Can a rebrand help change a disastrous narrative?

With Malaysia Airlines contemplating a change of name following two passenger aircraft tragedies close together, PRWeek asks whether a rebrand is the right course.

Malatsia Airlines: Considering rebranding itself after disasters
Malatsia Airlines: Considering rebranding itself after disasters

The disappearance of Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 in March, followed by the downing of flight MH17 over Ukraine this month, has left the airline battling a 29 per cent fall in its share price since January.

If it did rebrand, it would not be the first company to attempt to shed a tarnished reputation.

In 1991, Gerald Ratner, chief executive of the jewellery business Ratners Group, famously gave a speech to the Institute of Directors in which he described the company’s products as "total crap" and went on to say that its earrings were "cheaper than an M&S prawn sandwich but probably wouldn’t last as long".

Following the speech, customers avoided the company’s shops and its overall value plummeted by around £500m.

Ratner was fired by his own board and the company changed its name to Signet Group the following year.

But when should a company rebrand, does it really wipe the slate clean and can companies really hope to affect the narrative with a name-change or a new logo?

"You need to look at rebranding when a brand no longer answers the question: Why? Why choose me? Why buy me?" says Max du Bois, executive director of the brand consultancy Spencer du Bois.

Du Bois says strong brands can absorb individual mistakes without a fundamental overhaul but if the problem is systemic, they should probably consider this route.

He says: "Brands are built on two things: preference and trust. Preference is ‘why choose me’ and trust is ‘why trust me’. If there is something fundamentally wrong, there is no point rebranding. People will remember it and the problem won’t go away because of it."

Neil Smith, creative director at brand and design agency Howdy, agrees that there are pitfalls in rebranding.

"There is a risk of alienating existing customers and clients," he says. "And it may arouse cynical and negative PR around the reasons for the rebrand, i.e. trying to cover something up or deceive in some way.

"If you say that things have changed and that the rebrand signifies a change for the better, then this must be genuine. If a company has a reputation for poor customer service and then rebrands to rid itself of this image, customers must see a significant improvement or they will just see it as the ‘emperor’s new clothes’. The new brand must have integrity."

Avoiding any appearance of a whitewash to erase people’s memories of the recent past is crucial if a rebrand is to be successful, believes C Paschal Eze, author of Drama Free Rebranding and Rebranding Race.

"A rebrand can become a disaster when it is a mere whitewash, because nobody likes being fooled; when important stakeholders are not taken along, because nobody likes being ignored; or when it is taken too far to where stakeholders strain to recognise and identify with the company, because nobody likes being confused," he says.

A new direction?

Would a rebrand make a difference to the ongoing narrative surrounding Malaysia Airlines?

Du Bois thinks a campaign to try to persuade people to come back to the airline might be a better strategy but, whatever it decides, it clearly has an uphill battle to regain the trust of the public.

"It just feels like a cursed brand," he says. "The incidents associated with it are so catastrophic; they stick in your mind. No matter how rational we are, we now associate disaster with Malaysia Airlines. Aviation is such a competitive market that this is enough to make us choose another brand, whether that is consciously or unconsciously."

Instead, Malaysia Airlines needs to take a deep breath and ride out the storm.

"It has to find the courage to say ‘this too will pass’", du Bois adds.

However, Smith thinks a rebrand is a possible option for the stricken airline, although it will take a long time for any benefit to become apparent.

He says: "Malaysia Airlines is interesting because at least one of the disasters was not its fault. But being perceived as extremely unlucky isn’t going to sell many airline tickets. A rename and rebrand will eventually help to wipe the slate clean, but it would need to be in it for the long haul."

Eze agrees that any benefit from a rebrand will only be felt a long way down the line and that it must be accompanied by the message that the airline is sorry for what has happened to its passengers.

"In the short term, a rebrand of Malaysia Airlines would not entirely change a negative narrative about a company that has had a sustained bad rap in the media – and this is partly because people don't forget horrible events easily," he says. "A responsible and respectable rebrand should present the company as one that is truly sorry for the tragedies, has listened attentively to concerned parties, and is taking concrete, well thought-out steps to make amends, especially in the areas of passenger safety and crisis communication.

"Simply changing its name and logo won't cut it. Carefully, curiously and collaboratively digging deep could."

 

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