBS merged to become Vermont Public, a move that angered fans used to the old VPR initials.
But the big move was announced last week when Los Angeles' venerable NPR News station, KPCC, became LAist, adopting the name of the web news platform acquired a few years back.
Why the change? It's an effort to streamline a brand identity across all the organization's media platforms. And the call letters didn't exactly roll off the tongue. They also stood for Pasadena City College, but the school no longer operates the station. They handed over its management to American Public Media in 1999.
CEO Herb Scannell told the Los Angeles Times, “We're L.A.-centric. We serve greater L.A. If you're an ‘LAist,' you're an enthusiast of L.A. You want some guidance on how to navigate L.A. – a big sprawling city, right? You want to be connected to other people, and you want to discover things in L.A.”
Scannell also explained the move was inspired by audience research revealing the LAist brand was actually more top-of-mind than KPCC. It will be interesting to see whether there are more of these rebrands in Public Radio's future. The greater trend suggests there will be.
But what happens when rebrands go wrong? Oftentimes, it's because the parent organization didn't do their homework – that is, research – in the first place. Sometimes, a new name/brand/logo takes on a life of its own, often championed by a C-suiter who likes it. The next thing you know, it's on vans, stationary, business cards, the website and app, and of course, merch.
With a new name, look, and/or brand, there are key questions to ask first:
- Can people readily pronounce it? And can Alexa and other smart speaker platforms recognize it? More and more, voice has become an important search tool.
- Can people spell it? In order to find the app in the App Store or navigate to the website, the average listener has to be able to spell it. These days in America, that's a heavier lift than you might think.
- What's the first impression of the new name/brand? Focus groups, one-on-ones and similar methodologies can give you that first-blush, Rorschach impression of a new look or slogan.
- Does it have another meaning in another popular language? This is likely something the pharma companies have to investigate with their oddly named drugs. But still, the last thing any company needs is realizing their new slogan means horse manure in Spanish.
- Can they read the logo? This may sound like a no-brainer because testing the readability of a logo or a slogan is child's play, Research 101. So how do you explain Kia's recent logo refresh, an obvious attempt to modernize the brand. Unfortunately, thousands of people are Googling “KN car” every month.
- Are you prepared for the actual costs of a makeover? Companies often underestimate the financial hit when everything needs to be changed over in a short period of time. From staff training to the social media team, all hands have to be on the same page for it all to mesh together.
- Are you prepared for how long it will take for customers, advertisers, and everyone else to get comfortable with it? People are adaptable, but they are inundated with media, messages, and brands. This is not like flipping a switch and the masses start using the new name in their everyday language.
- Are you willing to market it? It may not be necessary to make a media buy (although why not?) but getting the new look and logo out on all channels in a coordinated effort is essential. If employees are using different versions, colors, or applications, it will simply delay the process and confuse people.
All of the above brand refreshes were made with the best intentions in mind – in most cases, an effort to communicate something new and different about the organization or company.
But what happens when brands are simply used to generating revenue by essentially selling their naming rights? Sometimes, it's just plain awkward, like how the Staples Center in Los Angeles became the Crypto.Com Arena a couple years back. Or in Pittsburgh,, when they made the move from the simple Heinz Field to Acrisure Stadium. Ugh.
(It's hard to imagine an L.A. kid in the 2020s all grown up now and telling his kids about those amazing Lakers memories he had at Crypto.com Arena growing up.)
But what about selling out everything to the highest bidder? That's what Sinclair did two years ago when they gave away their Fox Sports Networks handle to Bally's. At the time, brother Paul wrote a rather scathing guest blog post on the topic, “What's Your Name? Who's Your Daddy?” Paul warned that attaching a multi-city sports network to a sponsor brand was short-sighted, and well…risky.
As he wrote, “The powers that be (at Sinclair) have crossed the line with Bally's. They didn't just sell a sponsorship or even naming rights to Bally's. THEY SOLD OUT THEIR FREAKING BRAND.”
Last week, SInclair announced their Bally Sports Network is headed toward a complex bankruptcy, perhaps leaving many major metros – including DETROIT – in a sports lurch.
Did selling out their identity to a sports gaming and betting brand doom the network? Of course not. But in the overall scheme of things, it's the company you keep. Or the brand name you become.
That's why a story buried in RAMP the other day might be an object lesson for broadcasters willing to read it and then hopefully, IGNORE IT. In case you missed it, Max Media's WVSP (ESPN) in Hampton Roads, Virginia will now be known as Priority Auto Sports Radio 94.1.
That's right, they just didn't sell the studio or van naming rights. As Paul would say, THEY OUT THEIR FREAKING BRAND. The COO of Priority Auto, Matt Elmer was effusive about the deal. And why not? He just bought a radio station without all the aggravation.
Missing in the release was the duration of the deal. Is it for a year? Or maybe 26 weeks? And after that period, will WVSP's identify go on sale to the next highest bidder. Like Crypto.com.
Hopefully, Steven Singer won't find out about this. He'd hate it.
Suggestion to Jacobs Media clients: Don't call asking whether we think this is a good idea.
And if anyone in your company starts a Zoom meeting in the next few days with the line, “Just between you and me…..” it would be a great time for your WiFI to go down.
You lie down with dogs, you wake up with your sponsor's image and reputation. Think about that.
Has it really gotten that bad?
P.S. Special thanks to Andy Bloom, Harvey Kojan, and RIch De Sisto, all of whom know better.
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