Counselling for a county

Essex local authority has decided that the county is in need of rebranding. However, David Bernstein thinks it probably needs to re-invent itself instead

My late mother-in-law, Peggy, always wore the same shade of lipstick, Ruby. One day she went into her chemists and asked for Ruby only to be told it had been renamed Dither. She refused to buy it. ‘How can I ask for Dither?’ she said.

I thought of Peggy when I read of Royal London insurance group’s decision to name its new personal insurance product Bright Grey. Why? Because, says The Guardian (2 September), insurance has a dull reputation and Royal London thinks it can honestly portray the grey marketplace while standing out from it by appending the word ‘bright’. Would Peggy have bought all this? I doubt it.

I wondered too what she, a past resident of Essex, would think of the county authority’s plan to rebrand the county. Now, rebranding implies a) there is a brand already, and b) there are problems with it. Yes, in today’s marketing-aware environment Essex can be thought of as a brand and presumably its chief executive acts as brand manager. As for the problems, we can only surmise, but – implication c) – rebranding is meant to solve them.

A name change will presumably alert the county’s many publics to the reality that is Essex today. But that I’d call not rebranding but rebadging. Not too difficult to do in the case of a product provided there is a healthy budget. Marathon has become Snickers without too much indigestion. With companies, of course, the difficulties and budgets increase. Nevertheless, the exercise is manageable given meticulous communications, internal and external.

But how does a county go about it? It can’t simply rebadge, and rebranding in its true sense demands more than a name change. ‘First know who you are, then adorn yourself accordingly’, as my old mate Epictetus once said. Required is an exhaustive investigation into what the product is and means, its character and so forth. In other words, its identity. Only when that is understood can you ‘brand’ in the sense of affixing a name and a design manifestation, something appropriate to the reality. Similarly, rebranding should happen only when the existing name no longer reflects the identity.

But are the burghers of Essex contemplating all this? I hope not for their sakes: the task is mammoth. Are they really in the rebranding business? Or are they using fashionable terminology without truly understanding the glossary? Three TV interviews with authority spokespersons and their PR adviser gave the game away. All concentrated on image – how Essex is seen. All interviewees wanted to change that. The verbs used are revealing. ‘Enhance’ and ‘build upon’ suggest a positive foundation. Strictly speaking, a brand – product, company, county, whatever – can’t directly change its image. Image is owned by the receiver. What needs to be changed – and only sensitive research can confirm this – is the identity, which takes time, and some are tempted to short circuit the process by rebadging. But truth will out and cynicism will prevail if all that has changed is the name (witness Consignia). If Essex has an image problem, it may need not to rebrand but re-invent itself. Tesco re-invented itself and perceptions eventually changed – from cheap and cheerful to reputable and innovat

ive. The image changed because the identity changed. What did not change was the brand name. In my youth ‘Made in Japan’ connoted imitation and shoddy workmanship.

I live in Croydon. The council in its wisdom is not following us down the path of rebadging. The borough is re-inventing itself with, for example, state-of-the-art trams and library complex.

But in the adjacent borough of Sutton is a company dedicated to the omnipotence of rebranding. Its directors, in an offer for subscription, announced ‘it has agreed terms to acquire Rebrand Ltd, [which] has the rights to a new drink concept. The drink is known as ‘M’. Can you guess what it is? A clue – ‘it is already widely drunk and therefore there is no barrier that M has to overcome to be successful’. You’re right, it’s milk – unflavoured milk, ‘never before branded within the chilled drinks market’.

The directors assure me ‘milk has a huge gross profit margin and with the M branding this will substantially improve margins further’. Indeed, as the offer document proclaims on its cover, ‘M is aiming to do for the milk industry what Perrier did for the water industry’, designer milk yet. I wonder what Peggy would think. Not to mention Britain’s farmers, who get on average less than 13p a litre.

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