Launch & Learn

Gap and Starbucks offer a tale of two brand-identity rollouts.

“New Gap logo ignites firestorm.”
— (8 October 2010)

“New Gap logo, despised symbol of corporate banality, dead at one week.”
— (12 October 2010)

“Starbucks new logo a mid-life crisis in the making.”
— (5 January 2011)

“Will coffee customers recognize the siren symbol on new wordless logo?”
— (5 January 2011)

When, exactly, did branding become a spectator blood sport? Whether product, service, or corporation, a new brand launch today not only endures dissection by the legitimate business, design, and even consumer press — it must also run the gauntlet of virtually every marketing and branding expert-wannabe on the planet — and the welcome is rarely cordial!

A brand launch, after all, is one of the few opportunities a company or product has to talk about itself in a wholly positive light, under largely controlled circumstances and in a forum tailor-made for articulating vision and relevance to a carefully targeted audience. It is a public-relations gift on a silver platter, yet so often it is thoughtlessly squandered.

Despite the months of soul-searching and expense that accompany a branding program, companies too often treat a new brand launch as an afterthought. They completely fail to manage the launch to their advantage and are then astounded to find themselves suddenly engulfed in a firestorm of public opinion over a logo!

Why did leadership at Gap choose to simply throw its newly crafted identity up on a website and practically beg for comments from a surprised and mystified public? They could, instead, have clearly articulated what the new brand design was intended to signify and how it reflected a revitalized corporate vision. But by choosing not to lead the discussion, Gap itself paved the way for the debacle. Even its most loyal fans dove headfirst into the media feeding frenzy over the logo change.

The result, as we all know, was an almost immediate collapse of all support for the new branding, culminating in the effective removal of any trace of its existence within a week. That may well be the galactic record for a new brand launch failure, a corporate embarrassment that cost at least one chief marketing officer their job and severely challenged the self-esteem of the whole organization. Yet it need never have ended that way.

Consider, in contrast, how founder/CEO Howard Schultz handled the re-launch of the famous Starbucks brand shortly after the Gap incident. He too introduced a new, simplified design and branding system that went so far as to remove the actual name of the company from one of the world’s most familiar logos. He did it, however, with a comprehensive public inauguration that included videos spelling out the reasons behind the change and its long-term implications for the company.

This included explanatory press conferences and interviews, a highly coordinated signage and packaging change around the globe on the day of the launch, and the release of a book by Starbucks’ number-one brand champion, Howard himself, describing the “rebirth” of the company as a corporate self-help treatise … available for an almost-reasonable price at a Starbucks near you, needless to add!

This expertly orchestrated launch was nevertheless vilified by bloggers and brand experts alike who predicted the beginning of the end for Starbucks, leaving its customers and prospects to wander the far corners of civilization, vainly seeking their favorite coffee brand because the little mermaid alone wasn’t enough of a cue. (Within months, of course, Starbucks was reporting record stock-price highs and significantly increased sales across its network.)

Why such a different result for this retail rebranding story versus Gap’s? Start with the fact that Mr. Schultz actually had a story — well crafted and carefully (and repeatedly) told, explaining the brand refresh and the “return to our roots” vision behind it, plus a highly engaged workforce who had been well prepped on the change, knew the script, and were even motivated to sell a specially-blended new coffee flavor (appropriately named “Tribute”) to celebrate.

Schultz also knew that critics and naysayers would be popping out of the woodwork no matter what his company said or did about its branding, and he was clearly determined to stay on course and on message, riding out any backlash that came his way.

And it did come his way: The press jumped all over the news and brought in expert after expert to question the wisdom of separating a well-known brand name from its logo (as if no one had ever noticed a swoosh, a golden arch, or a silver apple disconnected from the company names they represent!). The bloggers and tweeters, never a group to let facts or self-restraint inhibit a good rant, swiftly joined the chorus and promised never to set foot in a Starbucks again until and unless the old logo was properly restored.

The ironic, yet lesson-filled, result from all of this Sturm und Drang, however, was that Starbucks, by simply following its brand plan, had actually improved traffic to its stores and products while Gap, after so speedily yielding to pressure from its so-called loyal fans, continues to suffer declines in sales and brand perception, over almost the same period of time.

So, what enlightenment can we gain from these two startlingly divergent examples of brand launches? As in all things marketing related, there are few hard and fast rules. But here are some considerations that may reduce risk and help organizations better leverage the many opportunities inherent to a new brand launch.

Plan your brand’s activation. Surely an obvious point, but it is amazing how many organizations recoil from the perceived cost and risk of drawing particular attention to a new corporate identity or product package. Companies and their partner agencies should begin planning a new brand launch almost from the moment they embark on the branding process — it’s that important.

If it’s a corporate rebranding, the CEO will have a major role to play and should capitalize on this chance to articulate his or her vision for the future of the company. For a consumer product, a brand launch should be thought of as a major promotion “with legs,” whose importance and impact should extend beyond the usual in-store activities to include full use of public relations and social-media venues.

Involve your partners. If you are working with a branding firm, seek out the team’s knowledge and include them early on in the launch-planning process (they probably have extensive experience in helping to bring brands to life at the final stages). Make sure your branding, advertising, direct marketing, and public-relations firms are all at the table as plans are formed and modified. Your partners are great creative and strategic resources and will be most effective if linked together throughout the process — ensuring cohesive communications support.

Know your story. The introduction of any new or refined brand must have a clearly articulated story behind it. The evolution of this story over the course of the brand development process is the bedrock of the brand’s vision and voice. Spend the time and resources necessary to make sure it is differentiating, resonant, and compelling to insiders and outsiders alike.

Put employees first. Whether yours is a corporate or consumer brand, employees are its first and most important ambassadors. Without their support, no branding initiative will succeed beyond mere window dressing. Do not mistake a brand launch (and the days preceding and following it) as the end of the story; it’s really only the beginning, and your best story-tellers are a very engaged work force.

Human resources will be key in helping you engage and properly motivate employees, and many branding firms offer useful tools (such as internal engagement programs and customer journey maps) to help employees evangelize new brands. Launching a new brand is not a one-time proposition; employees must remain its champions day in and day out.

Stay the course. Creating and revitalizing brands is not a job for the insecure. There is no new branding initiative of any consequence that does not attract its share of criticism. Starbucks, iPad, the Syfy channel, and the London 2012 Olympics logo, to name but a few examples, all endured the slings and arrows of critical abuse about their names and/or identities immediately upon launch — it’s a rite of passage for any major brand.

No one second-guesses the value of these brands today, however. In fact, all four parent organizations were undoubtedly more than appreciative of all the free publicity they amassed while under fire! It’s also good to remember the public has a notoriously short attention span (in the case of brands at least), and social and professional media networks soon turn their gaze to the latest political or natural disaster. The lesson is to have confidence in your decisions and the fortitude to stick to your guns — time is your friend.

Use your resources. Your partner firms are your greatest allies and can be effectively enlisted to spread the word about a new branding initiative across a range of audiences. These agencies can include design and media outlets where a new brand will most certainly be scrutinized, as well as the ever-morphing social network. Employ this resource — it costs you essentially nothing and your partner firms will know the script (they probably helped write it) and be eager to champion it.

Sadly, many organizations still maintain policies forbidding their branding firms from claiming credit for the work done with them. This is shortsighted and counterproductive on many levels, and since very few companies are total masters of their own branding, this denial flies in the face of corporate transparency. Ultimately, the truth comes out as to which firm worked on which brand, but by then the story is in the hands of someone whose primary interest is debunking, versus advancing, the new brand message.

Indeed, great marketing success stories attract great talent. Any company interested in working with accomplished, highly creative individuals needs to be sure it is perceived as a receptive, equitable partner. There is no better way to do this than to celebrate (rather than minimize) the people who work so hard to make their clients’ brands exceptional in every way.

Waving the Flag with Pride
A new identity is a flag signaling change — ideally in a creative and appealing way that tees up conversations about a new corporate vision. Ignoring the opportunity to commemorate the thought, effort, and sheer excitement behind a new or refreshed brand — courtesy of the dramatic forum made possible by a launch — sacrifices the significant value good branding adds to any company or product.

Doing it right takes real planning and, frankly, no small amount of courage. Anything new or different in branding inevitably invites attack by the blogosphere and beyond. But if you’ve done your strategic groundwork, engaged strong, professional resources, and thoughtfully defined the vision and purpose behind your new brand, you will quickly sail past the chorus of naysayers and reap the rich rewards that await.

At the risk of overloading the metaphor, think of a brand launch as a ship embarking on its maiden voyage, with banners flying and people gathered along the pier. The design of the ship may be interesting in and of itself, but it is the passengers the ship will carry and the places it will go that the public has come to celebrate.

The eyes of the world will be on you, so use this occasion wisely to champion your brand’s mission and the organization it represents. Perhaps not everyone will cheer at first, but an intelligently crafted brand on a well-charted course will weather virtually any storm to come. Bon voyage!

Originally published at

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