Branding, Marketing, Non Profit Innovation

Rebranding – Usually the Wrong Strategy

“Sometimes you have a PR problem, and sometimes, you just have a problem!”

I can’t count the number of time my mentor, Marcia Silverman, said that to clients.   And it always brought them up short.  After all, they were asking us to sprinkle some magic PR fairy dust on their very real problems in order to make them magically all go away.   Lots of firms would have taken the money and sprinkled vigorously.  Marcia always had us take the harder path, the one with integrity, and tell the client what they didn’t want to hear.

I’ve been reminded of that recently when major brands opted for the fairy dust of rebranding hoping it would cover up the stink of serious problems.

First, Wells Fargo, who’ve recently endured more than two years of devastating scandals, record setting fines from a series of Federal regulators, CEO and top executives fired and stripped of benefits, Congressional hearings………….it just goes on and on.   In April of 2017 they launched a campaign to restore consumer confidence, with the rather tentative slogan: “Building Better Every Day.”  Which translates to: “We don’t suck as much as we used to.”   A real rallying cry.

Then when that didn’t work (go figure!) they decided that what they REALLY needed was an entirely new brand…….. one that looked exactly like the old brand.  What?

Here’s the rebranding spot:

And the tag line is: “Wells Fargo.  Established 1852.  Reestablished 2018.”  Accompanied by promises to stop doing all the bad stuff they got caught doing.

Stay tuned for next year’s rebranding.

Closer to home is the rebranding of the giant Ogilvy & Mather, the company where I got my start and where I was lucky enough to work for Marcia Silverman.   They’re in a world of hurt – digital disruption of the advertising industry itself; an antiquated agency model; stalled growth; and tremendous instability at the parent company, WPP.   The Ad Week headline was unintentionally revealing:

“Ogilvy Rebrands Itself after 70 Years with New Visual Identity, Logo and Organizational Design

Agency also plans to promote more women to partner.”

Nothing fixes serious institutional problems like a new logo and corporate font.  Oh, and by the way, we’ll take some token steps towards a 20th century talent strategy.  Never mind 21st century, we’re content to take tentative steps away from an agency run by old white guys.

If anyone should know better its Ogilvy.   I can’t think of a clearer signal to the marketplace that they’ve lost their way.

Rebranding for the sake of rebranding is always a mistake because it’s using PR flim-flam instead of authentic communication to try to address previous failures.  And that’s true for corporations and non-profits.

Marketing consultants who do branding work should have the integrity to tell that to our clients and guide them to a better solution.  Or we should walk away.


Making the Pot Boil Over

A few weeks ago Peter Buffett, son of Warren Buffett, caused an uproar in the non-profit and philanthropic worlds with his New York Times piece: “The Charitable Industrial Complex.” His premise was that philanthropy is a carefully structured system whereby the 1% invests a small amount of money in socially attractive efforts that effectively keep the status quo in place:

“But this just keeps the existing structure of inequality in place. The rich sleep better at night, while others get just enough to keep the pot from boiling over. Nearly every time someone feels better by doing good, on the other side of the world (or street), someone else is further locked into a system that will not allow the true flourishing of his or her nature or the opportunity to live a joyful and fulfilled life.”

I’ve been on the staff and boards of non-profits – we weren’t trying to sustain anyone’s oppression. I’ve given money (although not at the Buffett level, to be sure) and I wasn’t trying to protect my own privilege. At the micro, day to day level, Buffett’s charge doesn’t ring true.

At the larger, macro level I think he’s onto something, but I’d like to suggest a broader, and ultimately more difficult conclusion.

Buffett is asking what could drive true structural change in society. That’s not a particularly difficult question. Systems don’t change from within; they change only in response to pressure from without. Two examples from completely different arenas:

In the 1980’s, when empowered entitled white men began dying from AIDS, they were stunned to learn that being inside systems like Wall Street, government, science, etc didn’t make much difference. Those systems were unyielding to their pleas for change.

It wasn’t until those guys took off their suits and ties and took to the streets, blocked traffic with die-ins, shut down government offices, put a massive condom over Jesse Helm’s home that change began to happen.

Within a decade, massive infusions of government funding, and tremendous philanthropy from the pharmaceutical industry created hundreds of non-profit social service agencies focused on direct service and prevention education.

That funding also destroyed those organization’s ability to drive change. They were now part of, funded by, dependent on the very system they’d opposed. Its part of the self-protective behavior of massive systems to neutralize their invaders, often with money.  

A decade earlier, a chain smoking, coffee pounding investor named Bill McGowan, tried to bring competition to the long distance phone market, and found, not surprisingly, that the system wasn’t open to change. AT&T had a national monopoly, and the government wasn’t interested in challenging that.

Undaunted, McGowan sued, and only after he’d brought suit did the Justice Department follow and join with MCI to sue AT&T, leading to the breakup of AT&T which has made today’s competitive telecom market, and the explosive growth of the internet possible.

So that’s the difficult conclusion. The non-profit sector, dependent on government and philanthropic funding, is never going to be able to drive change. Sure, we’ll help lots of individuals. But true systemic change is impossible when you’re that embedded in the system.

If Peter Buffett wants real systemic change, then he needs to apply his money to making the pot boil over. He needs to find and fund the Bill McGowans and the Larry Kramers – those profoundly difficult, overbearing, egotistical disrupters who are willing to do whatever it takes to bring about change. He needs to experiment with ways to sustain the energy that was behind Occupy Wall Street.

And then he needs to retreat back to safety to weather the storm he will have unleashed.

Are you up for that Peter?