By Sean Hudgins, Account Coordinator, R&J Public Relations
No matter what type of work we are doing as public relations professionals, branding and brand identity are likely to be at the core, which is why it’s so important for us to be mindful of our clients’ brand identities when crafting messages or engaging in media relations. Consumers often have an emotional attachment to brands, and good public relations work captures and remains true to those emotions in its messaging.
While watching TV one night last month, my program was interrupted by images of pasta and a woman talking at me about experiencing “Today’s Italy” at Olive Garden. Seeing the world through very brand-conscious eyes thanks to a couple of branding projects currently on my plate, I noticed that the casual Italian dining chain had changed its logo.
Now I must confess that I do not regularly frequent Olive Garden. In fact, I can count on one hand the number of times I have dined at the establishment, which probably doesn’t make me the most well-versed critic. But all the same, I was immediately unnerved by this new logo, likely because the image I had of the restaurant had just been flipped upside down. I also knew that if I was put-off by the change, loyal patrons of the restaurant must have been up in arms. Gone were the distinct green script font and grape vine most had come to associate with the brand. In their place were a simpler white font and a solid-colored olive branch. On the surface, it made sense (What with it being Olive Garden at all, why were the grapes there in the first place?) but the execution left something to be desired; it just didn’t feel right. I immediately turned to my smartphone for answers.
Image courtesy of www.eater.com
Apparently, after conducting an assessment of its own brand perception, Olive Garden had determined that many Americans find the chain to be ”tacky,” while others who had previously enjoyed the restaurant had begun taking their business to cheaper, more modern rivals often perceived to be healthier, such as Chipotle and Panera Bread. In order to shed its cheesy image and improve customer perception, Olive Garden’s PR team chose to overhaul the brand, unveiling the new, cleaner logo, more modern, simple interior design and lighter, supposedly more sophisticated menu options.
At the right time, such rebranding efforts can be beneficial, even if they may be scary and labor intensive for a PR team. With a carefully calculated PR plan, a bold shift can be used to revitalize a brand, especially one slipping with age like Olive Garden. (Take for example Old Spice which completely revamped its personality with the off-beat “Smell like a man, man” campaign, but made sure to retain its existing customer base by staying true to its brand value of having a tradition of excellence in the men’s toiletry market). But the point is that a brand overhaul can’t come seemingly out of the blue! On some level it needs to stay consistent with the existing brand value, or face the risk of alienating its established customer base. That’s where Olive Garden really missed the mark. The company has received an outpouring of disapproval from the internet community with the general consensus being that the logo might be well-suited for something like a furniture company, but not an Italian restaurant. Many long-time customers now seem to be having trouble identifying with the brand because it strays too far from the “Traditional Italian” image they have become comfortable with (albeit an inauthentic, Americanized, and stereotypical one). Essentially, Olive Garden’s image face-lift has managed to do the one thing we absolutely cannot afford to do as PR professionals: confuse the audience.
To make matters worse, not only was the revamp inconsistent with the Olive Garden’s pre-existing brand-value, the company couldn’t even manage to be consistent across its own marketing platform. After attempting to convince audiences that it was now becoming a more tasteful, “modern Italian” establishment, Olive Garden unraveled its own efforts with the announcement of its “Never Ending Pasta Pass” in September. For $100, the pass entitles the bearer to unlimited pasta for 49 days in a row. According to USA today, Olive Garden’s executive vice president of marketing Jay Spenchian said that the promotion was merely devised to “get some attention,” reportedly adding that “It’s sure to provoke a reaction.” Contrary to the company’s supposed new emphasis on sophistication, such a promotion, designed exclusively for the purpose of generating outlandish social media buzz and grounded in the quantity-over-quality focused mentality of gorging oneself with carbohydrates, is the very essence of the “tacky” image it was trying to shed. Likely a case of the Olive Garden PR team trying to appeal to too many audiences, the promotion proved that not only were its customers confused, but that Olive Garden too was confused about what it wanted to be. Such mixed messaging screams inauthenticity, and makes it hard for customers to trust a brand.
Olive Garden’s major blunder was that it neglected to consider the emotional attachment its customers had with its iconography, choosing to abandon its brand-value of accessible “Traditional Italian” experience, for new imagery and messaging that was inconsistent with what patrons expected from the brand. At the end of the day, most agreed that something just felt off. As public relations professionals, part of our job is to avoid such audience confusion by making sure that any and all materials we release on behalf of our clients are consistent. If we don’t, the public and the media will see right through our messages, and I can guarantee that they’ll be vocal about it.
That’s not to say that we shouldn’t take risks or make bold moves; quite the contrary. Olive Garden may have failed miserably, but how many of us are talking about the uninspired PR efforts of competitor Macaroni Grill’s recent press release, “Macaroni Grill Reinvents the Classic Meatball?” As effective promoters of our clients, we should constantly be thinking outside the box, striving to find new ways to tap into the emotional attachments audiences have with our brands. Pitching our clients from new and exciting angles is what we get paid to do; we just can’t afford to lose sight of their established brand-value in the process.