Standard Life Aberdeen's rebrand to Abrdn is a sad case of irritable vowel syndrome – Martyn McLaughlin
The investor Warren Buffett once observed that it took 20 years to build a reputation, and just five minutes to ruin it, adding: “If you think about that, you’ll do things differently.”
It is a shame that Mr Buffett was not on hand to offer his counsel to one of Scotland’s oldest corporate institutions before it proved that the same applies to reputations that have been centuries in the making.
There have been several rebranding exercises more catastrophic and feckless than Standard Life Aberdeen’s new change of name, but it is hard to think of any that are quite so needlessly damaging.
The Edinburgh-based fund manager has been roundly mocked after it announcing it will now be known simply as Abrdn, a new consonant-heavy moniker which, it is to be assumed, is not a knowing reference for admirers of Finnegans Wake.
Instead, the company insists this outbreak of irritable vowel syndrome will signpost its “modern, agile, digitally-enabled brand”. Stephen Bird, its chief executive, went further, describing it as a “dynamic” and “engaging” label which will bring “clarity of focus”.
The branding agency responsible, Wolff Olins, must be laughing all the way to the bank. Standard Life Aberdeen has declined to say how much it paid for this rebranding exercise, but a simple rule of thumb would suggest a direct correlation between the stupidity of a new name and the cost of adopting it. We should be grateful, I suppose, that Wolff Olins did not propose “STD”.
Standard Life Aberdeen made its name – and fortune – by assessing risk, yet this decision has revealed its blind spot in its desperate attempt to appear relevant. The irony, of course, is that dispensing with vowels is hardly a new trick in the repertoire of brand strategists. If anything, it feels distinctly dated, not to mention unfriendly to spell-checking programs and voice recognition technology.
A rush of tech firms such as Flickr, Scribd, and Tumblr employed the same tactic in the early 2000s as part of a trend towards an edgier, more conversational style, driven in part by the availability of domain names. The so-called practice of ‘disemvoweling’ has found favour among content creators on YouTube and TikTok.
Given the demographics of their customers and viewers, such gimmickry is understandable, if annoying. But when the company in question is 196 years old and concerned with asset management, the strategy seems muddled to say the least.
It is understood that Standard Life Aberdeen rejected using the full name of the city because they would not have been able to control the intellectual property rights. That may be the case, but it does little to appease clients and financial advisers left scratching their heads over how to pronounce the alternative.
There are times when a corporate rebranding is deemed a necessary, albeit cynical act in order to shrug off baggage and give the impression of starting afresh: Ratner famously became Signet; Andersen Consulting was renamed Accenture when it split from its parent company in the wake of the Enron scandal; and the tobacco giant, Philip Morris, attempted to show its commitment to becoming a better corporate citizen by transforming itself into Altria, the type of cod-Latin nu name favoured by the likes of Diageo, Centrica, and countless other firms who have tried to discreetly obscure their core revenue streams.
Standard Life Aberdeen had no discernible reason to pursue this kind of reputational reset. By contrast, it has submitted itself to a pompous and pretentious rebranding exercise seemingly for change’s sake. In this respect, it is in good company.
Who could forget when Royal Mail, then under the leadership of John Roberts, decided to abandon its storied history for the name, Consignia. It was, Mr Roberts insisted, a signifier of “what the post office does in a way that the words 'post' and 'office' cannot”. The pilloried rebranding was endured for just 15 months. Mr Roberts did not last much longer.
The Big Four accounting giant, PwC, fared even worse when it announced it was renaming itself as ‘Monday’ as part a rebranding campaign backed up with a £70m marketing budget. The puffery promoting the switch declared: "Sharpen your pencil, iron your crispy white shirts, set the alarm clock, relish the challenge, listen, be fulfilled, make an impact, take a risk."
The resultant cringe killed the exercise stone dead in a matter of weeks, and PwC tried to consign its misstep to history. It has largely succeeded, but it is worth remembering the branding agency involved in that episode: a certain Wolff Olins.
Like PwC, Standard Life Aberdeen is not what you would call a young, thrusting company. Both can trace their roots back to the 19th century and are primarily concerned with labyrinthine financial services. A word to the wise: this is not something to be ashamed of.
Rather than curse such a heritage, why not embrace it? There is virtue and appeal in being dull and worthy. In such a sector, people value trust, consistency and dependability. The directors of a company may invest considerable time and energy into rebranding efforts, but customers don’t care whether it drops the e’s or not. They merely want to know how it will deliver better returns on their hard-earned savings.
The backlash may force Standard Life Aberdeen into a realisation that centuries of heritage are more meaningful than the whims of marketing consultancies. Frankly, everyone involved needs to have a lng hrd lk at themselves.
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