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Monday, December 04, 2006

Rebranding failures: Consignia

A post office by any other name

When the UK state-owned Post Office Group decided to change its brand identity, a new name was the first on the shopping list. The reason for the brand makeover was partly to do with the fact that the 300-year-old Post Office Group was no longer simply a mail-only organization. It had logistics and customer call centre operations, and was planning a number of acquisitions abroad. There was also growing public confusion about what the purpose of the organization’s three arms – post offices, Parcel Force, Royal Mail – actually was.

‘We were researching hard into what this organization called the Post Office was facing,’ explained Keith Wells to BBC Online. Wells was from Dragon Brands, the brand consultancy that helped to repackage the organization.

‘What we needed was something that could help pull all the bits together.’

The consultancy considered the name of each division but none was appropriate. The name ‘Post Office’ was dismissed as ‘too generic’. ‘Parcel Force’ was, again, inappropriate. So what about ‘Royal Mail?’ ‘That has problems when operating in countries which have their own royal family, or have chopped the heads off their royals,’ said Wells. So Dragon Brands set about creating a new umbrella term for the whole organization. It wanted to come up with something non-specific, something which would work equally well throughout Europe, not just in the UK, and most of all something which didn’t tie the Post Office Group down to mail.

There is a wise logic behind such thinking. After all, many companies have come unstuck as time moves on and their name is no longer relevant. For instance, Carphone Warehouse may have once imagined a world full of consumers waiting to upgrade their carphones, but the reality is that now most people wouldn’t recognize a carphone if it hit them over the head. And other brands have managed to create very successful identities with brand names that have no direct relevance to their products, or anyone else’s products for that matter. This is especially true on the Internet. While selfdescriptive brands such as and flopped, vague and mysterious brand names such as Amazon, Google and Yahoo! have worked exceptionally well. Indeed, many of the largest brands in the world follow this model. To take the most obvious example, no-one who spends their money via Richard Branson’s company expects to take home a real virgin, any more than people buying books at Amazon expect to be transported to a tropical rainforest. These names are about evocation. They are about the identity of the brand, not the product.

Before the Post Office, many other British institutions had also tried to bring themselves into the new millennium. British Steel had become ‘Corus’ following its merger with Koninklijke Hoogovens. ‘Centrica’ was a former arm of British Gas. ‘Thus’ was the new name given to the telecoms division of Scottish Power. The list goes on and on.

So what was the name given to the Post Office? On 9 January 2002, the group’s chief executive, John Roberts, stood outside his organization’s headquarters and declared that the name was Consignia. This name, he added, was ‘modern, meaningful and entirely appropriate’ to the rapidly evolving organization.

Dragon Brand’s Keith Wells was equally happy with Consignia. ‘It’s got consign in it. It’s got a link with insignia, so there is this kind of royalty-ish thing in the back of one’s mind,’ he explained to the BBC. ‘And there’s this lovely dictionary definition of consign which is “to entrust to the care of.”

That goes right back to sustaining trust, which was very, very important.’ In addition, the name change had been approved by the controversial government minister Stephen Byers, who was at that time the trade secretary.

The reaction from the media and the general public was considerably less sympathetic. Some thought it sounded like a new brand of aftershave or deodorant. Others thought it was the name of an electricity company. The BBC’s Web site referred to ‘the most notorious ever Post Office robbery – that of the name itself.’ The Web site also asked the British public to e-mail their opinions of the name. Their responses were almost unanimously critical of the re-brand.

‘Consignia doesn’t sound like the national institution that the Royal Mail does. Instead, it reminds me of that brand of anti-perspirant, called Insignia,’ wrote one.

‘It’s a poor excuse to say that Royal Mail could be confusing when it takes a paragraph to explain what Consignia means,’ wrote another. One respondent e-mailed in with his tongue firmly in cheek saying that ‘given the current crisis within the Post Office, Consignia Plc seems like an excellent name. It is an anagram of Panic Closing.’

Soon it became clear that the name change was not having a positive effect. Although the Post Office had shifted to become a plc, the public still felt it belonged to them. If they didn’t like the new name, they therefore felt it was their right to be angry.

As the Post Office’s corporate performance started to falter, the name was blamed even more. ‘The name got muddied with the comments that business is doing appallingly – this idea that nothing had been the same since the name change. It’s a soft target,’ said Wells.

Soft target or not, May 2002 saw a U-turn as the new Consignia chairman Allan Leighton confirmed the name was to go – ‘probably in less than two years.’ He also admitted that he hated the name. ‘There’s not really a commercial reason to do it, but there’s a credibility reason to do it,’ he told BBC TV’s Breakfast with Frost programme. He said the name change was ‘unfortunate’ as it had coincided with a period of underperformance by the company (it lost over one million pounds a day during one month in 2001).

However, the news was lost on some people, as the Consignia brand had failed to become a household name. ‘I didn’t know that the Post Office wasn’t called the Post Office,’ one member of the public told a radio news interviewer at the time of the announcement. ‘Everyone I know calls it the Post Office.’

Lessons from Consignia

  • Don’t change for the sake of change. The public perception was that the whole rebranding exercise was pointless. This impression was confirmed by a lack of advertising. ‘We thought what would be the point of advertising if all you would be saying is this name change is happening which is not going to affect you?’ justifies Dragon Brands’ Keith Wells.
  • Realize that business realities have an impact. The new brand suffered due to the fact it coincided with a poor period of corporate performance.

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