In January, Marriott International unveiled an exciting new rebrand that had been in the works since its acquisition of Starwood back in 2016. The hotel chain ordained its new loyalty program — a consolidation of Marriott Rewards, Ritz-Carlton Rewards, and Starwood Preferred Guest — “Bonvoy,” an invented word sprouting from the whimsical “bon voyage.” “Marriott Bonvoy marks an evolution in travel,” declared Marriott International’s Global Chief Commercial Officer Stephanie Linnartz on the company’s website, “because it represents more than a loyalty program.”
The timing for a brand rehab couldn’t have been better. Recently, the $39.56 billion hotel chain had found itself repeatedly and unflatteringly in the news. In November, the company admitted that its Starwood reservations system had suffered the biggest breach of consumer data in history, with approximately 383 million customer records compromised. It was in the midst of also dealing with the largest hotel strike in U.S. history.
Marriott gave Bonvoy the red-carpet treatment. Along with partnerships with Manchester United and Coachella, the 22-country media blitz directed by Oscar-nominated filmmaker Jean-Pierre Jeunet included a 60-second spot at the actual Oscars, where 30-seconds costs as much as $2.8 million.
Companies pour millions of dollars, along with massive amounts of intellectual and creative brainpower into their splashy new look. But more often than not, the result is backlash.
Then, almost immediately after Marriott’s ad aired in February, the thing happened that seems to happen virtually every time a company debuts a rebrand: The social media pile on began. “If anyone says ‘BONVOY’ to me at a hotel, I’m walking out,” griped one traveler. “Bonvoy is trolling me at the #Oscars isn’t it?” jabbed another. “Bonvoy is a terrible name and the rebrand is unnecessary,” tweeted another.
In the universe of brand trolling, the vitriol was rather tame (just wait). But this pattern continues to play out again and again: A company goes into a foxhole to develop an exciting new logo, package design, or rebrand. After painstaking precision, said company finally releases its new identity into the world. And then the world — these days, mostly social media — proceeds to skewer it.
Branding blowback isn’t new, but its scale and visibility is. In the past, someone might bark a snarky comment at their TV. Today, as one ad agency account director put it, brands find themselves in a digital minefield where the public is at the ready to turn a brand’s new look into the latest social media meme. Companies pour millions of dollars of investment, along with massive amounts of intellectual, design, and creative brainpower into their splashy new look and feel. But more often than not, the result is backlash. Which begs the question: Why do companies even bother with rebrands?
The harrowing moment seared into the minds of brand marketers everywhere can be traced back to January of 2009. Tropicana, the all-American juice brand owned by Pepsico, debuted its new packaging as part of its $35 million “Squeeze” campaign. The then-62-year-old company decided it needed a new, more modern look.
Suddenly the orange juice brand, which arguably had not been in the spotlight — ever — found itself in it for all the wrong reasons. Despite its sleek new look, design critics said Tropicana had lost its identity; people on social media called it ugly; and, most damningly, customers reported that without its signature image of an orange and straw, they literally couldn’t find Tropicana on supermarket shelves.
Over the next two months, sales of the Tropicana Pure Premium line dropped by 20%, representing losses of roughly $33 million to $137 million, according to AdAge. Rather than attract more customers, Tropicana’s expensive overhaul had driven them away. Everything about the new packaging, besides its orange-shaped cap, was quickly scrapped.
That became a very bad year for the Arnell Group, the design and branding agency behind the Tropicana fiasco, which had also been working with its sister brand, Pepsi. In February, the agency became the focus of internet amusement again when a leaked design deck for their new Pepsi logo went viral. Among other things, the 27-page document cited feng shui, the Earth’s magnetic field, and the “gravitational pull of Pepsi.”
The logo’s first offense was possibly ripping off software company Automation Anywhere’s logo; but apparently worse, the logo shape was decried for resembling genitalia.
Perhaps the shortest-lived logo-gone-wrong happened the following year. In 2010, Gap unveiled a twist on its classic font with a very corporate, Miscrosoft-esque blue box hovering behind its black text, a rebrand that was estimated to have cost $100 million. It looked like “something a child created using a clip-art gallery,” scoffed AdAge. “It’s not really their new logo. It’s all a publicity stunt,” conspired one marketing firm’s blog, positing that it was all part of a covert campaign to get attention. Yet with such vitriol — including threats of customer boycotts — the retailer announced it would defer to crowd-sourcing for a facelift (yes, a very 2010 fix). Within six days, it tossed its new logo and reverted back to the original.
We’re now witnessing startups born of the social media age endure the same firestorms. In 2014, Airbnb debuted what it dubbed the Bélo, a “new symbol of belonging,” the result of a year-long design process. The logo’s first offense was possibly ripping off software company Automation Anywhere’s logo (the companies released a joint statement calling it a coincidence); but apparently worse, the logo shape was decried for resembling genitalia. “Is it balls? Is it a vagina? Is it balls in front of a vagina?” snarked Gizmodo, leading a chorus of critique.
In January, within five minutes of Slack releasing its reimagined hashtag logo — conceived by the hottest brand design firm in the biz, Pentagram — it was pummeled for looking like, among other things, a swastika. (The Twitter criticism only spiraled from there: “A swastika made of dicks.”) A few months later, Snapchat revealed via an app update that it had tweaked its logo with a thicker outline of its signature ghost. Even this subtly altered look was accused of being an “aggressive” visual shift, with users threatening to delete the social media app. One particularly annoyed Snapchatter griped: “I’ve been using snapchat for years and always enjoyed it but never felt compelled to write a review until they made the icon look like a 3-year-old drew it with a stubby magic marker.”
“A strong brand helps a business grow and that’s the job of every CEO, of every company out there,” says Howard Belk, co-CEO and chief creative officer of brand strategy, design, and experience firm Siegel+Gale. At its best, a rebrand is a symbol of a larger strategic change — when a company evolves its product, wants to appeal to a new demographic, or is heading toward an IPO. But if consumers are consistently repelled by new logos, why do it at all?
“It’s like your old, cardigan-wearing uncle suddenly start[s] wearing skinny Prada black jeans and a black hoodie. It screams ‘Handle With Care: I’m having a midlife.’”
“It’s the first knee-jerk reaction when sales start to flag or you’re starting to lose market share,” admits Byron Hoover, Arnell’s former VP of client services, who worked on the agency’s Pepsico accounts. Though companies in positions of weakness might view rebrands as a new lifeline, he says they’d be better served with a new campaign or commercial strategy, especially since changing too much too fast is an easy way to confuse and lose customers. “Too dramatic a shift in identity can do more harm than good,” agrees Dave Dye, the chief creative officer of creative agency LOVE or FEAR. “The public aren’t daft. It’s like your old, cardigan-wearing uncle suddenly start[s] wearing skinny Prada black jeans and a black hoodie. It screams ‘Handle With Care: I’m having a midlife.’”
Logo redesigns can also be deployed by executives as an attempt to prove they’re pushing the business forward. “Sometimes new CEOs or marketing directors go in and want their new company to reflect their [own] values,” says LOVE or FEAR’s Dye. “Occasionally, that works. Mostly, it confuses people.” Dramatic rebrands can be especially appealing to CMOs, whose average tenure is just 43 months. It’s the shortest of the C-suite, and they are the group held most accountable for hitting growth targets and demonstrating ROI. For some CEOs, it can be tempting to twist the mantra of “if you aren’t evolving, you’re dying” to focus more on color palettes rather than deeper institutional issues.
But consumers can sniff out superficiality, especially when a company’s behavior falls short of its brand promise. One clear moment of brand desperation, says Siegel+Gale’s Belk, was when Uber rolled out two different rebrands between 2016 and 2018. It was also during that time that CEO Travis Kalanick had been ousted and Dara Khosrowshahi had taken the helm. What hadn’t changed, points out Belk, was the company’s actions as a bully and a sexist. “I had the sense that they were using a new logo and graphic system to try to distract people from some real fundamental problems within that company,” he says.
Then there’s the design industrial complex, the dozens of branding firms that are incentivized to push a client toward a more radical logo overhaul. “Designers can charge more for revolution than evolution,” says Dye. “Changing fonts or reshaping the ‘F’ or whatever looks like 10 minutes' work, but financially can be more valuable to a company.”
According to Belk, by the time a billion-dollar company comes out the other side of a new identity — replacing signage, employee uniforms, tote bags, anything with the company logo — the cost of implementation can cost 10 times the price of creating it. Companies that are largely digital may not have the same manufacturing costs to consider, but it can seduce them to rebrand more frequently, in an attempt to signal that they’re still on the cutting edge.
As for Marriott’s Bonvoy, despite the barrage of hater tweets, Marriott International insists that its new look has been good for business. “Seventy-five percent of… our most engaged members in our highest tiers — say the change to Marriott Bonvoy has been positive,” Marriott told Marker. “The program continues to grow its membership base and now has 133 million members globally.”
After all, the internet is a great place to show outrage, but the memes move so quickly, marketers are banking on the public’s short-term memory. Bonvoy, however, appears to have a longer shelf life. Within two weeks of its launch, Marriott’s most pissed-off customers — some 1,300 of them, and counting — created a website as an ultimate homage to the new brand. It’s called Bonvoyed, as in: if you’ve been screwed while traveling, you’ve been Bonvoyed.