This month's management briefing looks at one of the toughtest areas in our - or any other - industry: The rebrand. In this four part-briefing, Richard Woodard looks in depth at all aspects of the mine-riddled process. Here, in part one, he looks at when the time is right to rebrand, and how to go about it.

Let’s start with the blindingly obvious: if you’re thinking of rebranding your product, you’re obviously out to change something, wanting to make your brand more successful, more appealing to consumers. At its most basic level, you want to sell more of it, and preferably for more money.

Scott Lucas, executive director of US-based brand consultancy Interbrand, has seen a few of these relaunches over the years. “The obvious thing is when there’s trouble – let’s try to fix it,” he says.

“A significant number are reactive, when a brand experiences a decline in sales or a failure to meet expectations – or when someone does something, when one of your competitors has rebranded or entered the marketplace.”

The “trouble” may not be restricted to your brand, of course; in the drinks industry in particular, it could be category-wide.

This was the prompt for Rémy Martin Cognac to relaunch its VSOP expression (in EU markets only – we’ll look at that issue in Part 2) as Mature Cask Finish VSOP, altering both the liquid and the packaging.

Rémy is the VSOP category leader across Europe and, according to James Stocker, marketing controller at UK distributor First Drinks Brands, the rethink came after the Cognac house observed a decline in the number of consumers across the region – in contrast to the huge numbers of new drinkers being recruited in the US and, especially, China.

The result was a tweak to the liquid – it’s the same blend of eaux-de-vie, but is now married in smaller, older barrels, giving a less woody and fruitier flavour; and a slightly different bottle shape, in clear glass to show off the Cognac’s golden colour.

Both liquid and packaging have tested positively with existing and new consumers – a crucial point for a category with a relatively conservative fan base. “What we don’t want to do is to drop the traditional consumer and say forget about that, we’re on to something new,” explains Stocker.

That line of thinking extends to consumer marketing, suggesting a tweak to traditional after-dinner consumption (new glassware, pairing with mature cheeses) without ditching it altogether. “If people say we want to drink it in the traditional way, after dinner, we will still be putting our weight behind that,” says Stocker. “Who are we to say only to drink it in a new way?”

Given Cognac’s slow and steady decline, this is a clear example of what Lucas would call a “reactive” change, but it’s more evolutionary than radical. Lucas believes the latter in general can be highly risky, with the obvious danger that brand loyalists walk away.

However, more drastic changes are, apparently paradoxically, easier to enforce if you already have a strong and trusted brand. “You actually have permission to make a big change,” says Lucas. “If you have tremendous passion and followers, you can do that – if it follows that passion and the equity that those people have bought into.”

That underlying passionate loyalty extends, again, beyond brands to categories, and especially fast-growing ones. Irish whiskey is a perfect example of this.

Pernod Ricard-owned Irish Distillers dominates the category through Jameson, but felt there were more ways to capitalise on the dynamic status of Irish whiskey in the US and elsewhere.

“We saw this curious thing where we had a couple of our brands, most notably Redbreast, performing very well, but with no investment behind it,” recalls Brendan Buckley, Irish Distillers’ innovation and category development director.

Redbreast in particular had no brand manager, but was the fastest-growing brand in the company’s portfolio, albeit off a small base.

However, instead of a simple and conventional relaunch of the Redbreast brand, Buckley instead led the creation of a newly rebranded sub-category: single Irish pot still whiskey.

Alongside the “hidden gem” of Redbreast, he focused on Green Spot, a quirky product generally only available in Ireland and with an even more die-hard (and smaller) band of enthusiasts.

The relaunch gave Green Spot a pretty radical repack, but took a more evolutionary route with Redbreast. “We were very mindful that Redbreast had a very loyal, passionate consumer base,” explains Buckley. “It wasn’t about reinventing it, it was about adding some quality cues.”

The mix was completed with the additional of a stream of special editions, led by Powers John’s Lane and Midleton Barry Crockett Legacy, and extensions of the Redbreast brand into new age expressions and Redbreast Cask Strength.

Success so far has been limited more by supply than anything else, with Redbreast likely to be placed on allocation next year.

For Lucas, there are clear lessons behind rebranding exercises like the Irish single pot still whiskeys, related to the 10 objective measures that Interbrand applies to brands – six external and four internal.

“Some of these are essential in the category,” he points out. “If you’re in vodka, you’ve got to be clear, because vodka’s all about clarity.

“It’s about understanding what you can change and what you can’t. But in a crowded marketplace, it’s more important to focus on what’s exclusively yours: being from a specific place or having something that you can wholly own.

“Being trendy and modern – you can’t own that. It has to be unique to you, and it has to be meaningful.”

To read the second part of this management briefing, click here.