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'We caused a bit of a stir': Standard Life Aberdeen & Wolff Olins defend mocked Abrdn rebrand

Social channels were in a frenzy when Standard Life Aberdeen (SLA) bode farewell to a few vowels to rebrand as ‘Abrdn’. Love it or hate it, the brand film clocked up over 300,000 views, which was a milestone for the financial services brand. After a week to reflect on the controversial move, The Drum catches up with SLA and its design agency Wolff Olins to hear why they remain confident the rebrand will turn into a success.

“The short answer is simple – we had to,” replies Stephen Whitehead, chief brand, marketing and corporate affairs officer, when asked why they decided to rebrand Standard Life Aberdeen (SLA).

Despite the name, the past few years have been far from standard in the life of a financial services brand. Combining their services in 2017, Standard Life and Aberdeen Asset Management’s merger brought more problems than it fixed. And, after a secret sale of the Standard Life brand, SLA was left with the name of Scotland’s granite city, which was ultimately an SEO nightmare.

“As the business has grown, we’ve found ourselves operating five brands that are not fully aligned. In the UK, they’re serving the same customers and client groups inconsistently,” Whitehead explains on the predicament the brand faced – an issue amplified by its decision to license the Standard Life brand to Phoenix. “We were sharing a brand with our largest client and this was creating confusion.”

Every strategic move placed is in the pursuit of rising to the ranks of financial heavyweights Blackrock and Vanguard; when the merger was announced in 2017, its then chief exec, Martin Gilbert, shared aspirations of joining the $1tn club.

“We have a very clear growth strategy focused on global asset management, financial adviser technology and direct-to-customer wealth management,” says Whitehead. “As such we needed a revised brand proposition and identity to reflect that.”

SLA also wanted a name that would define it as a modern, digitally-enabled brand, mimicking the modern edge of a savvy fintechs. “Our previous brands were seen as traditional and conservative,” admits Whitehead, and SLA wanted, “a bold move to stand out. We needed to harness and retain the positive equity of the past, while pivoting to focus on the future.” However, cool and conservative is a hard aesthetic to merge, particularly for traditional financial service branding.

And so it brought in renowned brand consultancy Wolff Olins. “Our role has been to help clarify and articulate the strategic platform from which this newly-simplified business can grow,” says Charles Wright, global principal. “Stephen Bird [chef exec] and the team have set out a clear ambition and successful stand out will ultimately come from delivering on it.”

“Abrdn became the natural choice for the name,” says Whitehead, who admits the team had decided on it, even before Wolff Olins was brought on board. “We knew we wanted to retain the brand recognition of ‘Aberdeen’ but the long form was too associated with the city for us to truly own the brand. So we chose the short form, which we already use in some fund listings, so it came from our existing stable.”

While SLA’s intentions with the rebrand are clear, Twitter and LinkedIn critics were quick to share their thoughts when it was announced last week. Many had a problem with how to pronounce it, which is an obvious issue. Thanks to Volkswagen’s ‘Voltswagen’ gag for April Fool’s Day, some questioned whether it was a spoof. Others poked fun by writing without vowels, which looked not too dissimilar from the Welsh language.

A week later, are SLA and Wolff Olins still worried about the criticism? “Well, it’s probably fair to say we have caused a bit of a stir,” admits Whitehead. “We were prepared for some criticism given most rebrands are controversial on day one and we knew our name choice would challenge and cause people to sit up and take notice.”

Indeed, ‘Abrdn’ joins a long list of controversial rebrands. Fans freaked when Dunkin’ dropped the Donuts. Some sighed when Weight Watchers became WW. The Post Office was briefly Consignia, while PwC Consulting spent a short time as ‘Monday’. Whenever a new brand name comes along, even when the change is benign, it must prepare itself for criticism – rightly or wrongly.

“We’re no strangers to controversy,” admits Wright. “But we’d never recommend or be controversial simply for the sake of it.” Despite a lot of successful work for First Direct and Orange, some of Wolff Olins’s work has received controversial reception, including its Monday rebrand for PwC, London 2012 Olympics logo and its work for the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

“In this instance, the name that SLA has chosen feels a fairly pragmatic one given it’s already theirs, has a link to their heritage, will appear alphabetically at the top of most listings and is short enough to work as an app on your phone. The new name is a signifier of intent as we know from our work with Diageo and the 2012 Olympics, time along with investment into the brand and the business will ultimately judge if it’s a success.”

Whitehead argues that the response to the launch film has been positive too. “Now we are part of the conversation as to how customers and clients needs are changing and how our business model has changed to deliver for them,” he says. “We’ve had over 300,000 views of our brand video setting out who we are and what we are about so far. We have never had that before.”

With the rebranding beginning this summer, both stress that the name is just one part of a much wider rebrand strategy. “Although the name has initially aroused attention and creates short-term shock value, the roll-out of the strategy and expression over time will allow SLA to tell its story more powerfully and coherently,” argues Wright.

“The brand is not just the name or the visual identity, it’s everything we say and everything that we do,” agrees Whitehead. “This re-brand delivers simplification, although our intention has always been to send a strong signal to customers, clients and colleagues on our confidence about our new future and role in a changing industry.”

So, despite the criticism, are they still confident with ‘Abrdn’? Or will it fade into obscurity like Monday, Consignia and all the other retracted rebrands? “Yes [we are confident the rebrand will turn into a success]. We have a lot to do and we are really focused on managing the customer and client transition phase,” says Whitehead, insisting SLA is fully committed to backing up its new brand with tangible business developments that bring new capabilities and offers to its customers.

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