A leopard (or HSBC, or Monsanto) doesn’t change its spots

Lego HSBC South Image Source: notenoughbricks, Flickr, Creative Commons

Lego HSBC South
Image Source: notenoughbricks, Flickr, Creative Commons

London, UK (Pressenza) – Changing the name of an unpopular brand is nothing new. Windscale, a UK nuclear power station, was the scene of a major fire in 1957 spreading radioactivity across the surrounding countryside in what is generally thought to have been the world’s worst nuclear accident before Three Mile Island in the US in 1979. Following a long campaign by those opposed to nuclear power its management decided in 1981 to change the plant’s name to Sellafield.

In 2003 Philip Morris changed the company’s name to Altria Group, Inc. It was accused of trying to hide the link between cancer and tobacco, ironically exemplified by Marlboro Man.

Other rebrandings, such as the British Post Office’s attempt to rebrand itself as Consignia, proved such a failure that millions more had to be spent going back to square one (followed by another disastrous exercise in privatisation).

Now scandal-riddled HSBC bank is planning to rebrand its UK high street operations as part of a global shakeup which will see 25,000 jobs disappearing.

HSBC stands for Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking Corporation. It was founded in Hong Kong in the 1860s.  HSBC only moved across to Britain in the 1990s when they took over the UK’s Midland Bank.

Last year it paid CEO Stuart Gulliver $11.1 million, despite missing targets and a record money laundering fine in the US as well as having to compensate U.K. customers for the improper sale of payment protection insurance and other financial products. Hoping for short memories?

In a similar line, Monsanto has been attempting a merger with Swiss seed and crop protection company Syngenta which was refused due to “the reputational risk that a combination with Monsanto would bring to Syngenta.” Monsanto came back with the proposal to change the name of the newly formed company, which was also rejected. Many commentators have suggested that there has been an attempt to escape the negative image Monsanto has accumulated over the years with its GM products and despotic practices with farmers over sterile seeds. Monsanto Canada had already rebranded its seeds business in 2010 as Genuity.

Rebranding is often a simple marketing exercise which does not entail any profound changes of direction. Italian politics adopted the term “gattopardismo” to describe the process in the novel by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa Il Gattopardo made also into a film by Luchino Visconti in 1963, translated into English as The Leopard, where “everything needs to change, so everything can stay the same”. The original proverb  about leopards not changing their spots comes from the Bible.

Written by Silvia Swinden for Pressenza.