When does rebranding work as an effective response to a crisis situation?

A successful rebranding must indicate a new direction and demonstrate a change in the corporate culture of the company.

Malaysia Airlines may rebrand after the tragedies of flights MH370 and MH17.
Malaysia Airlines may rebrand after the tragedies of flights MH370 and MH17.

Kirk Hazlett, associate professor of communication and PR at Curry College
In the aftermath of certain crisis situations, rebranding can be the logical next step in the recovery process. The thought process is, "Don’t remind the public of brand X."

On the positive side of the issue, a name change can lead to a public image reassessment, which, in turn, can lead to a public perception change. On the negative side, however, that change has the potential to be viewed by the public as a cover-up or an attempt to conceal the past.

In a crisis, oftentimes the goal is to erase the earlier persona from the public’s collective memory. One recent initiative has been the Lance Armstrong Foundation’s decision to modify its scandal-connected name by rebranding itself as the Livestrong Foundation and disassociating itself from its disgraced founder. To date, it has proven successful, although time will tell.

More recently, Malaysia Airlines found itself in the unenviable spotlight with two back-to-back crises. Given the airline’s previous reputation and popularity, its chances for a rebranding comeback are good, but will be heavily dependent on a stellar PR campaign to introduce its new image.

In the US, AirTran demonstrated its ability to morph from ValuJet, a name connected with a horrible and avoidable tragedy, to a new, neutral identity. Again, the future for Malaysia Airlines is unknown, but a precedent has been set.

Finally, a failed rebranding lesson is BP’s attempts to paint itself as an environmentally conscious energy provider, including the introduction of a new logo that trumpets its "awareness." Enter Deepwater. No amount of redesign can erase images indelibly etched in the public’s collective minds.

David Johnson, CEO, Strategic Vision

Rebranding can appear as a solution for a company after a crisis. Yet there are no guarantees it will succeed as changing a company’s name or logo doesn’t fix the problem. 

A successful rebranding must indicate a new direction; demonstrate a change in the corporate culture of the company; engage all stakeholders – consumers, policymakers, staff, and investors; address and correct issues that created a crisis; and communicate the company’s vision and message.

In the 1990s, ValuJet faced safety issues culminating in the crash of flight 592 in the Florida Everglades. The name, ValuJet, equaled air disaster and cutting safety corners. In a rebranding effort, ValuJet merged with Airways Corp., parent of AirTran Airways.

The merged company used the name AirTran because the ValuJet name was irreparable. The rebrand and new name, emphasizing safe, cost-efficient air travel, was successful. Consumers believed it and ValuJet faded from memory.

Private security contractor Blackwater, employed by the US government in Iraq and Afghanistan, faced a crisis for methods it employed leading to the deaths of innocent civilians and refusing to co-operate with Congress. The company underwent two name changes, which failed because it did not communicate a break from its past.

Malaysia Airlines may rebrand after the tragedies of flights MH370 and MH17 because it is synonymous with disasters, but a new name alone won’t work. It must overcome a perception of incompetence, demonstrating that it places safety first.

Rebranding is the first step after a disaster, but successful rebranding must communicate a fundamental change in the company and its operations. 

John McDonald, VP, corporate comms and public affairs, American Airlines Group
Rebranding efforts should be aligned with shifts in customer expectations and interactions, not simply used as a crisis response tool.

The brand is a reflection of the relationships between customers and the company. Listening to employees and hearing their feedback about how customers react to the company and its products is a key step in determining if rebranding is needed.

Last year, American Airlines launched its new aircraft livery and flight symbol, while retaining its decades-long company name. After hearing employee feedback, we asked them to vote on whether to keep the new livery or revert to the classic logo. They embraced the new branding. Our new routes, planes, and employee enthusiasm proudly reflect the new brand.

But rebranding isn’t always the answer. I previously worked for General Motors. While I was there, the company considered a rebranding effort several years prior to bankruptcy, but felt the brand’s 100-year legacy was worth far more than the benefit it could achieve with a new image.

There are some key concepts to keep in mind if rebranding is considered. First, what has changed in the company-customer relationship? Secondly, what is the value proposition when considering the operational costs to implement the new brand, and what is lost by abandoning the old one?

Lastly, does the rebrand reflect the new relationship your company, employees, and products have with customers? Any rebranding must be a reflection of – not the driver of – this changed customer expectation.

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