a tale of two rebrands: syfy and starbucks

To marketers in despair, a rebrand may be like a knight in shining armor.Knight How better to re-awaken the passion for a brand than to create a new name and image?!

Despite the promise of a fairy tale ending, more rebrands fail than succeed.  Executing a rebrand is fraught with challenges and requires some rather subjective decision-making.  The stories of two high profile rebranding efforts currently underway – the Sci-Fi Channel and Starbucks — prove this point.

First there’s the Sci-Fi Channel, which recently took on the name, Syfy (see Variety’s article for background.)  They also replaced a planetary-inspired logo with a stylized name treatment which has a distinctively more playful feel. The new name and identity was rolled out to the media industry in the network’s upfront presentation and a new Syfy Imagination Park at Rockefeller Center in New York City and to viewers during the launch of its original series “Warehouse 13.”

And Starbucks just opened a series of remodeled Seattle-area stores bearing the names of their neighborhoods — 15th Avenue Coffee and Tea for example — instead of Starbucks. In fact, the Starbucks name and logo won’t appear anywhere in the store, with plans for even the bags of the company’s coffee and other products bearing the new name.  While it’s unlikely that Starbucks is planning a chain-wide rebrand, this move raises questions about the future of the Starbucks brand identity, and positioning.

A television network running shows with aliens and a struggling national coffeehouse chain may seem to have nothing in common.  But comparing and contrasting the two businesses’ recent efforts to rebrand themselves actually makes for an instructive tale of do’s and don’ts when executing a brand makeover:

  • Rationale behind the rebrands — The two efforts seem to be addressing two different business situations.  In the case of Syfy, the change was made because the network’s executives felt the previous name was too limiting, keeping people away because it conveyed too much geek-ness.   There was a more practical reason as well – “Sci-Fi” isn’t a trademarkable name.
    The move has been a long time coming, as the network has been evolving its programming away from exclusively featuring science fiction shows to a mix of programs including “Extreme Championship Wrestling.”  Syfy president Dave Howe explained, “Rather than changing the programming to suit some new brand strategy, we’re changing the brand to fit the programming.”
    Starbucks’ change appears to be part of CEO Howard Schultz’s well-publicized efforts to reinvigorate the stalled business by reviving the “theatre” of Starbucks’ units. Throughout the system, equipment, product, and design changes are being made, including refurbishments to give the stores a locally-themed and less uniform look.  Tim Pfeiffer, Starbucks’ senior vice president of global design, explains the new names on the Seattle-stores are meant to give them “a community personality.”
    So the Syfy rebrand was undertaken to change the brand image to more accurately reflect the actual brand experience; while Starbucks is rebranding to change the brand image and customer experience to achieve an aspirational position.  Extensive research shows a significantly higher success rate for brand repositionings that are achievable, not simply attractive.

    Therefore, since it was prompted by the current reality,  Syfy’s seems an attainable effort; Starbucks, more like a pipe dream.

  • Brand targets — The targets pursued by the two rebrands are also quite different. Syfy is moving from a niche audience to a more mainstream one.  Syfy’s Howe explained the rebrand is intended to bring in new viewers with his comment: “We really do think that the [old] name is a barrier to entry for some people.” And the network seems to be well on its way to capturing its broader target audience, with “Warehouse” attracting a solid 3.5 million viewers.
    It almost seems as if Starbucks is headed in the opposite direction, hoping to trade its mass market appeal for a more niche positioning.  With plans to serve wine and beer and to host live music and poetry readings, the new stores are intended to attract an older, more upscale, and perhaps more elite customer.
    While the changes may serve to differentiate Starbucks from McDonald’s which recently launched an effort to lure Starbucks’ customers away, alienating a large portion of its existing customer base by intrroducing a high-brow image doesn’t make sense if the chain’s current challenge is reigniting growth.
    Rebranding is usually used to grow a brand’s prospect pool, per Syfy’s case.  The direction Starbucks is moving in is so unusual, it’s difficult to cite other brands that have adopted a similar path, much less to find ones that have been successful at doing so.
  • Name selection — When it comes to the names deployed in the rebrands, neither effort seems to be on-target.  One seems to go too far; the other, not far enough.
    By completely eschewing all reference to Starbucks, that company’s rebrand seems to be throwing out all existing brand equity, including its positive associations.  The use of a name that references the neighborhood in which the store is located aligns with the overall rebranding strategy; but it doesn’t speak to the heritage and innovation for which the Starbucks brand has become known – not to mention the broad awareness it enjoys.
    The approach also seems ripe as a source of potential confusion or backlash, as people try to make sense of a store that appears to be new and independent but is neither.  Perhaps a better strategy would have been to employ an endorser brand approach (e.g., Coffee on 15th, by Starbucks).
    In Syfy’s case, they seem to be hanging on too tightly to the existing equity of the Sci-Fi name, where a clean break would probably be better.  A new name that constantly requires an explanation which refers back to the original one is problematic and limiting for Syfy.  And to appeal to a broader, more grown-up audience, a name with more heft and deft would be more effective.

Syfy’s rebrand has already come under a lot of fire by the network’s fan base, and questions about Starbucks latest move have filled the blogosphere.  These criticisms point to the critical nature of decisions in the rebranding process.  And the juxtaposition of the two efforts provides some valuable lessons.

But because the ROI on the changes have yet to be calculated, the stories of each rebrand are still unfolding.  So perhaps the moral of these two rebranding tales is the same:  proceed with caution.

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(image courtesy of OneWinged4ngel)

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