Breaking Up Is Hard To Do - Branding after a buyout

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Last week Microsoft announced that they were shelving the Nokia handset brand as part of a rebrand of their entire mobile offering. Although the brand has struggled in recent times, many of us in the office mourned the loss of such an iconic player in the meteoric rise of mobile. Those of a certain age have fond memories of their first Nokia; with its interchangeable covers and four day battery life. Banter in the early 00s was often associated with who had the highest score of their ridiculously addictive pre-installed game, Snake.

Alas, things have moved on and so too will the technology behind the mobile series. But how can companies who acquire or divest their business operations best manage these changes when the ideology of the brands identity to a consumer often lies in the connotations of a name?

Brand identity

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Image source: WikiMedia - The evolution of the Nokia handset

Before we get into the context of rebranding, it’s important to consider how an identity is built in the first place. The Business Dictionary defines ‘brand identity’ as the following:

“The visible elements of a brand (such as colours, design, logotype, name, symbol) that together identity and distinguish the brand in the consumers’ mind.”

Sometimes brands go so far as to become the preferred term for an item. For example, the terms vacuum cleaner and Hoover are often interchangeable, smartphone is probably mentioned less than iPhone and GoPro more than adventure camera. These terms have become synonymous with a product because the companies have done such a good job of defining their brand, what it means and why customers distinguish its purpose over their competitors. The essence and advocacy of the brands mentioned has been distilled into day to day conversation, naturally. The personalisation of the brands applies human characteristics to a business and their outputs.

Companies work hard for years to define their mission, purpose, values, intent and target market. However, in the fast paced consumer marketplace, the foundations that these definitions are set on often need changing. Take for instance the transformation of the Apple brand. Now, it is associated with young, hip, must-have tech. However this position was very different only a few years ago when Apple was the quirky, expensive choice favoured by designers. Prior to the launch of the ‘i’ brand (iOS, iTunes, iPods, iPads, iPhone, etc.) together with the Steve Jobs effect, they were struggling in a fiercely competitive desktop market. The crown is slipping on their rebirth though, with Android-operated mobile users accounting for 80.2% of the global market share. What Nokia has shown others like Apple and Google is that no brand is safe. Consumers may be loyal evangelists but can still be easily lured across to new technology. Innovation waits for no man, it’s either adapt or die.

Changing public opinion

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Image source: Microsoft.com - Nokia Lumia 620

When brands do take a decision to acquire technology from their competitors, or divest it as a separate entity entirely to refocus their operations, how can they ensure that the integrity of what has gone before is maintained? In the case of Nokia, the rebrand was first revealed through the Nokia France Facebook page. In a post, that has since been deleted (note: don’t do this, the internet is permanent), they announced:

"In the coming days, you will receive a message from Facebook on the renaming of this page. We are about to become 'Microsoft Lumia!' Stay tuned to learn more soon,"

Post content extracted from Tech Times.

Although there were hints prior to this that Microsoft was going to drop the Nokia legacy brand, this was the first official confirmation. It is unclear whether a formal press release was meant to be issued prior the this announcement, but Nokia’s websites now direct users to the Microsoft Mobile page and the Nokia brand will no longer appear on newly release Lumia handsets.

Since these revelations, the blogosphere has tended to focus on the death of Nokia, over the revival of Microsoft’s mobile market share. This may be due in part to nostalgia of a much-loved name, as well as the poor management of the transition by Microsoft. It is incredible how often brands spend so much time building up advocacy, yet when structural changes come around they close ranks and spend little or no effort telling wider consumers about the change. It was a similar low-key story when EE phased out the Orange and T-Mobile branding.

Formal press releases allow companies to reinforce a new vision and values, what will happen to the staff, how the policies will change, how the customer base will be managed, etc. Changing perceptions is not like changing it logo. It is something that cannot happen overnight. Firm rebuttal of rumours and inaccuracies is now necessary by Microsoft, but prevention is much better than cure and if you don’t talk about yourself, someone else will.

Branding best practice

Any rebranding initiative comes with huge challenges. When there a merger or acquisition is involved, as with Nokia, it gets even more complicated as there are investors and employees with a vested interest from both parties. In a comment piece on the ZDNet website written on the day of the completed acquisition back in April, Steve Ranger said that the Microsoft’s decision to buy Nokia shouldn’t be about taking on Android and iOS, but about ‘infusing a mobile first culture through Microsoft’. A transition that is yet to materialise.

Focusing on inherent core values is an important message that has been played out in the UK grocery marketplace in recent years. Last week, the once king of the weekly shop, Tesco, announced a catastrophic 92% fall in its profits. Whilst Tesco has been hustling for business from the other ‘Big 4’, Aldi and Lidl have been quietly building their reputation as the discount retailers of choice. If Microsoft wants their mobile operations to be taken this seriously in comparison, they need to quickly reinforce their plans into their wider offering.

The key to a successful brand is telling a story. A change of circumstance should act as an additional chapter, rather than one that is being written by a completely different author. When rebranding is done well, consumers can go their separate ways with affinity and their head held high, when rebranding is done badly it can feel like a bitterly disappointing divorce. The direction Microsoft Mobile takes from here remains to be seen. For now, I would like to take this opportunity to say - thanks for the memories, Nokia, may you rest in peace.

Banner image credit: Digital Versus 

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