Missteps and successes on the road to rebranding

The way we see the world is very personal. Expectedly, we become very invested in this view. Changing these perceptions can be very difficult, to the point that it can even be seen as a personal attack when someone suggests a different view. That includes brands for products and services that we use—or don’t use. This can also be a big challenge for companies trying to rebrand and change how they are seen in the marketplace and grow. It certainly is difficult, but not impossible to change customer perception and sentiment. In fact, successful brands do it all of the time.

Keys to Successful Rebranding
Where many brands fail in their efforts to persuade and change perception is that they are too busy saying what they want to say, not what the audience wants to hear. Seth Godin says it well, “marketing is not about merely sharing what you, the marketer believes. It’s about what we, the listener, believe.”

To be successful, our experience has revealed five important steps, or “gates,” that a brand must pass through: position, offer, audience, message, and delivery. Consider these stories.

Traveling a familiar road—General Motors

Perhaps no brand has reflected the best and worst of the American automotive manufacturers and rebranding than General Motors (GM). A huge manufacturer, GM dominated the market for years. Which was great until what they wanted to offer wasn’t what car buyers wanted to buy. Then things got tough. In the 1980’s, they tried to rebrand one of their most famous marks, Oldsmobile, as “not your father’s Oldsmobile.”

The problem was, at that time it truly was “your father’s Oldsmobile,” only now even dad didn’t want one. The product hadn’t evolved with either the new young audience or the older audience that loved its cars of before, but now Oldsmobile was telling them that their cars weren’t for them. In retrospect, Olds missed on every one of the five steps. The positioning was off. The offering wasn’t good. They missed the new audience and offended the existing one. The message was not believable (because it wasn’t true). And the delivery was ham handed. Ughh. The end was not far away.

The Return Trip
When GM next came to this fork in the road with Buick, it handled the situation completely differently. Aside from a couple of stealthy forays into performance (“fast with class” anyone?) that resulted in interests from dedicated car aficionados, but not many sales, Buick staked their position as slightly above average. Not a Cadillac, but not a car associated with young people. That was fine when upper middle class meant something positive in America. It doesn’t anymore and Buick had to change.

The first, and most important step they took was to create a better product that aligned with the desired (now global) audience. Then with a tagline of “expectation-shattering,” they went out of their way to demonstrate how they were actually delivering on that promise.


The cars look different and perform differently than the Buicks of before. They’re better cars that appeal to a broader audience. To prove it, they had established auto writers get behind the wheel at the famous Nürburgring in Germany. In their marketing they paired the new cars with clever stories and a variety of communications. And the results of getting these branding gates right—increased sales!

Refueling an Icon—Gatorade

As the original sports drink, Gatorade, like GM, enjoyed a long run with very few challengers and exceptional growth. One of the most recognizable brands in the world, it was created to help college football players deal with hydration issues in humid Florida. That was literally the beginning of sports drink industry, now a $6.8 billion dollar market and growing. But like all successful businesses, other brands decided they wanted a piece of the sports drink action. And eventually in the mid-2000’s, Gatorade was forced to rethink and rejuvenate their brand strategy—and the results produced some hiccups along the way.

Their first attempts were off-brand and lauded as confusing and weird. In fact, one publication stated the rebranding was so complicated that it needed an ad to explain it, hardly something a dehydrated athlete (or weekend warrior) is going to take the time to do.

A Bad Aftertaste
According to the website DailyFinance.com, “After sales volume slipped 1% in 2008, Gatorade began its rebranding efforts. In 2009, it redesigned the drink with “G” as its new symbol. The result? Sales dropped even further. According to Sicher, sales by volume slumped 13% last year.” Not only did sales decline, but so did brand logo awareness.

Logo awareness falls after rebrand

Image from CBS News http://www.cbsnews.com/news/grief-at-gatorade-facebook-rebranding-fail-to-reverse-a-sales-slide/

At one point they even suggested that their drinks weren’t for non-athletes, alienating customers (and contrary to the comedic observations of Mitch Hedberg.)  Instead of creating a more solid base to reaffirm their position, what they did was confuse their offering, offend their audience and dilute their message, all unnecessarily.

These failures had a direct negative impact on sales. They had to continue their brand evolution from just a sports drink, to a “sports fuel” company. This took time, but it is paying off. As a sports fuel company they have been able to extend their offerings beyond hydration to nutrition before, during and after the event. They focused on fans and athletes of all types of sports, using a variety of channels to reach audiences where they are. The results have put them back at the top of their game and the market.

Game On
In the run up to the 2014 NFL pre-season Gatorade rolled out a comic book themed “League of Captains” with Peyton Manning and a variety of NFL stars.  The result was a dramatic improvement. According to Forbes, Gatorade received its top “buzz score since 2012, and ad awareness and current customer scores both reached their highest points this year.”

For their 50th anniversary in 2015, they continued this direction with efforts to “move the game forward.”

Gatorade seems to have received the message that mature brands can’t stand still. They have to continuously look at and approach the five gates with a fresh perspective and repeat the process to evolve and grow as a company.

Rethinking School Meals—Conagra Foodservice

The perception that most people have of school meals is, to be kind, less than appetizing. But a lot has changed in recent years and that perception doesn’t match reality. Conagra Foodservice wanted to change the perceptions about school meals to both credit the school nutrition professionals working hard to change their menus and the efforts of Conagra to create great tasting food while following strict government guidelines. In keeping with their mission  of “unwavering dedication to doing what’s right for all, which means giving back to communities,” among other things, they wanted to be proactive in leading the perception and communications about school meals everywhere.

Like any branding project, changing the long-held perception of the school meal was not something that was going to happen overnight. It would have to be tackled the same way as any other branding project – through the five gates. The result was a fun program to “rethink school meals, one bite at a time.”

Here is how the Conagra Foodservice brand approached the five gates.

You can read more about the Rethink School Meals program here or visit their site.

Rethink school meals


Wilson, we make brands young again. We help leading brands stay that way.

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