by Tom Campbell

  • Posted: 6 months ago

Debranding. Really, that's what we're talking about?

Huh, so that's a thing?

I love words: old ones, fancy ones, new ones, British-sounding ones like firmament and whilst. I hate only a handful of words: resiliency, o'er, optics and some more I won't mention. Good, bad or fugly—I always enjoy learning a new word.

Recently, while visiting a Denver-area location of our favorite local burrito joint, a curious new word caught my eye: debranding. Assuming the burrito shop just made it up, I typed a sarcastic Facebook post about this new industry trend. Before posting, I checked with Google, and I'm glad I did. No one loves new words more than branding people, so imagine my surprise when debranding proved to be an actual thing. Sort of.

Most people, including spellcheck, will think you just made it up, but some reputable publications have written about debranding. It even has its own Wikipedia page

I blew the rest of my afternoon diving down the internet rabbit hole that is the wide world of debranding. Here's what I learned:

DeBranding. Who knew it was a thing?

There seem to be three types of debranding

1. Removing a logo altogether

In most cases when the logo is removed altogether, it's not actually debranding, but other terms no one's ever heard of. 
Often television producers will put gaffer's tape over brand identities or digitally blur them in post-production. Not technically debranding, this is actually—wait for it—product displacement. Usually done to prevent unpaid product promotion, product displacement has become so commonplace you hardly notice it.
In some cases, the consumer will remove the brand identity after purchase. These anti-Minnie Pearls remove all traces of brand identity from the products they wear and drive. Maybe they're striking out against the corporate industrial complex but still need to get their kids to school safely, maybe they're ashamed of their bobos, maybe they want to enjoy luxury brands without looking ostentatious. Hold your horses, this isn't debranding either. When the consumer does it, it's called debadging
Debranding is an action that only the brand itself can initiate, and it's been a thing for a surprisingly long time.
The oldest use of the word I could find was from an 1880 Chicago Daily Commercial report. Local merchants were demanding purveyors of fake butter and cheese stop labeling their products as such. Their demand to debrand claimed the counterfeiters caused, "quite an injury to the legitimate butter and cheese interests of the city." It would take nearly 100 years for the word butter to return to fake butter packaging. 

2. Removing the words from a logo, keeping the bug

Much of the internet's talk of debranding, including debranding's very own Wikipedia page, focuses on this activity. Sometimes called decorporatizaton, the thinking here is that by removing the company name and keeping other elements of the brand identity, the brand is somehow positioned as less corporate and more approachable.
Examples most often cited are Nike moving to a swoosh-only logo in 1995 and Coke bottles displaying names like Sarah or Jorge instead of the Coke logo. Starbucks and McDonald's have also successfully transitioned to bug-only logos. 
Ironically (and not surprisingly), this type of debranding can only be pulled off by the most gigantic of brands. Rather than distancing the product from the corporation in any way, these efforts prove the ubiquity of gigantic brands—demonstrating we know who they are without them having to tell us who they are.
If, like McDonald's, your brand is bigger than Jesus (never a good tagline, by the way)—you can get away with a wordless logo. If your local payroll company debranded, you'd just get confused, forget their name and Google them.
Even the buttery and salty casual dining giant Chili's could not completely pull off a debrand. They tried replacing their old logo (the word Chili's with a lil' chili for an apostrophe) with a giant chili icon / apostrophe / s. When it came time to do the signage, someone got cold feet and added the name back in—resulting in monumental signs that read Chili's Chili's. More a brand-brand than a debrand.
Marketing genius? Certainly. Debranding? Not so much. A debranded hijab would just look like a hijab.

3. Going generic

Whether it's peeling the Walmart stickers off Walmart apples so they can be sold at a discount grocery store after their expiration date, or a giant canned vegetable corporation tossing generic labels on their cans to gobble up competition and gain market share, there are plenty of understandable business reasons to debrand.
However, the generics appeal can border on the bizarre. A debranded department store in England has a special room that sells logo-less Levis and other big debranded brands.
Debranding to a generic alternative is a good way for Del Monte to sell Del Monte to people who don't want to pay Del Monte prices. My grandmother would buy generic cereal, put it in Tupperware containers and tell us we were eating Frosted Flakes. While she wasn't being entirely truthful from a brand perspective, she wasn't wrong. We were eating Frosted Flakes, just without paying for all that branding. Looks like MomMom Campbell had this whole debranding thing figured out.  

Debranding vs. rebranding

Debranding should not be confused with its spell-check-sanctioned cousin, rebranding.

While debranding is removing your brand identity altogether (or pretending to), rebranding is the much more common practice of completely overhauling your brand identity.

There are plenty of reasons why a company would seek to overhaul their brand identity. You might seek to distance your brand from bad PR or terrible performance, another company could make a legal claim to your name, or you may simply outgrow your current brand identity.  

Rebranding happens most commonly when a company does not look as good as they truly are—their company name could be unmemorable, misleading or limited, or their homemade logo could be showing its age.

Debranding happens when marketing people try too hard to market to people who don't like marketing. 

Debranding vs. unbranding 

Debranding should not be confused with unbranding, which I seriously thought I just made up. But nope, it's also a thing.

As the name suggests, debranding requires some existing brand identity to be removed or downplayed. Unbranding is when a company either exists without a brand identity or exists with a brand identity that suggests they have no brand identity. While the two might look similar to the naked eye, they're distinctly different.

1. The no-look look

The no-look look is when a company, either intentionally or for lack of effort, exists with no discernible brand identity.

At Toolbox, we see this most often in first-stage innovative tech companies. It's the unkempt hair of the corporate identity world. They show up, do their thing and don't care how they look doing it. These companies typically have reached some level of success without branding, and it's a well-earned source of pride.  

In the early days of craft brewing, there was such a pendulum swing against slick corporate beer brands that the more terrible, homemade and inappropriate your beer identity was, the more craft cred you earned. This mindset remains in some corners of the tech world. If you look too polished, you're suspect. There can be perceived credibility in a company that does not look as good as it really is. In large part, engineers hate marketing, so the no-look look can be especially appealing. 

The challenge here is: your brand identity exists whether you pay attention to it or not.

A brand identity is like a look or a smell—even if you don't think you have one, you have one. 

2. The unbranded brand

Deliberately and consciously conceived, the unbranded brand simply looks like it's not trying too hard. Maybe your logo is set in Helvetica, maybe your logo is a green rectangle, maybe you run black and white ads in color magazines—when done well, the result is a strong, simple, quiet brand identity that makes a powerful statement. 

Savvy consumers think they don't want to be marketed to, and unbrands answer the call. PBR sold a metric shit-ton of beer to cool people simply by not trying to sell beer to cool people—frustrating the hell out of brands who were trying really hard to sell beer to cool people.

The irony is, it's really hard to make your efforts look effortless, and it's just as much work as looking like you care. Unbranding is more of a different approach to branding than it is anti-branding. The only truly unbranded brand is a brand you've never heard of.  

The unbrand appears more genuine, more approachable, less corporate. It's a brand that's distinctly in the hands of the consumer—it's flexible and customizable. But at the end of the day, branding is branding is branding.  

Your brand is your brand—with or without you

Branding is like global warming— it's happening whether you want to think about it or not. Its how you speak to your customers, it's how your team really feels about your product. It's what your customers say to their colleagues about you. It permeates every aspect of your business.
It's worth paying attention to it, even if you want it to look like you're not.


About Toolbox Creative:

If you want to talk about debranding, rebranding or MomMom Campbell's generic candy drawer, give Tom a jingle.

Toolbox Creative is a B2B technology branding firm. We speak Engineer, translating complex technologies and bridging the gap between the science of science and the art of selling it — converting tech talk into brand love and connecting tech companies with their customers.

We are on a mission to help technologists, innovators and engineers prove how their big ideas and innovative technology can change the world.

Our Brand Engineering process empowers technology brands to take on the dominant players in the field. We help innovative technology companies look and sound as good as they truly are, increase brand equity and grab market share.