The 5 greatest rebranding campaigns of all time

November 25, 2014

I recently did a Google search on “successful rebrandings” and came up with some of the lamest examples in corporate history of polishing the absurd. Really? McDonald’s? Does anyone really believe that by adding a few salads, McDonald’s, the very business that forced us to coin the term “junk food,” has successfully redefined itself? P-L-E-A-S-E. So my research has taken me in a new direction. Seeking out people, products, and companies that have remade themselves in such ways as to extinguish any notion of what they actually were. My greatest rebrands of all time? Try these:

Paninis. What don’t you get? Paninis are actually nothing more than the traditional complement to tomato soup. Updated, renamed, and rebranded, paninis now command a price two to three times their ancestral antecedent, the grilled cheese sandwich. So successful has been the effort, that it has completely dowsed my Catholic memory of struggling to swallow some stick-in-your-throat meatless-Friday school lunch. They might still taste like grilled cheese, but paninis have achieved high honors indeed as one of the great food rebranding efforts of the New Millennium, most likely brought to you by The National Dairy Council.

Al Sharpton. This was the clown who nearly caused a racial war in Brooklyn in the 1980s when teenager Tawana Brawley fabricated a story about her having been abducted by white police, covered with feces, and left in a trash can. Sharpton, a Baptist pastor, fell for it and took up the cause, leading protests across the city. For it, he was later found guilty of defamation but left others to pay his share of the $345,000 in civil damages. In 1988, Sharpton compounded his oafishness by challenging activist Roy Innis to a charity boxing match after the pair got into a fight on the Morton Downey Jr. Show, a cesspool in the history of American TV. A source of city-wide embarrassment during the 1980s, Sharpton had his stomach stapled, lost a ton of weight, and reinvented himself as a more level-headed MSNBC commentator. But alas, he is now under investigation for not paying $4.5 million in state and federal taxes, an article in last week’s New York Times reported. Still, it’s been an astonishingly brilliant rebranding campaign, one that brings a chuckle to anyone who remembers Reverend Al as a publicity hound and hyperbolic ringleader of lunacy.

Samuel Adams and craft beer. Oh the good old days, when beer was a working man’s drink. No elderberry infused finishes, or triple IPAs to sour the taste buds. Then came Jim Koch, an apparent master brewer whose award-winning Samuel Adams beer appeared to trace its history to colonial times with a name honoring a participant in the Boston Tea Party. Koch introduced the world to the concept of handmade craft beers, even though his was not. While Koch’s family had been brewers, the company didn’t brew its own beer, at least early on, and instead outsourced that inconvenience to the Pittsburgh Brewing Company, makers of Iron City Beer. As my friend Sean Kelly informed me, Jim Koch is actually a Harvard MBA and trained attorney who quit a high-flying consulting gig to start his company. Boston beer’s early award has been a subject of controversy in the brewing community as to its importance. Nevertheless, Koch parlayed them. Blessed with a gift for publicity and storytelling, his visionary approach to a blue-collar brew gave rise to the rebranding of entire industry, and its acceptance by a new generation of skinny-jean wearing, skull-cap crowned, four-day stubbled Millennials. A masterful accomplishment and upgrade to a drink once more associated with my T-shirt-wearing uncle Ziggy than the foodies of today.

Global warming. So what do you do when your initial scientific projections don’t seem to match reality, and the impact isn’t as negative as Al Gore and others had feared? Well, rebrand, of course. That’s just what the climatology business has done by replacing the ominous sounding global warming with the more forgiving climate change. Those of us in the public relations business know that organizations rarely rebrand just for the sake of change. Rather, they do so out of some real or perceived threat. Why the rebrand in this case? It allows for hedging, an ability to win regardless of whether temperatures rise or fall, like a bookie living off the vig. And like any great rebranding campaign, it works. We now rarely talk about global warming, preferring to pick and choose events, like this week’s record snowfall in Buffalo, to provide the case for climate change.

The Blue Man Group. Few of us actually realize that the seeds of the Blue Man Group were sewn during the great mime collapse of the late 1970s. The once respected performance medium, which dates to the ancient Greeks, peaked in popularity in the 1970s, when the temperamental French performer Marcel Marceau brought the art form mainstream, even opening a mime college in Paris (yes, you can laugh). Marceau groomed tons of white-faced imitators, including American husband-and-wife team,Shields and Yarnell— whose ubiquity on 1970s trash variety shows like Sonny and Cher to The Mike Douglas Show caused a national backlash against anyone feigning tugs of war or entrapment in imaginary glass cases. By 1979, the American public was in full revolt, forcing an emergency meeting of the International Council of Mimes and the unanimous voted to expand the art form to include face paints “of colors other than white and noise making,” (but still no talking). The result is the cleverly disguised Blue Man Group, a legacy we all hoped had died but still walks among us as one of the greatest entertainment rebrandings of all time. (OK, OK, so this one is a joke, but you gotta give it to me, the Blue Man Group is just a bunch of mimes!)

Rebranding is a tough game, indeed, and successful examples are few, once you get past the Old Spice guy, Isaiah Mustafa. But examples do exist, embellished and otherwise, in how we can all be fooled by dressing the same baby in new clothes and acting as if the world has changed.

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