Is AOL Perfuming the Pig or Moving the Needle?

A New Logo Might be Expensive, But It Alone Isn't Transformational

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Dean Crutchfield
Dean Crutchfield
Bad news isn't bad wine. It doesn't improve with age. According to Bain & Co, 80% of CEOs think their brands offer a superior experience, but only 8% of their consumers agreed. AOL seemed to have gleaned that fact. AOL's running man (logo) had already run off the cliff, revealing a brand that was desecrated, unoriginal, normalized and downtrodden.

The business goal of any brand is to create more users, new users or new uses by continually innovating to add value to customer's lives. AOL CEO Tim Armstrong needs to ask himself: What is AOL's true brand ambition? What does he wish his AOL brand to be capable of achieving? With great brands come great benefits -- including higher customer loyalty, increased opportunities and elevated profits.

AOL's old logo, left; several representations of its new logo, right.
AOL's old logo, left; several representations of its new logo, right.
AOL's old logo, left; several representations of its new logo, right.

A corporate rebrand can be extremely powerful if created and communicated properly; it can unite employees behind a common cause and engender pride, symbolize a shared vision, break with the past, signal a future (direction) and create a difference that drives the top line and profit.

But if it does not achieve these elements, it can become a very costly "paint job" -- a waste of a great deal of money. Incorporating some new logos runs anywhere from $3 million to $50 million for a full program, which is a hefty sum to pay just as you're charged with laying off 2,500 staffers.

The successful corporate rebrand is achieved by creating preference (e.g. Intel), building emotional bonds (e.g. Disney) which communicate a unique position in the marketplace (e.g. Gap), thereby creating shortcuts for customer decision-making (e.g. Caterpillar) that help insulate against competitive pressure (e.g. McDonald's) by delivering efficiency to marketing and sales efforts (e.g. Microsoft) and unifying an organization (e.g. GE). Thus higher margins (e.g. VitaminWater) are supported with an asset that adds financial value (e.g. P&G) and helps attract the best talent (e.g. McKinsey) because it represents a powerful presence (e.g. Goldman Sachs) that can facilitate alliances and partnerships (e.g. the Olympics).

There are four definitive components for building and managing great brands. Each supports and enhances the other. And they're all achievable by any organization (and they do not require new logos).

  • Igniting a great idea
    At the core of all great brands is a great idea that people inside and outside of the business can buy into. Great brand ideas are unique, true and selfless. They're based on universal ideas, such as convenience, magic or individuality. They're simple enough for people everywhere to "get" and they reflect real, living attributes of the organization.

  • Dynamic leadership
    Successful brands come from organizations that manage brands right from the top. Why? First, brands are valuable. Second, brands permeate all departments and must be managed where they all converge -- at the CEO's office. Third, great brands are actions, not just words. Marketers can talk about a brand, but unless it comes to life through actions, it's simply not believable. Leadership psyche (like Mr. Armstrong's) is the key to a successful strategy as it sets the example on the organizational style and the direction employees need to take for all brand actions and communications.

  • The right talent
    In a rapidly changing world, organizations like AOL must adapt and change. People are a brand's greatest asset, and the most important thing a CEO can do is have a continuous recruitment strategy in place -- even if you have fired one-third of the company -- that constantly searches for new talent both internally and with outside partners. A good brand will only become great when the members of the organization believe in it and live it out as they work.

  • Encouraging culture
    How do you take your people forward through change? Building a brand that has clear meaning to your employees requires delivering short-term actions that can take the brand deeper into the employee relationship. Therefore, what are the rock-hard beliefs your people can hold on to? Why? True values extend far beyond the bounds of a brand book. Instead they are anchored in human emotions, concerns, aspirations and ambitions.

In summary, great brands are built by igniting big ideas, creating dynamic leadership, supporting the right talent and encouraging the culture. Even with the cleansing fire of restructuring, enterprise transformation like the one facing AOL relies on that one last crucible -- corporate culture -- and a phalanx of new logos and a common vocabulary is not a common culture.

Two cows are waiting to be rebranded. One turns to the other and says, "Did you know that there is a heterogeneous agglomeration of interpretations for the benefits of rebranding; from the sum total of all interactions through to Sartre's "Being and Nothingness?" The definition of what a brand does remains an anomaly." The second cow turns to the first and says, "Moo."

The noblest of rebrands can sometimes do less for us than a nap or a Tylenol. As a very wise man and personal friend, August Turak, recently told me, there are three forms of transformation: The first is a transformation of condition. The second is a transformation of circumstance. And the third is a transformation of being. So when a thirsty man drinks a glass of water, he transforms his condition. When a poor man hits the lottery he transforms his circumstances. And when Mr. Scrooge wakes up on Christmas morning an utterly new man, he has experienced a transformation in being.

All three types of transformation are necessary to life, but for AOL it's not yet Christmas. We'll rejoice when AOL moves from gestures and engagements to actions and results.

Dean Crutchfield is chief engagement officer at Method, a brand experience agency with offices in New York, San Francisco and London.
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