July 19, 2018

Sticky Rebranding and Fluid Marks

I have fond memories¹ of drowning my pancakes in all the flavored syrups on the table rack at IHOP. But, on June 4, the International House of Pancakes announced that though it had been IHOP for 60 years, it would be "flippin" its name to "IHOb" in a week:

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This was enough to cause some IHOP patrons to flip out:

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IHOP's Twitter account had fun teasing the public, but remained serious about the trademark issues:

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Note the change from ® to "sm" as the "p" changes to "B" above.

A week after the initial announcement, IHOP revealed that the "B" stood for "burgers."

IHOP filed an application seeking to register

Mackay Sticky Ihobblacklogo

for use with restaurant services three days later (claiming use and submitting this image as a specimen):

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Finally, last week, IHOP confirmed that it was not in fact changing its name and that on July 17, 2018, its 60th anniversary, it would be celebrating by selling short stacks of pancakes for $0.60:

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This came as some relief to many of IHOP's fans. Part of the reason consumers reacted so strongly to IHOP's ostensible rebranding is because of the goodwill associated with "IHOP." Usually there has to be a very good reason to risk the goodwill associated with a particular mark or brand that has a strong connection with consumers by changing it.

Sometimes there are good reasons for doing this. Companies may rebrand to start building goodwill from scratch and distance themselves from an undesired association or connotation. Merging with another company, divesting part of the business, or making major changes to the product or service offerings could also warrant a new identity. One example of a rebranding occurred when American International Group rebranded its property and casualty insurance unit after the bailout it received in 2008 to become:

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IHOP did not seem to be facing any particular triggering event, so its apparent decision to rebrand was surprising. And many people predicted that the announcement was the prank IHOP later revealed it to be. But then, maybe IHOP's mini double rebranding (from IHOP to IHOB and back again) is not entirely unique. In 2012, after repaying most of its government loans, American International Group rebranded the property and casualty insurance segment back to AIG and adopted this logo:

Mackay Sticky Aiglogo

Undergoing a rebranding (let alone reverting to a previous brand) is relatively unusual because of the expense involved and the effort required to 'teach' consumers to embrace the new identity. Of course many companies update their logos and refresh the look of their promotional materials from time to time. But a complete overhaul can be an expensive, risky process, so it does not happen frequently.

Rather than seeing IHOP's marketing stunt as a rebranding, perhaps an alternative way to perceive it is as dabbling with a 'fluid' mark. Although the conventional wisdom is that marks should always be displayed consistently to facilitate consumer recognition (and attachment), there are some marks that have gained such market strength they can withstand (and perhaps benefit from) some occasional variation in presentation.

For example, Google, Inc. frequently converts its logo as it appears on its search engine page into a design that celebrates a person or event. Last weekend, the "Google doodle" celebrating the final match of the 2018 FIFA World Cup appeared on the search engine's landing page. Because Google's logo is so familiar and frequently seen, it can tolerate the variation in presentation, and such variation may help keep the consumers' attention in a way that strengthens the mark. Perhaps IHOP will occasionally flip the "p" into a "b" in its logo when it wants to promote its burgers.

IHOP has redirected those attempting to follow its new Twitter account @IHOB back to its @IHOP Twitter account. It has confirmed that the campaign was a marketing effort to draw attention to its new burgers, not an actual rebranding. And hopefully those who needed to see the brand in person to be assured of its stability were able to enjoy a $0.60 short stack of pancakes at the same time.


¹Some from childhood; some more recent.