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To Debrand or Not To Debrand – Are you Ready for the Gamble? -

Debranding Gamble

Coca Cola is one of the leading brands when it comes to innovative branding. However, in 2013, it took a major step by replacing its usual branding with 150 of the most popular names in the U.K. According to the Guardian, the campaign was a success. It increased young adult consumption by 7%, earned the brand more than 18,300,000 media impressions, and boosted traffic to Coke’s Facebook page by 870% while growing page likes by 39%.

Coca Cola's debranding
Coca Cola’s debranding campaign was a big success, which is why it replicated it in Australia, the Middle East, and India.

What Coca Cola did at the time was embrace ‘silent’ branding to reduce the weariness consumers experience as a result of the branded world they live in. What it did was debrand itself.

What Is Debranding?

Debranding also known as de-corporatizing is the process of removing a brand’s name from its marketing collateral such as logo, website, packaging etc. It happens when a brand lets go of its name to make itself seem more consumer-centric and less corporate. It is the transition of a brand from specific (name) to generic to relate better to the target audience.

Debranding is becoming one of THE trends companies are vying to experiment with. Unfortunately, not many people understand what it really is. The general definition of this strategy is to remove the brand name from your logo to make your company appear more personal, more forward-thinking, and less corporate.

In the past, debranding was defined as the process where a company with a relatively renowned brand name decides to change its label to a more generic or no-name brand name. (Parasuraman, 1983) However, this was only limited to groceries and household items in the 1980s.

Types of Debranding

Modern debranding remains faithful to the general definition, but has one addition: ensuring the original brand identity of the local brands which a company acquires. In addition to making the brand look less aggressive, it allows companies to set up local outlets that flaunt a local feel rather than embracing the brand’s corporate heritage.

  • De-corporatizing
  • Transitioning Into Generic
  • Modern Debranding

Types of Debranding

Why Debranding Isn’t For Everyone

The debranding strategy has been embraced by many prominent brands from different industries over the years. Coutts dropped RBS from its international logo. Similarly, the MINI line doesn’t use BMW as part of its logo. Even the fashion industry didn’t lag behind. Gucci’s emphasis on logo-free products increased its annual profit by 25% to over $1.2 billion.

So, why isn’t everyone jumping on the debranding bandwagon?

One of the biggest reasons brands hesitate is the larger number of companies that took a plunge after deciding to embrace this strategy. The most prominent example of a debranding fail is that of Sony Pictures. The company released a debranded DVD of its successful film ‘Girl With the Dragon Tattoo’. According to Mashable, however, designing the DVD’s packaging to look like an amateur copy (in reference to the film’s hacker protagonist Lisbeth Salander) caused a lot of confusion.

designing the DVD packaging
Sony Pictures failed to debrand the ‘Girl With the Dragon Tattoo’ CD, making buyers think the CD was bootlegged.

Amazon and Redbox had a tough time explaining that the DVDs weren’t illegal copies. The former even added the message:

“It has come to our attention that there has been some confusion on the DVD disc art as it appears to look like a bootlegged copy. Please note that the disc art is in fact the final approved disc art provided to us by the filmmakers.”

The considerable number of debranding failures, however, is nothing compared to the following challenges which brands need to meet head on to successfully reap the benefits of the process.

1. Your Brand Should Be ‘Mature’

Though there isn’t a formal model to determine brand maturity, Brad VanAuken from The Blake Project believes the following criteria should apply:

  • The brand should be capable of delivering customer meaning and value beyond its products or services.
  • It should flaunt higher awareness in the present and succeed in increasing awareness further over time.
  • A mature brand is one that’s progressive and visionary. At the same time, its values and meaning should be rooted within customers’ minds, making them difficult to change.

nike logo evolution
Nike is one of the mature brands, with over 50 years in the bag. That’s why its debranding effort (to remove its name and stick to the swoosh) was a success.

Unless your brand meets these criteria, debranding can break it rather than make it. One risk you’ll put yourself at is the loss of your products/services’ brand awareness. If your brand is far from iconic and your logo isn’t well-known, you may end up losing your market share when your customers fail to associate your debranded products with your brand and business.

This, in turn, has another negative outcome: losing the protection of the registered trademark. There’s a good chance this could happen if you end up losing (or significantly reducing) your brand’s distinctiveness.

2. Your Brand Should Be Ready To Change And Adapt

Brand maturity is one thing and having your positioning engraved in stone is another. If your brand is too big, too corporate, or too megalithic to be anything else, attempting to debrand it may seem duplicitous. This will affect your brand and its profitability since your consumers will lose faith in your credibility. In turn, your position at the top and your status as an industry leader will be affected.

starbucks logo transformation
Starbucks takes pride in being one of the innovative and flexible brands, which is why its debranding venture was a success.

3. Your Brand Should Be Ultra Transparent

Debranding can easily make your brand seem too clever or worse – hypocritical. Case in point: Harris + Hoole. The artisan coffee shop chain managed to win people with its independent-looking stripped-back environment, cheerful baristas, and quality coffee. However, it suffered a backlash when people discovered that 49% of its shares were owned by Tesco at the time.

"I avoid Starbucks because it’s a big chain and it avoids tax," said 50-year-old former Harris + Hoole customer Carol Levine. "Now I find this is Tesco… It looks like a small indie. It is disingenuous. It makes me upset. I feel duped. I don’t go in there [Tesco]. It is taking over the world. If it [Harris + Hoole] had been called Tesco Coffee, I wouldn’t have come in."

boycott tesco
The Harris + Hoole incident was the straw that broke the camel’s back, forcing consumers to protest against Tesco for tricking them.

Most of the customers were annoyed at the fact that Tesco tried to create the image of a small independent coffee shop through this venture. They feel that they were duped into profiting Tesco rather than putting money back in the community. As a result, they’re calling the brand a cheater and a liar.

What further drove consumers to criticize Tesco and Harris + Hoole was the fact that the former’s ownership wasn’t explicitly mentioned on the website at the time. Visitors only got to see snapshots of the Australian siblings Nick, Andrew and Laura Tolley who established the chain. However, further investigation led to the admission that: "To be able to provide the high street with fantastic coffee takes investment and backing, and few people know the high street better than Tesco – who have made a non-controlling investment in the new business to allow the Tolleys to realise their dream."

This lack of transparency due to debranding led the coffee chain to massive losses. In fact, The Guardian reported that accounts filed at Companies House in February 2014 show a pretax loss of approximately $19 million in the previous 12 months despite opening 18 more outlets.

4. Your Brand Should Be Part Of A Debranding-Friendly Industry

In ‘”Debranding” of branded products’, Mark Burdon criticizes the debranding of medicines in an effort to evade the Pharmaceutical Price Regulation Scheme (PPRS) and allow manufacturers to increase prices. (Burdon, 2015) This practice can affect patient safety, especially since imported medicines are sold in the country under the same name as equivalent locally-produced products.

stop smokers
Cigarette boxes were debranded completely to stop smokers, but that put Big Tobacco companies at the risk of losing profits.

The pharmaceutical industry isn’t the only one at risk by opting for debranding. Worried about its profits, Big Tobacco is vehemently opposing their governments’ calls to debrand cigarette packs. This decision follows Australia’s success in reducing the number of cigarettes smokers consumed daily and preventing non-smokers from picking this habit through plain packets that featured only graphic health warnings.

These are just two industries where debranding can actually turn against brands. Therefore, you need to carefully assess whether your industry and niche are debranding-friendly to truly reap this strategy’s benefits.

The Bottom Line

Debranding may be one of the most effective methods of reducing the noise-weariness consumers experience while shopping. However, it’s not for everyone.

Debranding

Even if the challenges of debranding aren’t big obstacles for your brand, consider other alternatives to stand out. For instance, you can breathe life into your brand and make it relevant through brand revival. So, consider your options carefully and thoroughly assess your next branding related moves.

  • Burdon, M. (2015). ‘Debranding’ of branded products. The Pharmaceutical Journal, Vol 295, No 7872/3, online | DOI: 10.1211/PJ.2015.20068914.
  • Grimes, T. (2013, July). What the Share a Coke campaign can teach other brands. The Guardian. Retrieved from theguardian.com.
  • Handley, L. (2012, April). Debranding: The great name-dropping gamble. Marketing Week. Retrieved from marketingweek.com
  • Parasuraman, A. (1983). “Debranding”: A Product Strategy With Profit Potential. Journal of Business Strategy, 4(1), 82-87
  • VanAuken, B. (2011, August 17). Measuring Brand Maturity. Retrieved from brandingstrategyinsider.com.
  • Wasserman, T. (2012, March 22). ‘Girl With the Dragon Tattoo’ Bootleg Packaging Fools Consumers. Retrieved from mashable.com.
  • Wood, Z. (2014, December 2). Harris + Hoole make £12.8m annual loss after store-opening spree. The Guardian. Retrieved from theguardian.com.

Author Bio:    

Evan is an Expert in Digital Marketing. He has been working in the social media space since 2008, with a focus on design services, user interface planning, branding and more. Currently, he is leading content marketing efforts at DesignMantic and has played an integral part in the success story of DesignMantic through strategic marketing campaigns. Evan is also a design pro, who has shown a predilection towards DIY design projects.

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