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June 23, 2011
These Colors Don't Run: When Brand Loyalty Backfires
It's happening and there's nothing I can do to stop it. The transition from my bank to its new corporate face hits my neighborhood beginning in July, and I am pissed. Obviously I’ve had plenty of warning. Slowly, my accounts have migrated to the stagecoach. Gently, I’ve been reminded that I can bank in over 22,000 branches nationwide. But the colors. Don’t make me give up the cool blue and grass green that remind me of a summer breeze for the maroon and gold that call to mind a rugby scrum.

Jude Stewart’s recent Imprint articles on synesthesia got me thinking about my anxiety over losing that summer-breeze feeling. Synesthesia is the association in the brain between colors and “letters, numbers, tastes, or sounds.” As marketers, we’ve long associated colors with emotions — seeing red, feeling blue, purple rain. So, when we very carefully select colors to convey a brand to our customers, why aren’t we just as careful when we wrench those colors away and put new ones in their place?

I don’t need to tell you that branding isn’t simply color selection. But many of you will remember the Gap flap at the end of 2010, when the clothier rolled out a new logo that diminished the signature blue and swapped the font color from white to black. Customers took the change as a personal affront; they cried, “This isn’t my Gap.” Gap panicked and restored their former logo. Months later, Starbucks unveiled its new logo as well: bigger mermaid, minus font, no change to the color palette. Branding folk held their breaths. Social media fluttered. Customers lined up for their lattes with nary a yawn.

I have been both fortunate and slightly scarred to work through a few rebrandings. One had nothing to do with change of ownership; it was simply brought on by marketing’s desire to update the look and feel of the place. (This was pre-recession, a time when money could be allocated to such whims.) A top-flight firm was enlisted. The resulting work was stunning...colorful. Unfortunately, the organization relied on the tax-deductible dollars of quite a few founding members who liked the old colors. The old colors, don’t forget, belonged to them, were them. The new colors forged ahead while the organization scrambled to make up for contributions lost. Can I say with 100% certainty that the loss of funds was all due to the loss of the old swatches? Of course not. But plenty a phone call to the membership office let me know that the new swatches were “too loud,” “obnoxious,” and even “offensive.”

The second rebranding was the result of a corporate buyout. While employees and customers alike were optimistic about the eventual end result, arriving there was a bit like being on an acid trip. The colors changed gradually, morphing from quarter to quarter. The corporate buyer was extremely wise in introducing a third color (A) to help marry its original color (B) to the color of its new properties (C). First, the three colors were presented side by side; a bridge between products. Then, color C was muted by a few shades while colors A and B were slightly adjusted for better harmony. Finally, color B was restored to its original hue, and the color C was augmented to fully complement it. Color A remains a bridge between all of the company’s products. Gradual. An eyesore at times. But ultimately respectful to the loyal customers of both products.

As branding professionals, the holy grail of penetration is when the customer not only elects a personal brand, but also makes the brand personal. For me, my bank’s brand means independence (I opened my first checking account there as a teenager), growth (when I opened said account, the behemoth had scarcely moved past its Southern base), and, yes, even home (I’ve frequented the same two branches from the beginning, like a favorite neighborhood diner). Therefore, the brand’s colors mean independence, growth, and home to me, too. Does it matter that an outsider sees a random palette where the customer sees neighbors and a clean lobby? Not even. That’s between my brand and me.

I’m sure that a new color scheme seems a ridiculous reason to change banks. We’ll see. I just know I don’t feel anything for that maroon and gold. What have maroon and gold ever meant to me?

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Maureen Green has worked in trade and educational publishing, small business PR, and event planning. She is currently the Web editor for Script magazine and teaches writing.
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