Brand Reinventions: Why Fortune Favours The Bold

Over the past two years, Fortnite has established itself as one of the most lucrative properties in the world. Its ‘freemium’ model has proven an immense success for developer Epic Games and has propelled them to new heights, now hosting internationally watched esports tournaments and announcing their own bespoke launcher for PC. The impact it has had, both culturally and financially, is undeniable and many thought the virtual juggernaut would last long into the future.

And yet, over the weekend, the world of Fortnite literally exploded, leaving nothing but emptiness behind for its players. Typically, you would predict a move that affected so many consumers and prevented them from accessing the product would be met with no small backlash from its millions of fans. However, that’s not what happened. Instead, out of the dark, Fortnite now has a bigger spotlight on it than ever.

Fortnite Rocks Gamers

For those not clued in on the behemoth that is Fortnite, it is a third-person shooter set in a cartoonish world, where players can battle with each other and build structures to aid in this quest. What’s interesting is that the game as we now know it is far from the original that was released four years ago.

In fact, it had a massive rebranding not too long ago, moving from a paid, co-operative format to a free-to-play model where there was a much bigger emphasis on competitive play. It piggybacked off the success of the ‘battle royal’ movement, a trend of titles that saw a set number of players drop into the game world where they would fight in a ‘last man standing’ style of competition.

With no paywall, Fortnite became the default for fans of the genre and the developer capitalised on this by implementing several paid incentives, such as the battle pass subscription that would reward continued play with items, outfits and more.

It was a bold move as none of these rewards offered competitive benefits, instead serving a purely cosmetic purpose. They were entirely reliant on their customer's willingness to buy things they didn’t even need to play the game. But it worked, spectacularly so. Now, Epic Games are being bold again, seemingly wiping Fortnite completely, restricting access to the game and replacing the world with a black hole.

While there are some players frustrated about this, the overwhelming majority are sat watching eagerly, anticipating the next announcement. To summarise; a company has spontaneously ended a service provided to millions that makes millions with no forewarning. It doesn’t sound like a good idea, but in practice, it’s proven prudent. There’s no doubt that, when the next chapter launches, these enthralled spectators will be there from the get-go.

Re-brands are daunting, it means the end of a campaign or product that has worked and the start of something new, with no certainty of success. The temptation here is to play it safe, replicate the same values or practises that have helped in the past. However, as we’re now seeing with Fortnite, sometimes, the radical pays off. With that in mind, let’s look at a few more iconic products and services that have successfully reinvented themselves.

Kanye West; From Yeezus to Jesus

Now Kanye might not be a product, but he has done everything he can to make himself so. If the true mark of a great artist is the ability to reinvent themselves constantly, then Kanye is certainly deserving of the title. From up and coming producer to rap superstar and even fashion extraordinaire, the man is determined to be in anything and everything. He has experienced many ups and downs in his career, suffering a horrifying accident that nearly took away his speech, being maligned and attacked for his political beliefs and struggling with mental health issues. But he has used everything that’s been thrown against him to his benefit, the perfect example of this being his breakout hit ‘Through the Wire’ which he recorded whilst his jaw was still wired shut after his car crash in 2002.

To use a life-altering accident two weeks after the event as a springboard to stardom can certainly be categorised as audacious and, if nothing else, Kanye started as he meant to go on. He is no stranger to a headline and has made many for his on-stage antics and larger than life persona. The latest instance of this came at George Washington University’s Lisner Auditorium, where he confirmed his recent conversion to Christianity. The news coincides with the release of his new album ‘Jesus Is King’, which has clearly been inspired by this. It is already late, with an original release date of September previously announced by his wife, Kim Kardashian. If the title wasn’t obvious enough, he has also had a sonic shift, moving away from straight rap to a sound that is closer to gospel.

The switch to full-blown gospel and his newfound faith is surprising, to say the least, but even more so when you take the context of his last announced release into consideration. That album ‘Yandhi’ was meant to be the sequel to his 2013 effort ‘Yeezus’, both of which can be considered the antithesis of his new ideology. These concept records portray West as a godlike figure, most noticeably in the titles, which are plays on ‘Jesus’ and ‘Gandhi’, two religious’ icons. The message is that Kanye isn’t a mere man, he is a walking cultural phenomenon who appears more like a prophet preaching to his followers than an artist performing for the fans.

Ironically, his shift away from this egocentric persona has led to even more faith-like performances. His Sunday Service, a sermon-like session of Kanye tracks performed as gospel, has become immensely popular online, generating millions of views and no short amount of interest. No longer the superior being, he is now the avatar through which that otherworldly force is channelled, and the service feels more inclusive. Instead of being raised on an LED covered platform, he is sat with his audience circled around, pausing frequently to dispense his life philosophies to those in attendance. It may seem like a wild departure for West, but the truth is this is simply another side of the same coin.

It feels like an extension of his desire to ‘more’ than your average musician. I don’t doubt the sincerity of Kanye’s actions. He’s always been driven to go deeper than the surface level in all his pursuits, be it the sonic changes in his music or his controversial posturing as a political focal point. And, even though the religious elements of performances are certainly more overt now, the way he has delivered his music has always been spiritual. Watching Kanye is genuinely like seeing a legend or myth because he has reached a level of modern celebrity few others have enjoyed.

But, behind the abstract, artistic aims he has, there is a very shrewd businessman pulling the strings. Whether it’s his personal struggles, wider social issues or even severe criticism, West knows how to play it all to his advantage. The Sunday Services started as something for a select few to see whilst he was recording his last album, but these brief glimpses captured his audiences’ collective eye and Jesus is King is the result. He didn’t just find god this year, he found a new avenue for his artistic expression, and potential revenue.

Greggs Vegan Roll

From Kanye to Greggs, a smoother transition you will not see. Greggs is a high street bakery that has long been entrenched in British life and has marketed itself as a symbol of the working class. Whether a short trip on a lunch break or grabbing a quick snack after school, it’s a traditional institution that surely provokes a sweet sense of nostalgia for anyone who went there as a kid. To be blunt, it is not the business you would expect to be taken in by the booming trend of veganism, but Greggs has done just that.

It isn’t the mere presence of a vegan option that has gained so much attention, as I’m sure there are better ones out there. It’s how they have managed to connect it to the cultural image Greggs represents and the main movers and shakers in the Veganism movement. Let’s start with the product itself; the Vegan Sausage Roll. It’s based on their flagship product, which is also a British classic and is also one of their most economic options. Easily available, cheap but still maintain the quality Greggs is known for, it meant virtually anybody could pop in and buy one. And that’s exactly what they did, as the Vegan Roll became a nationwide fad, so much so that many shops ran out of stock.

Part of this involved purposefully engaging with their biggest critics, none of whom were more high profile than Piers Morgan. The GMB outrage machine has become the unofficial spokesman for anti-veganism, lambasting any company who venture into such territory. However, Greggs was more than prepared for this wave of backlash. Their Digital Brand Communications Manager Neil Knowles even acknowledged this on twitter, replying to Morgan’s tweets on the subject with ‘Oh hello Piers, we've been expecting you’. Despite Knowles denying Greggs intentionally riled up the Morgan’s of the world, it seems unlikely the brand didn’t expect some form of a similar response. It’s a very clever strategy; kick the hornet's nest and use the resulting drama to drum up interest.

This isn’t the first time they’ve used detractors to propel themselves either. In May 2018, they went to a fine dining festival as ‘Gregory & Gregory’, disguising themselves and their products as an upmarket option. They then asked the unwitting attendees to try the food and give their thoughts, to which they received an overwhelmingly positive response. They weren’t trying to make these people their new clientele, rather, they are aware of how they are perceived in pop culture and have repeatedly capitalised on this. Greggs will always have its core consumer base, but they’re also one of the few brands in the industry successfully gaining new ones.

Channel 4 ‘Complaints Welcome’

Every example we’ve looked at so far has generally been a case of positive audience interaction, there may have been elements of conflict, but never an outright confrontation. Well, in the case of Channel 4 in 2019, they did the unthinkable and went to war with their viewers. In their ‘Complaints Welcome’ campaign, the broadcaster brought together a number of their personalities, including Sandi Toksvig, Grayson Perry and Big Narstie, and had them read out genuine viewer complaints. These covered a variety of topics, from gentle jibes such as telling the veteran newscaster Jon Snow he ‘knows nothing’, to more severe comments like in the case of gay actor Kieron Richardson, who read out ‘why do we have to have gays kissing at dinner time.’

In the world of television, there is a tendency for networks to pander to their audiences, offering apologies if anything is seen as offensive or remaining neutral on issues they probably shouldn’t. There is generally no hesitation when it comes to dealing with representatives who have brought the organisation into disrepute but dealing with a misbehaving audience is trickier. By reading out actual comments and using the people they are aimed at to deliver them, Channel 4 accomplished two things; they were able to show how often they receive backlash, but also how little this affects them as a brand.

 Channel 4 has always been one of the more socially progressive broadcasters out there, but even for them, this is a brave strategy. They are built on challenging their audience, to see from a different viewpoint and the identity of the channel revolves around this celebration of diversity. These adverts were an extension of that, effectively saying ‘react how you want, we’re not going to change our programming’. While they’re effectively binning that section of the audience, Channel 4 has won the rest over and by committing to this so strongly, endeared themselves for the foreseeable future.

Paddy Power and Huddersfield

We finish with one of the true kings of marketing; Paddy Power. The famous bookies have a history of marketing stunts, including a hilarious advert featuring Rhodri Giggs and erecting a 108ft statue of then England manager Roy Hodgson in 2012. Many of these displays have been good-natured, others less so, and the brand has a slightly controversial reputation as a result. It isn’t undeserved, Paddy Power has always been ‘cheeky’ to say the least, taking risks no other name in their business would dare to. So, when the bookmakers announced they were Huddersfield Town’s new sponsor, and that they would be represented by a giant sash across the shirt, nobody was surprised.

They were angry though, as many saw this move as an affront to everything sacred in football. The commercialisation of the sport has been a hot topic in recent times, with the financial gap between the top tiers and bottom wider than ever before. Clubs like Bury have been casualties of this and, in the eyes of many, this was blatant disrespect. Commenters labelled it ‘the worst kit ever’, many pointed to the seemingly illegal nature of the strip and it was generally seen as another example of Paddy Power’s indifference to the importance of football’s more sentimental aspects.

However, true to form, there was more to this than met the eye. Paddy Power had pulled a huge bait and switch as, after playing a sole pre-season game in the shirt, they revealed the stunt was, in fact, a hoax. In actuality, Paddy Power was removing the shirt sponsor altogether. They pointed to the overwhelming criticism they had received for the original design, saying in a statement it showed the importance of the kit to fans and how sponsorships have ruined its sacred nature. They even took aim at fellow betting companies, criticising the fact that fourteen teams in the English Championship would sport betting brands as their sponsors.

Suddenly, Paddy Power went from the class comedians who made careless jokes to a company championing the fan’s footballing integrity. Some said it was all just for good PR, which is probably true, but the fact remains that they are virtually the only sponsor doing this and it has struck a chord with fans disgruntled at how money-driven the sport has become. It’s the classic redemption story, once seen as an agent of those forces that would destroy the integrity of football, Paddy Power is now looked upon much more favourably. The rebranding itself might have been for Huddersfield, but it’s the Irish bookies that profited.

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