Rebrands Gone Bad
Last month, the Department of Energy announced a surprising new export from the United States: “molecules of American freedom”. Except, it’s not so new — more like one of the oldest substances on the planet. These “molecules”, otherwise referred to by the Department of Energy as “Freedom Gas”, are just a strategic rebrand for a resource we all use every day: natural gases.
This rebrand attempts to demonstrate that the US government intends for natural gas to be a vehicle of liberty, giving European allies the “freedom” to buy affordable energy from the US.
Unfortunately, “freedom gas” missed the mark quite a bit. Not only is it pretty corny, but it’s confusing. Everyone knows what natural gas is. However, with this abrupt name change, “freedom gas” is suddenly a foreign substance in the minds of most Americans.
This is an instance where context is particularly important. In the context of “natural gas”, people know that “gas” refers to energy. But out of context, to most people “gas” means something a little more… politically incorrect. With no other clues in the name to tie it back to fossil fuels, “freedom gas” sounds like something that happens after eating a bean burrito in a bachelor pad.
There are a lot of reasons to rebrand a company or product, including rebrands extreme enough to change the name. However, there are also a lot of reasons not to. The best rebrands and renaming help to further develop the brand’s personality and push it in the direction that it needs to go. And when choosing a new name, it should make sense not only within the context of the brand, but within the audience’s understanding of the brand. After all, a name is a brand’s single most defining characteristic, and avoiding name-related confusion is vital.
With that in mind, here are some examples of brands that have hit the bulls eye… and those that missed completely. Hopefully we can all learn from the Department of Energy’s misfire.
Last fall, Dunkin’ finally put themselves on a more personal level — even though most of us have been calling the chain by its first name for years. This made for a seamless transition to the new name, which added a more welcoming feel as well as de-emphasizing donuts — Dunkin’ is equally well known for its coffee. As a bonus, the rebrand came with a freshened up version of the familiar logo.
High Fructose Corn Syrup
In 2010 the Corn Refiners Association petitioned the FDA to change high fructose corn syrup to “corn sugar” on labels. Had it been approved, this brilliant rebrand would have pulled off what “freedom gas” weakly tried to do, by repairing the damaged reputation of a well-known commodity. The new name is self-explanatory and avoids the unhealthy connotations implied by high fructose corn syrup — and the only thing corny about it is the vegetable it’s made from.
Sadly, in 2018 the FDA finally denied the petition. Which is probably for the best because, well, high fructose corn syrup is pretty unhealthy.
Kentucky Fried Chicken
Kentucky Fried Chicken’s decision to change their name in 1991 was pretty simple: try saying it 5 times fast. That’s valuable time that could be better spent eating a delicious bucket of crispy chicken. A side motivation behind the name change was removing the word “fried” from the official name, which tended to drive more health-conscious customers away. And so, KFC was born.
…And the not-so-great
In 2009 Radio Shack was struggling, and they assumed that the problem had to do with their association with outdated radios. In an attempt to seem more hip and modern, they rebranded as “The Shack”. The new name was criticized ruthlessly, because it sounds a lot like the kind of place you might get murdered at, rather than a cool store to buy electronics.
Last year, Weight Watchers rebrand as simply WW, with the tagline “Wellness that Works”. Speaking of tongue twisters, their new website is www.ww.com. Yeah, seriously. Their sales plummeted after the rebrand, probably because their customers couldn’t say the new name out loud.
Ok, so this one isn’t technically a rebrand. Kim Kardashian’s new shapewear line went under fire recently for its obtuse name. Not only is the Kimono already a style of clothing, but it is literally the opposite of shapewear — flowing and robe-like vs. the most skintight garment imaginable. Kim predictably got a lot of backlash, including from the mayor of Kyoto, Japan, who wrote her a public letter asking her to change the name. The cherry on top was a hilariously biting hashtag that started trending on Twitter: #KimOhNo.
Hopefully, we can all learn from the mistakes of rebrands past — the Department of Energy included. After all, both Kimono and The Shack ended up dropping their failed names following public backlash. Although it might seem embarrassing to admit a rename was a bust and switch back to the old one, it’s often better to take the hit and try to repair any damage done by a bad rebrand.
With rebrands, as with many things, it’s good to remember this ancient proverb: if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. We could think of a lot better names than “freedom gas”… but at the end of the day, “natural gas” was doing fine on its own.