When two brands agree to merge, I can’t help but wonder: Why would one agree to be bought by another? The most obvious reason is a financial one; one brand is barely treading water and is skimmed up from oblivion to survive another day (albeit another day in a sea of products). Sometimes it’s because there is strength in numbers; it’s better for a company with one area of expertise to come together with another to “crush the competition.” A third reason companies merge is that it enables both brands to increase their product lines, enter new categories and, ideally, woo new and potential customers.
So after the merger, what happens? In the Eighties’ movie “Working Girl,” mergers and acquisitions were commonplace and companies were bought up, renamed and soon forgotten. I liken it to sands in an hourglass, except instead of sand, you have tiny companies blending together until they lose their identities completely. Such was the case when Cingular Wireless (formally a SBC Communications and Bellsouth joint venture), bought AT&T – Cingular who? – or when Google bought up, well, just about everything.
Unfortunately, what we often see is the same tired story: Insert new CEO who promises “we will never change the brand you know and love!,” and then poof…a few years, or maybe just months, pass and you start to notice something is a little different. Perhaps it is an ingredient, or the packaging (off with their heads!), something you can’t exactly put your finger on. And before you know it, the new parent company goes ahead and changes or modifies you beloved product. You, the consumer, feel helpless and alone, not to mention irritated, annoyed and betrayed. (Great emotions, eh?) In actuality, the brand’s identity, essence, and everything you knew and loved has changed. These changes can potentially help a brand firm acquire new work, but has the brand been tarnished completely? If you are feeling “ill,” you can fight back via the Internet…but is anyone listening?
Apparently someone from Colgate-Palmolive was listening last year when the Tom’s of Maine loyalists took to the Internet to bemoan recent changes to the recently bought brand. Their beef: under Colgate ownership, Tom’s of Maine has changed the toothpaste formula as well as its “environmentally correct” packaging. If you know anything about Tom’s, then you’ll know this was a big problem for many. Consumers expressed their annoyance; take these blog posts, for example: “Thanks for selling out. I’ve noticed more stores stopped stocking your “fluoride free brand”….I remember for awhile you guys didn’t have a fluoride version.” And: “Tom’s had great toothpastes, then it was sold to Colgate-Palmolive, which has gradually destroyed it.” And “One of the main reasons I purchased Tom’s toothpaste was the aluminum tube. Why the change?” You can see how this drama played out here.
But mergers don’t always have to be horror shows, and many brands have escaped the “hourglass” plague. They have succeeded in keeping their brand identity and their reason for existence. Perhaps you don’t even know that Ben and Jerry’s is owned by Unilever or that Odwalla is owned by Coke. In these scenarios, little has changed. Ben and Jerry are still trucking around in their VW van, Odwalla is still “Nourishing the Body Whole” and Burt’s Bees, now owned by Clorox, is still making its honey-centric products. In fact, for many fans of these brands, the most that has changed about them under new ownership is their distribution. Truth is, many of us could care less who owns what or who said what to who, as long as the product we know and love is not subjected to change.
All that said, I leave you with this question: Why are companies buying, and then changing, great brands? Are they willing to forgo loyalists in the name of a few bucks? And what about you: As a consumer, are you willing to part ways with your favorite brand if something does cha-cha-cha-change?