Social Rebranding.

I’ve been drinking coffee from a glass recently.

The last time I did that was a few years ago and the experience wasn’t altogether satisfactory.

Unlike my previous rebranding experience in Marylebone, however, this time I was in Spain. In Spain, real men drink their coffee black. I’d tried ordering a white coffee (‘con leche’) but had been laughed out of the bar on the grounds of questionable sexual orientation. Real men definitively drink their coffee black in Spain. Black, and bastard strong. It’s ok to have sugar for some reason, but milk is strictly for girls, or men wearing dresses.

I adapted fairly quickly I have to say. The coffee was served in a stout little Pyrex glass slightly larger than a shot glass and left to cool momentarily. When it was cool enough not to cause blisters, but not so cold as to warrant further accusations of cross-dressing deviance, the coffee would be knocked back in one by heavily moustachioed hombres – much like a shot of vodka. No one was able to explain to me why exactly, but presumably the speed of consumption had a direct correlation to the enamel remaining on your teeth.

I followed this national custom from my second cup of Spanish coffee onwards and maintained the ritual for the following fortnight. My whole perception of coffee and the experience I had with it had changed overnight. It therefore struck me that coffee had ‘rebranded’ in Spain.

This wasn’t a cursory change of packaging or identity. It wasn’t a new flavour or a variation on an existing theme.

The way people perceived the ‘brand’, the way the audience interacted with it and the expectations surrounding it were completely different. (Workmen having coffee and brandy at 9 O’clock in the morning for example…) I had to change how I thought about coffee in much the same way as companies wishing to rebrand their business need to change the thinking of their staff, customers and prospects. It was coffee, Jim, but not as we know it.

The importance of the discovery is not so much the drink as the state of mind. I have frequent conversations with B2B marketing professionals about their desire to ‘rebrand’. As the discussions progress, it transpires that they don’t want to ‘rebrand’ at all. They might like a new corporate identity, they may need help with messaging or positioning, they may be seeking creative change. All of which is admirable, but that’s not rebranding.

Rebranding a company involves cutting a swathe to the very heart of the business, discarding everything and anything no longer of any consequence and rebuilding perceptions based on a new centrally held belief (or a new understanding of a belief). That’s quite a tough thing to do. It’s easier to brand from scratch than it is to ‘rebrand’ – a blank canvas is easier to work with than one that first needs to be covered over. But that just makes the endeavour all the more worthwhile.

For brands to remain relevant over time, they have to evolve, change, reinvent, ‘rebrand’. Keep the good, throw out the bad. It’s not something that has to happen every year, but it should happen with significant shifts in the market, in personnel, in the business and in the audience.

As I watch B2B brands adjust to the digital marketing age, it’s increasingly apparent that some are more attuned to the online needs of their audience than others. Some will evolve and navigate social spaces and mobile landscapes more easily and successfully than others. And some need to rebrand.

The trouble for B2B marketers in this shifting landscape, however, is knowing what to rebrand to. What do we say? What do we do? What do our customers want? What central brand belief do we retain and how much do we dispose of?

Whatever the uncertainty, take heart from Spanish coffee. If the spectrum for coffee brand acceptability, and indeed popularity, is anywhere from a whipped cream and marshmallow topped mocha latte at a Covent Garden ‘Java Emporium’, to the shite they drink out of a glass in the backstreet, semi-derelict cafes in Spain, well, at least there’s hope. The real challenge is accepting the need for change and knocking it back. ¡Salud.

Scot McKee