Mind the Gap When It Comes to Branding

Bad Luck: In an unfortunate coincidence, Tata Motors' latest offering shares a similar name with a devastating mosquito-borne virus. Credit: Tata Motors,

Bad Luck: In an unfortunate coincidence, Tata Motors’ latest offering (Zica)  shares a similar name with  devastating mosquito-borne virus Zika. Credit: Tata Motors (R), Shutterstock (L).

The Zika virus on Tuesday claimed its most unlikely victim yet: the new entry-level hatchback from Tata Motors.

The homegrown automaker has announced that its much-advertised new car that it paid Lionel Messi a fat fee to endorse would be given a new name in order to avoid any association with the mosquito-borne virus that is causing havoc across Latin America and has devastating consequences particularly for pregnant women. Zica was a mash-up of ‘zippy car’.

What’s in a brand name, one might ask. While the Zica-Zika affair is understandable, is it worth spending millions of dollars in scrapping advertisement and marketing campaigns in order to change a logo, a product name or in certain cases a brand ambassador? For companies, these seemingly innocuous details, often cobbled together with only one context in mind, can pack a heavy punch: a little over 30% of the stockmarket value of companies in the all-important S&P 500 index is attributable solely to the company’s brand name.

With so much on the line, companies, governments and organisations have little choice but to agonise over branding decisions. And yet, corporate history is littered with examples of hastily conducted rebranding exercises and instances of branding backlashes. Some of these can be chalked up to simple bad luck, as in the case of Tata Motors and its Zica hatchback, while others are often because of cultural insensitivity, ignorance and in the case of Aamir Khan being dropped as brand ambassador by the tourism ministry, an example of political intolerance.

Marketing failures & corporate ignorance

Believe it or not, the Zica isn’t Tata Motors’ first branding failure. One of the company’s most famous cars, the Tata Nano, was the subject of much media attention as it was widely regarded as the world’s cheapest car. This perception however didn’t prove to be favourable. Instead of being seen as highly affordable it was seen as cheap in the worse sense of the word; not suitable for aspiring people, unsafe, and simply not cool enough. Sales never really took off and last year, the company’s former chairman Ratan Tata admitted that branding the Nano as a cheap car “was a big mistake”.

While the failure of marketing strategies are a difficult tactic to master, with the chances of something going wrong being quite common, one would think the art of coming up with logos and designs would be much easier (the cardinal rule is to of course avoid anything that even remotely looks like human genitalia, which some companies still get wrong). And yet, in a few cases, companies are ignorant of just how attached their customer base is to a particular logo.

The Gap Flip-Flop: A Costly Branding Mistake. Credit: Gap

The Gap Flip-Flop: A Costly Branding Mistake. Credit: Gap

In 2010, around Christmas time, apparel retailer Gap launched a new logo design and branding campaign without warning, removing the company’s classical dark blue and bold font logo of 20 years and replacing it with something more light and corporate. Angry online outrage followed and Gap performed what may be the quickest about-face in corporate history by reverting back to their original logo just six days after launching the new design. The company simply underestimated how beloved its original and long-time branding was. This mistake, however, wasn’t cheap: several rough estimates put the whole marketing exercise at anywhere between $5 million to $20 million.

Other similar and ill-advised attempts include Tropicana, which decided to suddenly change its classical ‘straw in an orange’ logo, Coke and British Petroleum.

Cultural insensitivity and language barriers

If there was a holy book of branding failures, the chapter on translating product names across languages and taking into account different cultural sensibilities would be the biggest. The automobile industry, it appears, is usually the worst offender.

In 2001, executives at Honda discovered to their horror that their soon-to-be-launched hatchback, which was called ‘Fitta’, was slang (in a number of Scandinavian languages) for a woman’s genitalia. The cherry on the cake was that the slogan for the car was: “Small on the outside, but large on the inside”. Fortunately, the company caught it just before its Europe-wide launch and re-named the car to ‘Fit’ in the U.S and marketed it in India and other countries as ‘Jazz’, which actually went onto to become a very popular hatchback model.

Most of these mistakes come as a result of operating across different markets and cultures. For instance, the Japanese car maker Mitsubishi decided to call its sport utility vehicle ‘Pajero’ as a tribute to the Argentinian Pampas cat. However, the company was forced to change the name of the car in Spain (where the word ‘pajero’ refers to the act of masturbation) to Montero, which translates to the much-better “mountain hunter”.

Examples of poorly-chosen product or brand names isn’t only limited to the global car industry though: the Japanese and Chinese food and beverage industry is replete with examples of ‘Dick Stick’ (a deep fried rice stick coated with sesame seeds), ‘Cream Collon’ (a biscuit snack shaped like a small tube and filled with cream) and ‘Pocari Sweat’ (a Japanese soft drink).

A Confusing Delight: Cream Collons are a Japanese sweet treat. Credit: Japan Snack Review

A Confusing Delight: Cream Collons are a Japanese sweet treat. Credit: Japan Snack Review

However, just because a product or brand name changes meanings across markets or acquires a different connotation, businesses don’t always immediately change strategy. Quickly changing the identity and design of a product can result in a sales drop of 5% to 20%, according to market research, thus making it an unviable option in certain cases. The best known example of this is the Buick LaCrosse, a car from General Motors. In Quebec, ‘LaCrosse’ is a quirky local term for masturbation. While the company initially changed the name to Buick Allure in Canada, the company realised that it would be much more cost-efficient in terms of marketing to use one name across North America and thus changed it back to LaCrosse.

Closer to home, when online food review service Zomato changed its logo from a heart shape to a spoon, Twitter users pointed out that it looked strikingly close to the the popular cultural representation of human sperm. Zomato CEO Deepak Goyal, however, refused to budge and instead has chosen to ride out the controversy and the spoon logo remains today.

Political controversies

Political backlash and marketing disasters don’t usually go hand-in-hand, but when it comes to Aamir Khan, Indian right-wing nationalism and the BJP party, they do. In November last year, Bollywood actor Aamir Khan became the source of much media attention after announcing that his wife suggested they leave India because of how religiously intolerant the country was becoming.

The most unlikely casualty of the outrage that followed was Khan’s brand endorsement deals. Unlike corporate branding disasters, which are expensive but can be easily reset, marketing campaigns that are politically controversial play out in a different manner. A couple of months after Khan’s remark, the Minister for Tourism Mahesh Sharma announced that the actor would no longer be the face of the government’s Incredible India campaign. However, officials maintained that Khan was not “booted out”, instead pointing out that his contract had come to an end and would not be renewed. Amitabh Bachchan proved to be the perfect replacement, despite officials commenting that the BJP-led government would look beyond Bollywood for the Incredible India campaign.

In terms of corporate branding, online retailer Snapdeal was hit the most. After Khan’s remarks, a section of Twitter and Facebook users started an online boycott of Snapdeal, which had featured Khan prominently in their new marketing and advertising campaigns. According to a  number of reports, within 24 hours, over 80,000 people had uninstalled the Snapdeal app from their smartphones. The company was quickly forced to go into damage control mode and issued a statement that “distanced Snapdeal from statements made by Aamir Khan”. Again here, while the company hasn’t yet scrapped its contract with the actor, the Economic Times reported that it would be very unlikely “if another Aamir Khan Snapdeal ad” made its way into the public again.

Plain bad luck

In a few cases, there’s nothing a company or organisation can do to accident-proof its branding efforts. As Mint recently reported, in light of the Zika-Zica incident, design consultancy firm WPP Group (one of the industry’s leaders) has decided to hire a social media agency for all future projects, to “ensure that the potential brand names they choose are not dogged with any controversy in any part of the world”.

Where this type of research would be particularly useful would be in the case of sportswear manufacturer Umbro, which in 2002, called one of its running shoe products ‘Zyklon’. Zyklon, as company executives would have known if  they hadn’t slept their way through history in school, was the lethal gas (Zyklon-B) that was used by the Nazis to kill many of their victims during the Holocaust. After complaints from a number of Jewish advocacy groups, the company agreed to drop the name.

Other classical examples in the past that share the poor bad luck of Tata Motors are ‘Ayds’, a brand of appetite-suppressing candies that came with slogans such as “Ayds helps you lose weight”. After the AIDS disease crisis of the 1980s and 1990s hit, the company was forced to rebrand to ‘Diet Ayds’, which still didn’t really work out for it.
In recent times, the terrorist group ISIS has forced everything from mobile wallet platforms to chocolate companies to change names. In the case of the company behind the mobile wallet app, as The Verge points out, the company was forced to change name also because the Middle East terrorist group was beating the company when it came to results displayed by top search engines.

  • Suresh Mathevan

    There is an Indian contraceptive named MALA-D for women. It is a strip of tablets to be taken by women to prevent pregnancy. However, in Tamil language, malady denotes a women who cannot conceive. Thus the Mala-D contraceptive failed to take off as women mistook it as as tablet that will make them unable to conceive. This happened in spite of the government trying to relaunch by stressing on the alphabet a in mala-d. The government couldnt withdraw the tablet and rename it because it has already been launched across other states. This happened in the 80s. Suresh Mathevan

  • Sameer

    A well researched article.

    I would have loved a punchier concluding section though 🙂

  • Itu Chaudhuri

    “Tropicana didn’t change its logo” should have been “Tropicana didn’t just change its logo”. Sorry.
    The packaging IS its identity in a more real sense.