CHICAGO, Today: “We all know that a well-executed rebranding effort can breathe new life into a brand, boosting sales and re-energising the customer base. Except when those same customers rebel,” writes Squadhelp Chicago head of branding Grant Polacheck.
“It might sound extreme, but it’s exactly what just happened to Woolworths Group after they announced a plan to rebrand Countdown stores under the banner of Woolworths.
“There is logic behind the plan – New Zealand’s first Woolworths department store opened in 1929, and the country’s first Woolworths supermarket opened in 1965, both as offshoots of the well-known Australian chain.
“At any other time, rebranding to appeal to nostalgia and upgrading hundreds of stores to make sure they’re all up to the same standards would be considered a sensible business move. But that’s not the case in 2023.
“However, the timing of such a move is equally important. Woolworths, the renowned supermarket chain, recently faced backlash for its $372 million rebranding plan in New Zealand. This article explores the anger surrounding Woolworths’ effort and the lessons it teaches us about the critical role of timing in branding.”
What’s Making New Zealanders so Angry?
“The cost of living for the average household in New Zealand jumped by more than 7% between June 2022 and June 2023. Just like much of the world, Kiwis are suffering through a cost of living crisis. Food costs are part of the issue, and the overwhelming point of view among the public is “why spend $370 million on a rebranding campaign when you could be spending it to make our lives easier”. Or, in other words, if you have all this cash to spare, why are my grocery shops so expensive?
“This is reflected in the numbers. A survey conducted by brand tracking platform Tracksuit revealed that only 9% of New Zealanders were excited about the rebranding effort, with almost 50% labeling it pointless.
“More concerning was the fact that one in 10 respondents stated that they would shop at Countdown less due to the rebranding. This negative sentiment highlights the impact of timing on consumer perception and loyalty.
“James Hurman, co-founder of Tracksuit, described Woolworths’ rebranding effort as “tone deaf” in light of the cost of living crisis. While there may be corporate rationale behind the rebrand, such as brand recognition and uniform cost savings, executing it during a time of financial hardship for consumers has been perceived as insensitive and out of touch.
“James Hurman, co-founder of Tracksuit, described Woolworths’ rebranding effort as tone deaf.”
Lessons in Branding Timing
While it’s hard to say what will happen with the Woolworths’ rebranding controversy (unless they make a full u-turn and slash the price of milk and eggs, of course). But there’s no doubt they could have done a few things differently up to this point.
In fact, the controversy offers valuable lessons about the importance of timing in branding efforts. Understanding these lessons can help businesses make informed decisions and avoid potential backlash from consumers. As Squadhelp’s ceo, I’m no stranger to rebranding and renaming. Here are a few lessons in timing and sensitivity I’ve learned through working with everyone from startups to multinational corporations over the years:
Lesson 1: Consumer Priorities Matter
“When considering a rebranding effort, businesses must take into account the priorities and concerns of their target audience. Woolworths’ failure to align its rebranding with the cost of living crisis in New Zealand highlights the importance of being aware of consumer sentiment and addressing their needs. Something as simple as running audience surveys can help businesses make the right decisions the first time, no U-turns necessary.
Lesson 2: Remain Sensitive to the Economic Climate
The economic climate plays a significant role in shaping consumer perceptions and attitudes. Businesses need to be sensitive to the financial challenges faced by their customers and ensure that their branding efforts do not come across as tone-deaf or out of touch. The best branding and marketing strategies are sympathetic to the needs and worries of consumers – because in a time of crisis, anyone who’s not with you seems to be against you.
Lesson 3: Strategic Allocation of Resources
While rebranding can be a valuable investment, businesses should carefully consider the allocation of resources. In the case of Woolworths, the significant sum dedicated to rebranding could have been redirected towards initiatives that directly benefit consumers, thereby fostering goodwill and loyalty. They have launched a new customer loyalty program, but it seems a little it like putting a bandaid on a broken arm!
Lesson 4: Effective Communication and Transparency
Clear and transparent communication is essential when undertaking a rebranding effort. This is more true now than ever as modern customers who are used to social media expect a human element to brands.
Businesses must effectively communicate the reasons behind a rebrand and the benefits it will bring to consumers. This can help to mitigate potential backlash and build trust with the target audience. And if you’ve already surveyed your customers, you’re far more likely to get the tone of communication spot on.
The controversy surrounding Woolworths’ rebranding effort in New Zealand serves as a reminder that timing is everything in branding. Businesses must carefully assess the economic climate, consumer sentiment, and their allocation of resources to ensure that their branding efforts resonate positively with their target audience.
By learning from the lessons provided by Woolworths’ misstep, businesses can avoid similar pitfalls and successfully navigate the complex landscape of branding.
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