When I was 9 years old I announced to my teacher that, henceforth, I would prefer to be known as Bob. My first name is Robert, so I was entitled. And I definitely needed a fresh start, socially speaking. My smartass ways were not playing well at my new rural school, where corn-fed country boys were disinclined to rhetorical thrust and parry. A new brand seemed just the thing. The results were predictable: unaccustomed to being Bob, I stopped responding when called upon in class. And I still got beat up at recess. Rebranding often works out that way. It’s often what you do when you’re desperate, and it’s just as likely to make things worse as better.
The Toronto Raptors are the latest marketers to join the Bob club. Earlier this fall they announced plans to adopt new colours and perhaps a new logo. Apparently unsure of their own taste in such things, they also appointed rapper Drake as a “global ambassador”—Rolling Stone described it as a “consulting gig”—to lend a hand. His job: to “help us forge this new vision, this new buzz, this new excitement for where we’re taking this organization.” Wherever that may be. They weren’t very specific on this point. What they were specific about was that they’d chosen rebranding as the first step in revitalizing a franchise that has been a stranger to the playoffs for five straight seasons. Basketball is a mystery to me, but I know a branding boondoggle when I see one. There’s no way new pants are going to get that ball through the hoop more often.
As is so often the case with rebranding, it’s hard to understand how this will be worth the trouble for the Raptors organization. By the club’s own admission the task of getting merchandising partners, licensees and trademark registrations organized around the new identity will be long and formidable. Most of the time in corporate life an investment like that, and the distraction that goes with it, is expected to produce some kind of commercially useful result. In this case I suppose profit could lie in getting fans to replace all those obsolete jerseys and hats. But it seems worth noting that the NBA tracks jersey sales according to whose name is on the back, and only secondarily what team they play for. In other words, even in basketball, it’s ultimately what’s in the package that counts.
The Raptors aren’t alone in wishing otherwise, mind you. Just ask Gap or Pepsi, both of whom famously announced and then backed away from new logos a few years back, episodes that were in equal measure expensive and embarrassing. Nor is it a coincidence that our least favourite airlines seem to be the ones that repaint their planes the most often, or that BlackBerry underwent a name change just in time for what may be its last act (substitute Alicia Keys for Drake as the borrowed pop-culture interest in that story).
Rebranding can be the marketing equivalent of bread and circuses, which is why it’s so often the last refuge of scoundrels. It’s a feint, predicated on the foolish belief that consumers are magpies with short memories and an irresistible attraction to novelty. It’s one of marketing’s persistently unlearned lessons that logos don’t give brands their power. It’s the other way around.
To be fair, it’s not that rebranding is always a dumb idea. When a company fundamentally changes the nature of its business, it can actually become an imperative. Howard Schultz’s drive to reimagine Starbucks was crowned by its new logo, although, importantly, that change came last, not first. Each of Apple’s logo revisions over the years has coincided with some fresh universe-denting product vision. Even Yahoo’s trivial redesign may have completed its modest mission, if that mission was to get the digerati talking about Yahoo. Rebranding can be smart, if it means something.
Let’s hope that’s the case for Canada’s only NBA team. They can certainly take some comfort in the knowledge that not every rebranding fails as tragically as mine did. Take Drake, for example. His first name is Aubrey. At least one of us ended up cool.
Bruce Philp is a brand strategy consultant and author of Consumer Republic, winner of the 2012 National Business Book Award.