When Rebranding Becomes an Imperative

Rebranding is a powerful move that can help brands stay relevant, appeal to a new audience, compete with a savvy competitor, and maintain or gain market share. When contemplating a rebrand, many are wary of alienating their loyal customers by straying too far from their current identity, and often subscribe to the “if it’s not broke, don’t fix it” way of thinking. But sometimes a total brand overhaul is advisable — even necessary.

Starting the Conversation

Among the numerous reasons to consider a rebrand, we’ll focus on one crucial reason: when an established company’s brand becomes compromised.* Like people, as a company ages, its exterior persona — what the public sees — might develop an imperfection or several. These tarnishes affect the corporate reputation and consequently, the brand. Although rebranding can’t erase the past, it can signal to the public that a company means to start anew — especially if paired with meaningful action.

*Note: we’re only discussing the role rebranding plays in altering an organization’s identity and public perception, NOT the validity of claims against the company or perceptions of it.

Rebranding a Giant

Few brands today are as controversial as the agrochemical and biotechnology company Monsanto. Over the course of its 117-year history, the brand has come to mean many things to different people as the company itself has evolved, and even spun off into separate entities. Now, Monsanto is facing its most complete rebranding as it becomes a part of the German pharmaceutical giant Bayer. Although the products themselves and their names will remain unchanged, the Monsanto brand will effectively cease to exist.

Corporate Tarnishes and A&M

The question of if, or when, to rebrand is different for each company. It’s not always necessary to rebrand after a merger or acquisition, although these are often very good reasons to consider the conversation. Take, for example, two other St. Louis natives: Anheuser-Busch was acquired by InBev (themselves products of mergers) with little outward effect on the branding, while Ralston Purina was acquired by Nestlé, becoming Nestlé Purina. It’s pretty common for larger companies to rebrand during mergers and acquisitions like these, whether to accommodate restructuring and new business opportunities, or to distance themselves from the old — and any ghosts that might be lingering. To create distance from their industries, the tobacco brand Philip Morris has become Altria, controversial private military company Blackwater transformed into Academi, and even Taser changed its name to Axon to widen its market.

Following this model, would “New” Monsanto’s story today be different if the brand had changed its name decades ago when it spun off the original chemical and pharmaceutical divisions (Solutia and Pharmacia), effectively distancing itself from “Old” Monsanto? We can’t be certain, but it could’ve have mitigated the torrent of negative press and general ill-will the public already had for the company, which might have affected Monsanto’s profits and ability to expand and innovate.

Changing a Legacy

When companies deal with boundary-pushing products, emotionally-charged territories, or anything that drastically changes how we live and think about our world, there is potential for backlash. With so many emotions and opinions pinned to them, such brands become more than the sum of their parts. Their very names come to represent different things to different people. In the case of Monsanto, the brand “became a kind of bogeyman, used to stoke fear, revulsion, and division, rather than to encourage meaningful debate” around the potential — positive and negative — of biotechnology.

The Monsanto brand, like many in controversial industries, has served as a both a symbol and lightning rod for decades. What will happen when the symbol no longer exists? With the coming acquisition — and the subsequent rebranding — Monsanto’s advocates and critics alike will have to re-evaluate their ideas of this new brand, and their reactions to it.

Kathryn Butler