CEO Maria Ramos launches the rebranding of Absa at the JSE. Picture: Alon Skuy
CEO Maria Ramos launches the rebranding of Absa at the JSE. Picture: Alon Skuy

It’s not every day that a company can give itself a facelift, but Barclays’ phased withdrawal from Africa gave Absa that chance.

Freed from the grip of its British former parent, the bank has been afforded the latitude it needs to revitalise its image, reflect its new digital strategy and show its African roots — or "Africanacity", to use its new catchphrase.

Though Absa was recently named by Brand Finance as SA’s fourth-most valuable brand — it has an estimated value of R18.9bn — the bank’s positioning in the market was ripe for a shake-up. To many, the brand was either unexciting or tarnished by claims that it had too cosy a relationship with the apartheid government.

And it showed: Absa and its old-guard peers lost market share to newer rival Capitec, with Absa losing some serious ground in the home loans business.

So this month the group presented a new logo, with "absa" in lower case to offer "a more human, approachable and understated feel than its predecessor". And, "stripped of complexity, the new button-like logo sits comfortably among popular new brands in a digital space", while Absa’s brand colour was expanded to a wide spectrum of reds.

Marketing head David Wingfield says the new brand is "an expression of the new identity we are creating as an entrepreneurial, digitally led bank with deep knowledge of African markets and with global scalability".

But judging from the initial reception to its rebranding on social media — which, it must be said, is a hostile place, filled with armchair critics — the exercise has by no means been a resounding success.

An analysis of social media posts by BrandsEye has found that Absa’s rebranding campaign received equal amounts of positive and negative sentiment from consumers and press sources. Of the nearly 5,000 mentions evaluated, 35.4% were positive, 35.1% negative and 29.5% neutral.

But the picture gets worse when it is considered that positive sentiment was driven largely by retweets of brand content, "which can be taken as a fairly superficial engagement with the campaign", BrandsEye says in its sentiment analysis.

When retweets are excluded, negative sentiment outweighed positive sentiment by nearly 10%.

And the figures would have been even more woeful if the mostly positive mentions of Absa’s impressive drone light show, the launch of its WhatsApp banking function and tweets by proud employees of the bank had been stripped out.

In conversations discussing the logo specifically, 39% of social media mentions were negative while just 10% were positive.

"Wait, the new Absa logo is the actual final product?" one popular post on Twitter read.

Others compared the new logo with the one used by SA Breweries on beer crates and with the anti-lock braking symbol displayed on car dashboards.

Elsewhere in the pugnacious realm of social media, internet users said Absa’s logo is suspiciously similar to that of Telkom’s Openserve. Both of them were created with input from local branding agency Grid Worldwide.

In an amusing but potentially worrying twist, some social media critics said Absa’s "Africanacity" catchphrase sounds a lot like "Afrikaner City", says Ignitive MD Phumi Mashigo.

Mashigo says the unfortunate similarity could come back to bite Absa, as it may distance the bank from younger consumers.

"The last thing Absa wants is to be dragged back into the realm of being associated with that old guard. And as much as we often hear that a social media moment of infamy or fame is quickly forgotten as the tweets move on to the ‘next’ thing, we mustn’t forget that many of these things do boomerang too."

On a positive note, however, BrandsEye found that approving tweets did reflect the themes driven by the brand, in that there was a focus on Absa’s new African identity.

It’s also important to consider that rebranding exercises never please everyone. For instance, when social media app Instagram came out with a new look in 2016, a large number of users criticised the change — though it didn’t take long for most to acclimatise.

"We have been successful in achieving our objective of creating widespread awareness about our new group identity and brand across the 10 countries in which we operate in Africa," an Absa spokesperson says.

"The high volume of conversation about our brand means that people are interested, and this presents a significant opportunity for us. Our brand change is not a one-week campaign and it is about much more than the logo — the campaign will play out over time and we will measure its success over time."

In contrast with what other large companies have done, the group shared its new organisational purpose, strategy and brand with most of its 42,000 staff members across Africa prior to the external launch date, the spokesperson says.

Mashigo acknowledges that rebranding is no easy task.

"A successful rebranding is akin to alchemy: it’s a blend of, on the one hand, understanding your customers and the time or environment, and on the other hand inspiring existing consumers and new ones with a brilliant idea, a fresh perspective on your company or product."

Mashigo says Vodacom is a good case study of a company whose expensive rebranding programme "washed away from our minds any trace of what [it] used to look like before".

Vodacom said in 2011 it had spent more than R200m on its rebranding when it changed its colour scheme from blue to red and simplified its brand.

In any case, says Mashigo, busy consumers tend to move on quickly from a company’s self-centred marketing ideas.