Lessons in Backlash: Three Things You Should Know Before Rebranding in the Social Media Age

Posted by: LRW
  • December 17, 2012
  • 3

The UC seal and monogram logo

Social media backlash—think Gap’s logo change and swift reversal—is clearly a problem which marketers must actively work to avoid and be prepared for in case of a reaction.  This past week has seen another addition to the list of blown-up branding missteps: the University of California’s wildly unpopular monogram logo that generated a petition with over 50,000 signatures on change.com.  Some are even calling it one of the “worst logo rebrands in recent history”  and, as of last Friday, a failed one.

What is notable about this UC monogram logo is that most students and alumni were not aware of the change which had been rolled out more than a year ago (obviously without much pomp and circumstance), until a point of view emerged in the social media universe.  At that point, the university lost control of the narrative.

Consumers’ grievances used to be aired at the water cooler or in line at the dorm cafeteria, but now they take place more publicly.  With voices amplified, consumer sentiment can catch fire and spread, for better or for worse.

We can’t help but think more business intelligence up front could have minimized some of the branding missteps we’ve watched spin out of control in the world of social media.  When considering any major changes to your brand, be mindful of these three things:

Understand your brand associations.

Before setting out on a journey, it is best to understand where you are and where you want to go and then devising a path. Research can help you understand your brand’s associations, the rational and emotional, the conscious and the non-conscious.  Stay true to critical associations even as your brand evolves.  In the case of the UC system, it represents 144 years of history.  Those that identified with the UC system wanted to maintain the heritage and tradition of what the system represents, while the logo team sought a more modern and forward-looking identity…a balancing act for sure.

Understand the extent to which your brand’s identity connects with your consumer’s identity.

Branding pioneers wanted to use social media to bring people closer to their brands, and they got what wanted.  The more people identify with your brand, the more they care when that identity changes.  Prior to making significant changes to the meaning of a brand, measure the degree to which consumers identify with it as part of their own “personal identity.”

Imagine how the UC administration might have handled their redesign and logo if they had considered that over 1.5 million alumni, more than 220,000 students, and just about 170,000 faculty and staff, probably derive some of their own identity from the identity of those schools.  They might have sought to co-create, and in-doing so, might have created an army of evangelists instead of an angry, petitioning online mob.

Determine the potential influence of social media on your brand and then use it to drive your narrative.

Scrolling through comments on the company Facebook page or engaging in online listening won’t tell you how many and how your customers engage with your brand through social media, or how far the ramifications of social media backlash could extend offline.  Organizations need to understand how their customers are engaging online and in social media circles.

With most of their current students entrenched in finals and their alumni worrying about holidays, the UC administrators might have waited it out to see if outrage over the “new” logo would get extinguished with interest in other issues.  Eventually the university system showed that it did understand its audience, a group well entrenched in social media and not shy about protests.  They made the call and the logo is no more.

The stakes are now too high to simply wander into a rebranding effort blind. Word of mouth has always been important for companies, but now you can participate in, influence, and prepare for it, but only if you understand how customers feel about brands, themselves, and their social tools. Of course, the ideal way to prevent backlash is to test and evaluate branding moves before you launch them out into the market.  Critical thinking about your businesses’ core strengths, core customers, and their values and behavior are just as valuable to making the right decisions.

Categories: Brand, Marketing
  • Stephen
    December 17, 2012
    I am reminded of the backlash to ConocoPhillips' decision to remove the iconic 76 Ball from gas stations and replace with a new design & color scheme. Their very loyal/vocal customer base fought back via www.savethe76ball.com --I wonder how much more of an impact they would have had if they could leverage today's social media..
  • Joan
    December 17, 2012
    Yes...and don't forget the New Coke failure was a failure to recognize the power of the brand. Whether New Coke tasted better than old Coke was irrelevant to Coke loyalists. Seems like the same for the UC logo.
  • GHS
    December 17, 2012
    While it's just theorycraft, this posting has me wondering how the social media/Facebook revolution would have impacted some of the bigger rebranding/new product flops of the 80s and 90s. The launch of New Coke, based back then on taste test and focus group research, might have gone VERY differently - using social media to build buzz, putting the taste test reaction videos on Youtube, etc. We'd probably still have Surge on the shelves, too.

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