Out with the old; Don't like what you see? Time for rebranding!
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, 28 October 2008)

The art of rebranding, that choice technique of up-to-date hucksters, reached a new plateau of unintended comedy when the American Veterinary Medical Association recently announced a plan to "rebrand the cat and give it a better identity." The vets believe they have identified a serious problem that needs addressing. They think pet owners give cats less affection than dogs and that cats are likely to receive less medical treatment. The solution is to improve the image of cats and make people more loving towards them and more anxious to care for them, thereby increasing the income of vets.

Nothing better indicates the moral flavour of this period in history than the popularity of rebranding. As a policy decision, it indicates a wondrous faith in techniques of public manipulation. It's profoundly cynical, obviously, but it's innocent in its hopeful dependence on the ability of professionals to engineer appropriate reputations for people, corporations, even countries. Rebranding implies a wish to acquire an aura of glamour, intelligence or virtue, whether or not it's justified by reality.

The Body Shop is now in the process of rebranding and so are the Toronto Maple Leafs, according to a recent National Post story. No less a figure than Justin Trudeau has declared that, for the federal Liberal party, "The challenge is to rebuild the brand." In Alberta, the provincial Liberal party has held discussions on rebranding, which might go so far as changing its name. (That worked for Philip Morris, renowned as a cigarette pusher until it changed its name to Altria; now nobody knows what it is, a big improvement.)

Last week, The New York Times carried a headline, "Rebranding the U.S. With Obama" over a column suggesting that the world will take a more favourable view of America if Barack Obama becomes president. On a more humble level, the city of St. John's is preparing a form of municipal rebranding for George Street, where 40 bars on two blocks have created a reputation for noise and rowdiness. The city plans to change George Street's image with family-friendly benches, picnic tables and a farmer's market.

HMV record stores have a rebranding program under way, fuelled by a fear that their customers aren't young enough. That's the same spectre that haunts the halls of the CBC. Their executives have been obsessed with this issue for decades but for some reason their fears now approach hysteria. It is said that not a day passes without serious discussion of rebranding.

In Moscow the government has assigned a squad of historians to one of the most bizarre, not to say obscene, projects in the history of public relations: the rebranding of Joseph Stalin, one of the greatest villains in history. Scholars are massaging the historical record so that it accords with Vladimir Putin's view that Stalin, while he "made mistakes," wasn't nearly as bad as a lot of people say and certainly should not be compared with Hitler.

Rebranding is no task for amateurs. It requires extensive long-term help from professionals, at handsome fees. Zak Mroueh, a leader in Canadian advertising, recently described it: "Advertising is like the 100-metre dash. Rebranding a company is a marathon. It's much more complex. It has to be applied to the internal fabric of an organization."

The government of Israel set out, two years ago, to rebrand its nation. Most foreigners, either friends of Israel or enemies, think first of violence when Israel is mentioned. So, at the urging of advertising and marketing people in Israel, rebranding machinery was set in motion, with a budget approaching US$4-million. First, the government announced its purpose: Israel wants us to think positive thoughts about Israel's passion, its ingenuity and its ability to incorporate widely diverse immigrants, from Russians to Ethiopians.

Last winter I attended a briefing by an Israeli diplomat, one of the rebranding planners. He proudly announced, "We want Israel to be a multi-dimensional brand." The idea seemed unwise and undignified to me. True, other countries are trying the same approach, but not with any sensational results. Rebranding is for soap products and headache pills, not ancient and complex nations. That's my opinion.

But even if rebranding is policy, should it be done so openly? The Israelis keep giving interviews about it. This results in solemn conversation on CBC Radio's The Current or a Toronto Star headline about Israel trying to "buff its image." So far the only visible results are YouTube items headed "Hot Israel" with good-looking women wearing bikinis on a Tel Aviv beach. There has also been a photo story in the Playboy-like Maxim magazine, headed "Women of the Israel Defense Forces.

Would consultants, pollsters, focus groupies and other mercenaries be so enthusiastic about rebranding if they understood the origin of the word. It began in the old West as a devious practice of cattle thieves. Once owners began routinely branding their cattle to prove ownership, some of the more clever rustlers contrived ways to impose their own brand on stolen animals; they might design a full-circle brand, for instance, to turn a half-circle brand of a neighbour's cattle into something looking like their own. It didn't always work, of course. An 1885 judgment of the Texas criminal appeals court contains the sentence, "The rebranding and the blotting of the old brand were recent, about four weeks old." Today rebranding remains popular among thieves who ride the range. Every state has brand inspectors whose job is to frustrate their ingenuity.

In the world of symbolic rather than literal rebranding, the Cigar Institute of America remains the world champion. Early in the 20th century the institute's press agent, a poor fellow who probably never heard the word "rebranding," chose a simple and obvious strategy: bribes. He awarded prizes of up to $1,000 to press photographers whose published photos showed important men smoking cigars. Soon, all over America, pictures of cigar smokers began cropping up in newspapers. This made cigars more acceptable and sales increased proportionately. But by mid-century the effect faded and cigars were so unpopular that John Kennedy felt constrained to keep his enjoyment of them a secret. Still, for several decades the Cigar Institute of America had a corporate rebranding that did what it claimed to do. It's not clear that anything has worked that well since.

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