The Geography of the Rebrand

Like other New Yorkers, I take amordant pleasure in observing realtors’ branding machinations in their efforts to make undesirable neighbors desirable. So I’m always amused to travel through the Hell’s Kitchen district west of Midtown, once an area of tenement slums feasted on by a notorious Irish gang called the Westies which used to decapitate rivals and shake down the Intrepid aircraft carrier. Lately it’s the locus of luxury development. But back before renters and buyers could be convinced that tenements in Hell’s Kitchen qualify as luxury housing (for classy amenities like windows and doors, I suppose), realtors rebranded the nabe Clinton and all vestiges of the Hell’s Kitchen moniker were expunged, so as not to conjure images of irreligion, filth and mayhem among newcomers who no longer seemed to work in saloons, slaughterhouses and stables. Now that the area has come back, guess what’s happening? Suddenly, the Hell’s Kitchen name is back in vogue, appealing for conveying a slight aura of raffish danger now that the chances that you’ll actually be mugged or decapitated have diminished. When I traverse the area now I pass joints with names like Nell’s Kitchen and Hell’s Chicken, unthinkable a decade ago. I can see newly minted New Yorkers proudly informing the folks back home that they now reside in Hell’s Kitchen. Best to have your wits about you when you head out for crepes, they’ll warn. Nobody refers to the area as Clinton any more. It’s such a helluva cool place now that even BevNet holds its New York conference there (right by the helpless Intrepid!).

This is all interesting to me because we tend to think of brand names, much like our own names, as fixed and unalterable. Building brand awareness is viewed as akin to putting pennies in a piggybank, incrementally accumulating equity that it would be a crime to squander. Given the future investments involved – and past investments repudiated – such changes often seem to be driven by urgency, if not outright desperation. Yet maybe we shouldn’t take such an inflexible view of brands. Maybe there’s a case to be made that beverage marketers should more readily consider a change when the evidence suggests the name isn’t doing its job.

frs-shopIn the past I’ve made the case that this might have been the case with the unfortunately named FRS, a quercetin-based energy drink whose three initials proved difficult to remember but whose antecedent – as an acronym for “free-radical scavenger” – was just as confusing for those who don’t frequent GNC and Vitamin Shoppe stores. Before investors had squandered over $100 million in an unavailing effort to build that brand they perhaps should have inaugurated a new name, as the current owner has said he’s considering in working on a relaunch.

There can be any number of reasons for considering a rebrand. Sometimes the brand has simply been overthought, as the creators of the SodTerra line of sparkling teas concluded in changing the name to the simpler, more memorable Sound Tea. Ditto the Spanish-inflected Agua Enerviva, a general-market energizing water that’s now simply Agua. Sometimes it’s a question of a brand name sounding less medicinal and more versatile in the span of entries it can support, as happened with a brand switch from FluroWater to WaNu or the move by Reliant Recovery Water to downplay the “Reliant” name in favor of a greater emphasis on the functional explicator “recovery.” Sometimes, of course, the name change is anything but optional, as is happening now with the regional kombucha brand Barefoot Bucha, under pressure from Barefoot Wine marketer Gallo. Looking to get something out of the regrettable situation, the boochers have gotten their fans involved in the search for a new name via a crowd-sourcing campaign.

Often, a brand that seemed perfectly satisfactory falls victim to changing consumer sentiment. There likely was some urgency behind the move by brisk-selling Bellywashers kids drinks to the new brand platform Good2Grow, but it must have seemed clear that moms, if not quite ready to abandon buying sugar water for their kids, certainly don’t want to advertise that notion with a name like Bellywashers. Admittedly, the change was hedged by the fact that the key part of the brand’s appeal among the kids themselves is the character heads that sit atop each bottle, but the move still must have caused some sleepless nights for brand owner Jim Scott.

And “desperate” may not be overstating the situation at SodaStream, which marshaled a Super Bowl-size spend behind its home soda makers only to realize that consumers – especially the affluent ones it’s seeking – are fleeing CSDs in droves. Now it has moved aggressively to reposition itself as a home sparkling water maker. It’s too early to declare a rebound, but there are signs that the move has bought the company a second chance in North America. I wouldn’t be surprised, once a turnaround is confirmed, if the company moves to completely scrap SodaStream as its corporate and brand name (and with it SODA as its NASDAQ trading symbol). SODA brass has acknowledged it’s considering the move.

Are there any examples of rebranding efforts that paid out big-time? The one that comes immediately to my mind is SoBe. Recall that the brand started as the art-deco-inflected South Beach Beverage, playing on a Miami Beach identity, but struggled until it segued to the vaguely Asian sounding SoBe and adopted such zen iconography as twin lizards in a yin-yang configuration. Not long after, PepsiCo paid $385 million for the brand. Hard to argue the move didn’t pay off!

Of course, as I’ve written before about branding, gauging what will work is largely a guessing game, so you need to stay flexible. To go back to the real estate game, who would have thought that Dumbo (“down under the Manhattan Bridge overpass”) or NoLIta (“north of Little Italy”) would stick? No less a branding expert than Snapple turnaround ace Mike Weinstein has wondered to me whether his suburban New York town, Larchmont, situated just north of an affluent area called The Manors, might not benefit from the acronym NoManors. Yet an effort last year to rebrand the South Bronx as the Piano District drew a torrent of derision and even the enclave where I live, in the low 100s on the Upper West Side, was the object of a failed rebranding effort, back when nobody supposedly wanted to live above 96 Street. So we were briefly dubbed with the Soho-esque moniker SoCo (“south of Columbia University”) before the area’s own momentum sent prices soaring into the stratospheric realm and the phrase never was heard again. Which goes to show, I guess, that a compelling-enough concept sometimes can succeed in spite of its brand.

Longtime beverage-watcher Gerry Khermouchis executive editor of Beverage Business Insights, a twice-weekly e-newsletter covering the nonalcoholic beverage sector.