How to rebrand successfully, if your brand finds itself on the wrong side of history.

For the past few weeks the Black Lives Matter protests have sparked some important soul searching for many of us, including those whose brands now find themselves uncomfortably reflecting values, concepts or a history that no longer fits with the future we hope to create.

From the racially insensitive Uncle Ben’s, to the unfortunate family name which is arguably more recognised as a racist label, Coon cheese, there are many brands now questioning whether it’s time to make the investment—and take the risk—of a rebrand.

Firstly, should you?

Simply put, if you feel your brand could in any way offend or discriminate, especially regarding issues of race, gender, disability or sexuality, it’s an emphatic Yes. If, as is the case with Coon, your brand is attached to your family name, it becomes a more difficult decision, but given the gravity of offense the word itself has caused, and the family-friendly nature of the product, it feels like a change is worthwhile—and the world is asking for it. 

As Colonial Brewing Co. have learned, it does, however, become more complex when the narrative the brand evokes isn’t unequivocally offensive, and arguably holds different meaning, to different groups.

When meaning and cultural etymology matter.

Colonial Brewing Co. is one such brand facing a tough decision right now. According to Bandt: ‘Based in the Margaret River, the craft beer brand was accused of “creating nostalgia” for a time in history when Indigenous people “were killed en masse”.’

In the same article, this, according to the managing director of the brand, Lawrence Dowd, couldn’t be further from the brand’s intention[1].  

Referring to the Cambridge dictionary, colonial as an adjective means: ‘involving a period of political control by a more powerful country.’ It is often used to reference a period of architecture, and traditionally is linked to the act or era of colonisation.

But, in Australia, colloquially the term colonial has also long evoked a sense of rebellion, attached to the mythology of the ‘wild colonial boy’, from an anonymous Australian/Irish ballad, who hails from a glorified bushranger past.

Much as the Ned Kelly mythology has carved out a sense of white Australia’s wild, rebellious history, it makes sense that a beer brand would love to connect with a cultural essence that has been celebrated by a significant core of its audience—white men.

Is the Colonial Brewing Co. brand holding itself back?

As a brand strategist, I can’t help but feel the Colonial Brewing Co. brand has already evolved in all but its name. I can see where the name came from. Extending the colloquial understanding of colonial, the brand represents a sense of simple freedom.

‘Wild’ is clearly core to Colonial Brewing Co.’s brand essence. It’s originally West Australian—a state known as Australia’s own wild west. Of course, in WA, wild refers to its wild coastline, rugged beauty and free spirit, especially attached to areas like Margaret River (or Marg’s as it is lovingly known by locals, not yet willing to accept the region’s posh rebrand).

There’s an authenticity to it, which is reflected in the visual identity, clean fonts and packaging and core brand messages, which includes terms like ‘uncomplicated’.

But, racist tensions and white history is anything but uncomplicated. And oddly, the name Colonial feels more at home on a can of VB than it does on the brand’s own batch brews and ciders. 

Not only would now be a wonderful time to complete that evolution from a historical concept of rebellion to a modern one, but it would feel natural and welcome to the socially empathetic Port Melbourne and Margaret River communities the brand calls home. 

And, right now, while the spotlight is on the brand, a really positive statement can be made.

What is in a name?

When it comes to branding, your name is important, but a brand is the sum of many parts—including the brand’s visual identity, values and voice. 

Some brands are known more by their product lines than their master brands, and when it comes to beer brands in particular, so much of the brand depends on its simplicity to order.

As we’ve learned with Furphy, Australians love a pun when ordering a pint, and are happy to embrace playful brands that express their humour and individuality. A beer or cider brand should make you feel good, which is why it is more pertinent that Colonial Brewing Co. should consider a rebrand than, say, Colonial First.

Strategically, Colonial Brewing Co. could choose to simplify the parent branding to CBC Co. (as it appears on its website) and place a greater emphasis on naming its product range, so as to build the awareness of the Bertie or the Porter over ‘Colonial’.

Alternatively, it could be bold and daring and find a new brand name that embodies the essence it was hoping Colonial would capture, in a way that’s fit for modern audiences. Either way, it’s an exciting challenge.

Why brand strategy, and not just campaign, is a critical investment today.

In an era of cancel culture and rapidly evolving social change, brands are going to need to be more strategic and aware in how they go to market, and how they address the shifting needs of their audience.

Reactionary moves are never as effective as strategic thinking and planning, which is why beyond the stylistic worth of their look and feel, brands must now consider their own cultural meaning. Only by doing so, will they be able to turn attention into deepened engagement rather than negative PR.


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