Bold moves and brand blunders: Navigating risk and innovation in branding

January 2024, Written by Jim Northover

When Elon Musk rebranded Twitter as ‘X’ at the tail end of July 2023 many thought the maverick entrepreneur had finally lost it. But had he?

Almost a year later it remains to be seen what transpires from the audacious move, but it certainly got noticed, not least by those in the worlds of branding and media.

If we were to credit Musk with potentially deep insight, he might be onto something: making a change before most of his customers are ready to, stealing a march on competitors in a fast-moving sector, repositioning the offer more comprehensively for the future, using surprise to disrupt the market. More skeptical commentators may claim desperation and the downward spiral of a failing business. Time will tell.

The conscious creation and management of brands as a business discipline has been around for a while. Much of the thinking influencing brands is not new. Ideas are recycled regularly, and true innovation is hard. Platitudinal branding signifiers – distinctiveness, authenticity, agility – are easy to come by, but not so easy to put into practice, let alone maintain.

It is natural for long-established brands to be conscious of their heritage, to keep reminding themselves of their values, of what made them successful in the first place, then making regular incremental adjustments to their brands. Coca-Cola, as one of the most revered brands on the planet, is an old hand at this, and despite the occasional misstep the brand has pretty much adhered to its core focus and strategies.

It’s amongst start-up and insurgent businesses that branding is often at its most radical and risky. Perhaps that’s because they’ve got less to lose if things don’t work out. Take the launch of ‘Who gives a crap’ recycled toilet paper. Being provocative by challenging accepted norms in this product area is proving to be a success as it also boasts its environmental credentials at the same time. The non-dairy drink brand Oatly with its self-mocking on-pack copy has successfully stolen market share from milk – an essential commodity product – and is helping to change tastes and attitudes towards plant-based choices for a whole generation.

There is an understandable desire by many brands to be constantly relevant, contemporary, and even hip. The surprise is when stolid financial players feel the need to follow trends. When Standard Life Aberdeen, the investment managers, rebranded as ‘abrdn’, a few eyebrows were raised, not to mention some suppressed sniggers. It seems as if one can try too hard. The respectable Scottish heritage of canny investment strategies gave way to social media’s digital shorthand.

Amidst these dynamics, one other noticeable phenomenon in branding is the way brand owners sometimes get bored before their audiences do. Newly appointed CMOs or brand managers often want to make their mark by trying something they can take the credit for – a fair pursuit if their decisions are well-founded. If not, they’ll likely be off to a new role somewhere else, which is a challenge when longevity is a brand expectation.

One thing is certain: in a branding arena that continues to evolve, the balance between fresh insights and cautious moves seems as nuanced as it is crucial. But, in contemplating these dynamics within a world where relevance and boldness often intersect, John Cage’s words resonate: “I can’t understand why people are frightened of new ideas. I’m frightened of the old ones.”