Aesthetics for Birds has recently undergone two semi-rebrandings – first last year and again this year. As such, we thought it would be interesting to have a discussion about the nature of brand identities, what rebrandings really are, and how we should feel about them.
What follows is a conversation about these topics between AFB’s Alex King and Thi Nguyen.
ALEX KING: So, I was thinking about rebranding… And I thought that I thought there wasn’t anything wrong with it really. But then I received a piece of mail from Time Warner Cable (whom I desperately hate but who currently have a monopoly where I live) and they’ve rebranded under the name “Spectrum”. They even have new/rebranded service vehicles around town! At first I thought they were an alternative to TWC and I was like, YES FINALLY I am going to call them immediately and switch. But then I discovered the sick truth. [ed. note: I later discovered that TWC was actually bought out by Charter who subsumed TWC under their Spectrum brand and rebranded TWC accordingly, so what I said here isn’t quite right. But even so, you can see the spirit of it.]
THI NGUYEN: Yeah, rebranding is like a punchline these days. It’s supposed be totally obvious that it’s a Bad Wrong Thing. But it’s totally not obvious why. Like: we like stories of personal transformation. We like when people have these great tumultuous soul-searching events about what their happiness is or what they’re for, and then change their life.
So is it just suspicion about corporations and anything they do? I thought so, and then I remembered something: While we were doing a discussion of the Tao Te Ching, a student of mine told us about a friend of his who’s kind of an Instagram star. “And I always keep asking him if he wants to do fun stuff, and he’s always like, ‘I can’t, man. That’s not my brand.'”
AK: Ewww that’s so messed up…
TN: Right? That’s instantly, gut-wrenchingly, nauseatingly gross. BUT WHY. I bet the answer is somewhere in the difference between what seems intuitively like a genuine personal transformation and identity, and that.
AK: Yeah, I think rebranding can be good sometimes – even personal “rebrandings” can help refocus or reorient someone’s goals and cares in a way that sometimes the messiness and distractions of real life can screw with.
TN: Maybe it’s the declaration to the outside? Maybe the problem with “rebranding” as we usually see it is that it’s only the pantomime of a real change? Like the corporation is the same through and through and pretending to have gone through some transformative experience?
AK: Yeah, that’s DEFINITELY my problem with the TWC/Spectrum thing. Like, I see through your bullshit and I know it’s just a new skin on the same sack of shit…
TN: But, OK: what’s the case where a rebranding could be used for good? Is this like when somebody has a profound personal change and then wants to signal that to themselves? To externalize it so they can stay the course?
AK: Sometimes, with companies, it feels like a rebranding is late – like the company itself has changed a lot, and the rebranding is a fitting accompaniment. Like check this list. Many of these “befores” just look really outdated, and the rebranding is largely to keep step with the times. What I’m starting to think is that sometimes a company needs to rebrand in certain ways in order to convey the same thing in different times.
TN: Maybe this is too fine a point, but those seem like updated logos, and not rebrands. The company’s the same, they’re just changing the logo with the times. The full bore rebrands are when they’re supposed to commemorate some sort of deep shift, right? Commemorate, signify, usher in.
AK: So what is a brand/rebrand? Like, changing your name? Changing the conception of the company?
TN: Like showing that your company has pivoted in some way? I think of ones accompanied by a statement like, “We’re changing to become faster, more open, more connected…” etc. etc. Although I kind of now wonder when we got the concept of a ‘brand’?
AK: Didn’t it start with branding cattle? I think the etymology has to do with burning. (Also, there’s this.)
TN: You know, I’m usually against making too much out of etymologies, but OH MY GOD. Also, the question I’m still obsessed with is: What’s so weird about having a personal brand?
AK: So if we’re talking about personal brands (as in, my Alex King brand), I think part of what feels so messed up is that a brand in general sort of has to be simple and clear to be a marketable/sharable thing. And people just aren’t flat and simple and one-dimensional like that.
TN: I read this draft – I guess I can’t give away too many of the details, because it’s not my paper – but it was basically about how it was impossible to lead a good life if you were constantly thinking about how that life looked from the outside – especially about how that life cohered. It’s like: the brand is something that needs to be instantly comprehensible. And one thing is to summarize yourself after the fact. The EWWW factor of the personal brand dude is that what’s going on is like, somebody has come up with a version of themselves that’s simple enough to be shareable, and then they’re living their lives using that thin brand as their guiding star. Do you live your life the way you want to, and then summarize and brand it in retrospect? Or do you come up with a brand and then force your life into it? Of course, that seems totally different from your disingenuous Spectrum thing. That’s just faking it, 100%.
AK: Yeah, absolutely. There’s no real change there. Just bad press and subsequent hectic rebranding. But, to your point, that externalization does seem like an important factor in the grossness (and seems similar to what’s distasteful about Sartrean bad faith). On the other hand, I suspect that in some cases, you might come up with a “brand” that you want to live up to.
TN: Ah, OK: aspirational brand vs. the other thing. An aspirational brand is like an image of yourself that guides you. But the word “brand” seems weird there. I think of, like, guiding lights, or role models, or motivating self-images.
AK: I agree, but should it feel weird? Is it just because we’re so cynical?
TN: I think the cynicism may emerge from experience with rebrandings. But I do think there’s a reason people reach for that term, and that it indicates something a little off of the Real Thing. Although wanting to rebrand also totally makes sense. Like: hey, we had a conversation, our institution figured out we were doing something wrong.
AK: Yeah. Like imagine a company whose managers genuinely want the company to be (morally or otherwise) better than it is, and rebrands in the hopes that it will inspire everyone at the company to re-think their associations and to shake up what’s going on.
TN: We’ve course-corrected and now we want to tell the world! Of course that totally makes sense. Or imagine: if philosophy somehow detoxified and diversified and wanted to tell the world?
AK: Right. I think those kinds of rebrands are probably just SO RARE that when we talk about rebrandings it’s normally accompanied by the cynical response.
TN: Of course, it still feels weird to say: “We’ve solved the toxic social problems of our discipline. Now it’s time for a REBRAND!”
AK: Oh yeah, no doubt.
TN: Alright, I’ll buy it. There’s nothing wrong with a sincere rebrand. We’re just rebranding burnouts.
AK: A sincere rebrand is maybe like a public resolution a person makes. The alcoholic who rebrands as a Christian AA member. Or the chronically lazy person who rebrands as industrious (through like a public New Year’s resolution). Or in 90’s movie style, the 80-hrs-a-week banker who rebrands as a family-man.
TN: Yup: a sincere rebrand is definitely the institutional version of a public resolution. You know what you’re really saying, right? You’re saying that “rebranding” needs a rebranding.
So what do you all think? Is there something inherently wrong with seeing oneself as a brand? Or does rebranding just need a rebranding?