What Prince Can Teach All Companies About Rebranding
The death of Prince Rogers Nelson on April 21 came as a shock to the world. It also gave us an opportunity to reflect on the vast accomplishments of the man known by so many names. While Prince often received praise for his innovative approach to protecting his copyrighted works -- including his well-publicized efforts, and ultimate successes, in reclaiming his master recording copyrights -- he was also visionary in identifying, promoting, and protecting brands associated with his persona and his art, something performers such as Taylor Swift, Adele, and Beyoncé do today as a regular course. Prince and The Purple One are just a few of the names associated with the artist. And, who can forget the unpronounceable “Love Symbol” he launched in the early 1990s.
Prince began using the “Love Symbol” following a production dispute with his label Warner Bros. Records. “In Prince's mind, by changing his name to a symbol, he thought he could rescind and void the contract,” his then attorney told ABC News’ 20/20 in a recent interview. While a court likely would not have cancelled a contract on a name change alone, in the wake of Prince’s death, his bold actions and their repercussions offer useful insights for companies seeking to “re-brand” their image.
A rebrand should be practical.
A company may seek to rebrand for multiple reasons. In Prince’s case, he wanted to detach himself from an entity whose goals, at the time, did not align with his own. He no longer had sole control over the musical services offered under his name. By acquiring rights in the PRINCE trademark, Warner Bros. Records could control when and what music could be released under that name, thus sparking the artist to famously start performing with the word “slave” written across his face.
Whether in response to a change of business direction; a need to separate from prior bad press; to simplify, or simply to refresh their brand for this new social-media focused world, businesses may similarly find themselves considering a wholesale change to their name or logo, or merely a “modernization” more easily captured and recognized on today’s small screens.
Google recently modernized its six letter GOOGLE trademark in favor of a stand-alone, multi-colored letter G incorporating the blue, red, yellow, and green hues long associated with its brand. It rebranded to a single character while tying its new brand to the four colors with which it had become associated, as Prince had previously tied his Love Symbol to the color with which he was most associated -- the color purple. But, Prince’s rebrand -- to an unpronounceable symbol -- did not play as well as his music. Why did his change of identity, unifying the male (?) and female (?) symbols, not catch on. For one obvious reason. In a visual and aural world, it was not easily communicable. The media could not print it, and no one could articulate or speak it. While in some ways Prince’s rebranding proved effective -- exemplifying Prince’s courage in standing up to the music industry; bringing Warner Bros. back to the negotiating table; and eventually achieving recognition through its appearance on merchandise -- the Love Symbol failed to serve as a true brand replacement. Prince’s experience teaches us that efforts to rebrand should not only offer some degree of continuity (i.e., color) but also be practical and easily accessible for others’ use.
In a social-media saturated society, consumer appeal and company resources remain key considerations.
In the early 1990s, the media presaged the failure of Prince’s rebranding by thereafter identifying him as “the Artist Formerly Known as Prince.” Given the advent of social media in today’s world, rebranding efforts are not only at the mercy of the professional journalists, but anyone with access to a mobile device. The Gap’s rebranding efforts in 2010 evidenced the power of social media. After replacing its famous blue-box, white cap-lettered logo with a “modernized,” black-font logo with no border and lowercase letters, Internet users went crazy. Despite reportedly spending millions on a rebrand, The Gap responded to consumer anger and returned to its old logo in just six days.
Apple Computers Inc., on the other hand, successfully rebranded to Apple, Inc. ® in 1997. The shift reflected its expanded focus beyond mere personal computers to a wide range of personal mobile devices and more. And, CVS offers a good example of a rebrand intended to memorialize a company’s shift in corporate philosophy. In 2014, CVS Caremark, changed its name to CVS Health, becoming the first pharmacy chain to remove cigarettes and tobacco from its over 7,500 stores. Changing its brand identity aligned the company with its new purpose of “helping people on their path to better health.” It also alerted the market to the many health-conscious brands and services offered under the umbrella CVS Health mark, including the famous CVS Pharmacy; CVS Caremark (a pharmacy mail-order service); CVS MinuteClinic (a clinic offering nurse practitioner services); and CVS Specialty (a pharmacy service for those diagnosed with a “rare or complex condition”).
Not all artists, or their affiliated companies, have been fortunate to have careers span over almost four decades. Prince’s new songs, multiple brand identities, and various products, afforded him a spot in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and earned him countless other awards and income. While he never permanently disposed of the name PRINCE, he actively acquired new names, and businesses, to constantly evolve his brand image. But his many abandoned trademarks also offer a different lesson. Out of the more than 70 trademark applications and registrations he filed over the years, only 13 of his marks and applications remain “live.” Perhaps even he recognized that more is not always better.
Multiple trademarks can offer a company an opportunity to branch into different industries, but their maintenance can also significantly drain resources and be an ultimate hit to a company’s house brand. Spreading limited resources among many marks generally does not equate to the best branding strategy. While Prince did develop long-term recognition for his marks PRINCE and THE PURPLE ONE, his reality -- like those of many commercial ventures -- shows that pursuit of multiple collateral brands does not always pan out. Rebranding efforts should include a reassessment of which existing brands align with the new brand identity, and thus deserve future investment.
Even in the face of a rebrand, Prince’s goodwill lived on without diminishment. No matter what rebranding route a company may take, one can only hope their marketplace strength enjoys such success.
Julia Anne Matheson is a partner at Finnegan, Henderson, Farabow, Garrett & Dunner, LLP. She focuses her practice on trademark, unfair competition, and Internet-related issues including strategic international portfolio management, counseling and clearance, opposition and cancellation proceedings, licensing, due diligence, domain name disputes, and litigation and enforcement matters. She has practiced in this area for more than 20 years, and has worked with numerous Fortune 500 companies and multi-national organizations throughout the world.
Law clerk Danielle M. Wright focuses on trademark prosecution and litigation, false advertising, and copyright law. She assists in counseling clients on the selection, registration, maintenance, portfolio management, and enforcement of trademarks throughout the United States and abroad. She also has experience with Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) compliance and copyright licensing and protection. She is frequently involved with various litigations before the federal district courts and the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board (TTAB) of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO). Her experience spreads across a multitude of industries including fashion, media, technology, and food and beverage.