17 Jun 2021

Why I (secretly) liked ABRDN – and the City will too

As someone who has poured their heart and soul into a similar rebranding project, I had a lot of sympathy with the communications and marketing teams at ABRDN, formerly Standard Life Aberdeen, last week.


To see a massive amount of work ridiculed across traditional and social media must have been soul destroying.

Name changes are never well received; audiences are cynical, the media is suspicious, and branding consultants are as reviled as estate agents.

It’s also the kind of job you can only mess up. Very few people notice a smooth transition, but any kind of mistake is jumped upon.

As someone who has undertaken a corporate rebrand project before, and swore never to do so again, there are some hidden factors to consider…

First, projects like this can be put on the back burner, but they eventually absolutely have to be done.

Merged companies are hard to integrate, even more so when you retain two banners in the name. It signals past, not future; differences, not unity.

Whilst those in the operating brands can carry on regardless, corporate teams have no identity, areas like ESG are hard to personify, and eventually a recruitment brand suffers slowly.

Secondly, there are practical considerations beneath the surface – the vast majority of names in the world are taken. Then it usually turns out someone else owns all domain names. Names have to mean something to the company involved. And everyone hates Latin.

When we (semi) scientifically analysed this area, we found effectively three routes to go down:

First, something creative that invokes the spirit of the consumer product. Merlin Entertainment was a great example at the time, evoking magic. Hopefully Flutter might emulate that one day too.

These are great if you can find (and own) them, but they don’t always fit some companies, and there’s a real risk that something too strong will end up overshadowing the trading brands.

Secondly, you can make something up, preferably in Latin so you sound intelligent. Diageo is an example, it’s formed from Dia (Day) and Geo (World) and was meant to signify a different drink being available every day, everywhere.

Over time, Diageo has become a stellar corporate brand. But at the time it was ridiculed as an Italian footballer.

The third option is going with something simple; International Airlines Group (IAG), International Workspace Group (IWG), or even just initials whose meaning has long since gone.

This is probably the least controversial, and fades quickly into the background, so if those are two objectives it’s worth consideration. But initials arguably don’t tend to generate their own identity like other brands.

In the end – I quite like ABRDN. It’s memorable, invokes some of the glorious past, with some change. It’s distinctive and, crucially, will enable the company to move forward under one banner. And it’s got people talking, because as Oscar Wilde famously observed ‘there is only one thing in life worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about’.

In time, it will be familiar, pronounced properly, and in no way any worse than other masterbrands out there. It might even seem trendy.

In short, I think it will work. But it will take time.

James led the team that rebranded Paddy Power Betfair plc to Flutter Entertainment plc…

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