A paint job can't hide reality: HSBC, Malaysia Airlines and the challenge of rebranding

Iterative and agile are no doubt the joint winners of this year’s brand and marketing buzzword bingo.

HSBC has announced plans to rebrand

However, as with any industry terminology that becomes a little over familiar (buzzword being a case in point) both words are actually highly relevant and resonant for how today’s big businesses present themselves to the world.

The reality is a true 'rebrand’ is surprisingly uncommon. Modern organisations now prefer to tinker with their direction via smaller, more incremental changes. The agile and iterative nature of our digital lives means that brands are freer to morph and flex rather than change wholesale overnight.

Strategic shifts, tone of voice tweaks and fresh visual assets can be tested daily, dropped in and run in beta without having to put the whole world on hold. Websites and social media embrace a more Darwinian approach to brand meaning the New Coke big bangs are becoming an endangered species.

The exception to this rule are brands who are having a life changing moment, those at the beginning or end of their lives or those having a major wobble. From startups like Uber and Airbnb who have created a whole new sector with a new brand, through to those looking to IPO who get the full Caitlyn Jenner prior to sale, big change comes hand in hand with big moments.

Adding to the pressure is that the very idea of a public ‘rebranding’ is undermined by the predictable reaction of news organisations, who only have one lazy narrative to attribute to it. The ‘re’ prefix implies doing something again, which sounds like an unnecessary expense and paradoxically tells the world that what you had before must have been rubbish. In the modern media all rebrand stories start with a financial figure and a quote from a disgusted observer.

But if done in a considered and holistic way then a radically new brand programme can make a business stronger through a well-articulated leadership story. It can make jobs better and more focused through considered culture change and make change visible through joined up experiences and a fresh look and feel. Moreover if approached with the right brief and honest expectations, it can make an organisation more valuable and loved.

It was recently announced that both Malaysia Airlines and HSBC are starting ‘rebranding’ programmes in the coming months. Both clearly feel that their respective situations are life changing.

For Malaysia Airlines it’s an opportunity to put behind it two horrific air disasters, a great deal of upsetting footage and many column inches. The brand and identity has effectively been redesigned by tragic circumstance. A fresh start therefore not only feels appropriate but necessary to move on.

It will require a combination of sensitivity but also boldness; little things can make a big difference. Whilst a change of typography alone would be pointless, a change of name and importantly the MH carrier name (synonymous with the crashes) would make a clear point. A change of logo would do little but a vibrant approach to the predictable world of aircraft livery would not only make statement but also build recognition world wide quickly.

However as I write this, a Malaysia Airlines flight has performed an emergency landing in Melbourne, raising questions around trust and reliability. And this points to the most critical point behind any big change, a paint job can’t hide reality.

Investing millions in changing your tail fin or branches without changing what is hard wired within them will do two things. It will enrage the audience by suggesting you are wasting their money and more importantly it will ironically draw attention to the fact you haven't changed. The public’s smart and can spot superficial shifts in an instant. There must be substance behind any change of brand presence and it must help define the brief.

A new logo doesn't change anything. But a well-articulated business direction brought to life by a distinctive and confident presence can. HSBC needs to change not just because of market movements but also because of self-inflicted reputational problems. However the first steps towards addressing this double whammy of brand issues doesn’t bode well.

Firstly HSBC announced it. Announcing a brand change is rather like announcing a diet or a New Year's resolution. It’s a non-event. The multiple caveats regarding ‘forward looking statements’ in HSBC's ‘Actions to capture value from our global presence’ press release comically points out that it’s sometimes better to say nothing than say ‘change is coming'.

Secondly, it is hinting at a move to bring back Midland bank. There’s logic to this in so much as it would geographically represent where the head office will be based. But banks have changed since the griffin was last on the high street in the early nineties; mobile banking and digital interaction is commonplace. Burberry brought a brand back from the dead with great success but it did so by focusing on the future not the past, so HSBC needs to build new services and products that deliver what people want today.

HSBC and Malaysia Airlines should not be focusing on ‘rebranding’; they should instead concentrate on radically rethinking why they are in the world and how they could do a better job for their people and customers.

Chris Moody is creative director and global principal at Wolff Olins the Creative Consultancy

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