Undoing History Requires More Than Changing The Brand Name

What is the value of a brand name? Importantly, when you have widespread brand name recognition and it becomes part of your audiences’ vernacular, should you consider rebranding and change it? Those are the questions the Chrysler Motor Company faced.

In the midst of the recession of 2008, Chrysler decided to rebrand their most successful product at that time, the Dodge Ram pick-up trucks. The big reveal: they dropped Dodge from the name. The trucks were now just Ram. That’s it. They were literally rebranding an icon, and it appeared, walking away from a history that dated back to 1921 and the first Dodge Truck. It seemed like a strange move. Chrysler had done away with the Plymouth brand to simplify their offerings and now they were adding another nameplate. But in the fall of 2009 in the middle of the Major League Baseball World Series, the new Ram was introduced to the world with this commercial, “My Name Is Ram.”

The world was stunned. Or maybe not. The move was widely panned, especially because the truck-line was one of the brightest spots in the Chrysler portfolio, and that the trucks were most closely associated with the Dodge name. While the first generation Dodge Ram in the 80’s helped overcome previous perceptions of low quality , it was the second generation that reset the playing field. Introduced in 1992, its big rig truck styling and capabilities legitimized the Dodge Ram in the full-size pick-up wars. The design of the truck began under Lee Iacocca’s watch and it went on to be the the fifth-best-selling vehicle of any description. Then came the name change.

According to Brandland USA, the logic behind the move was that “They wanted a separate brand, hip and athletic, and Dodge wasn’t doing it for them.”  Ram Brand President and CEO, Fred Diaz, framed it this way:

“Although we will market and brand our Ram trucks as Ram trucks they will always and forever be Dodges. They will always be VINed as a Dodge, somewhere on the exterior or the interior of the truck, you will always see the Dodge logo or the Dodge name” – Fred Diaz, CEO and President, Ram

So why bother? While a new product name might make sense to company the company internally, was it what the audience wanted? Are hip and athletic what truck owners look for? Or do they want functional strength, like a good hammer? Judging by the comments and posts by fans of the Dodge trucks they didn’t care for the name change much.

Don’t Call Me Francis

Names stick. A classic scene from the movie Stripes is the introduction. One character introduces himself and says, “My name is Francis Soyer … but everybody calls me Psycho. Any of you guys call me Francis, and I’ll kill you.” After the rest of his rant, the drill sergeant quips, “Lighten up Francis.” Anyone that has ever had a name or nickname that they didn’t like can relate. But whether you like it or not, name association can be powerful. That’s what Chrysler is experiencing with their truck line.

While Chrysler called it a Ram truck, despite their best efforts, to the rest of the world it’s a Dodge Ram. The perception isn’t helped by the fact that Rams are sold at Dodge Dealerships, or by the appearance of the Dodge name in the cabin  and in the VIN. Below is a graph showing the interest in various related terms in google trends. Dodge Ram has nearly 10X the interest of Ram Trucks. It’s not even close—and still trending up!

Rebranding Lessons Learned

Businesses go to great lengths and spend millions of dollars to etch their name in customer’s minds. It takes years if not decades to achieve. Once accomplished, it’s advisable to protect it. And changing it at that point won’t be easy. Here are some things to consider before renaming or rebranding your organization.

1. Does your current brand occupy an accurate and authentic place in the market and the customer’s mind?
2. Does your offer align with what is delivered and what the customer expect? Does the offer need to shift significantly from its current state to something else?
3. Will the existing audience welcome the change? Is there enough of an existing audience to sustain your business? Will the change make sense to them?
4. How will you convey the message of your change? Will it be abrupt? What are the expectations?
5. What will the final delivery look like? Will the new rebranded product be recognized by the audience? Or will they even recognize the change?

In all of the points above, when looking specifically at Chrysler and the Dodge Ram, sorry Ram truck, the signs point to keeping the existing name. They should have kept in step with their audiences’ voices and leveraged the equity and loyalty in the mature brand’s history, instead of “ramming” something new down their throat.

NOTE: In an interesting twist, the new Dodge cars have taken a decidedly aggressive road, emphasizing performance and their history (wait, what?!). The new tagline, “domestic, not domesticated.” Which would fit well with a truck lineup, one would think.

For more on rebranding and smart ways that mature brands can discover renewed growth in our ebook, Five Gates of Branding.

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