The outlook for Outlook
This week Microsoft announced its intention to change the brand name of Hotmail to Outlook. I don’t doubt that a lot of thought and time went into this. This case, though, is an interesting one from the perspective of communication about a re-brand.
Rebranding is incredibly tricky to get right, especially when transitioning a well-established brand name. In my work at Ipsos ASI, I’ve seen some bad examples and some good ones. It can be done but there are some classic pitfalls to avoid.
One issue comes straight out of the change management text books: the failure to realise that your consumers are a lot further behind you on the path to change. Rebranding is a decision that few take lightly. Marketers will have been invested in thinking about and planning such a change for months, possibly years. So, it can feel that, after a bit of TV, a print ad or two and some at the shelf communication, consumers ‘get it’. Don’t fool yourself. They haven’t. Tell them. Shout it from the rooftops.
‘At the shelf’ (be that physical or not) can be a big problem too, particularly if you’re changing packaging or product look and feel at the same time as rebranding. Consumers are at the point of purchase and, if you haven’t expended significant effort in getting this across, they won’t notice or spend time looking. Sign-posting is not only important but necessary.
In case you didn’t get the hint already, you need to blitz it. Lots of firepower is your best weapon for success in transitioning to a new brand name. I’ve heard clients say that they plan on a ‘gradual shift’. What usually happens with this approach is that people are left confused. What is your brand now? A bit of both? Or just neither? If you’re going for a single shot, then do it big. Like Aviva did when re-branding Norwich Union, full on multi-touchpoint, heavy up exposure.
Finally, tell people what it means to them. Be very clear that this is who we are and this is why we’re doing what we’re doing for you.
The Hotmail to Outlook switch is an interesting one. Outlook is already a widely known brand name in the email market. In addition, there’s no ‘at the shelf’ problem: Microsoft still owns the Hotmail domain name. It can just redirect those who search for Hotmail to Outlook, with a note to say that Hotmail has changed names. And for current users, there is a lot of inertia. It’s unlikely that Microsoft will be driving its customers away in droves with this change, especially because (so the papers say) people aren’t being forced to make the change.
Does this mean that Microsoft doesn’t need to invest a lot of effort or communication in rebranding? I’d argue no.
In the first place, Hotmail has a clear position in the market, firmly established as one of the core free email services available. Outlook is much more associated with software for which you have to pay. Microsoft needs people to understand that this is not a change to the Hotmail model.
Second, there is still stiff competition in the free email service sector. If Outlook is to be a choice for those adopting email – old or young – it needs to be firmly planted in the mindspace of those in the market.
This doesn’t necessarily mean a massive multi-platform campaign. But it does mean relentless communication to current and potential account holders, especially about what it means for them (i.e. do they need to change their address? Not necessarily). And that needs to be more than just a small message at the top of a log-in screen or landing page.