Sales & Marketing

Who do you think you are? Businesses that question and change their motto stand to win big

3 min read

16 September 2019

Editorial Director

Revisiting a company motto or philosophy is necessary in an ever-changing world, but it can disrupt people’s sense of “who we are” and should be carefully managed, according to new research. We take a look at the world's biggest brands, their slogans, and how to manage consumer expectations when executing branding changes.

Who says a tagline, motto or slogan needs to stand the test of time? Even branding heavyweights like Coca-Cola and McDonald’s have changed their motto over the decades. It’s all about getting that rebrand right, says professor of strategy and entrepreneurship, Davide Ravasi and his colleagues who’ve looked into the value of revamping business mottos.

Ravasi and co-authors Innan Sasaki from Lancaster University, Josip Kotlar from Politecnico di Milano, and Eero Vaara from Aalto University investigated how long-standing Japanese firms deal with needing to adapt their company mottos and philosophies to support strategic change. For these companies, there’s the additional challenge of also maintaining a sense of continuity with their staff and customers in a culture where guidelines from decades past are still revered and respected.

“Reconciling change with historical values is a challenge for very old organisations since these values may have become ingrained in the company and are often emotionally-charged. This is particularly difficult for family firms, whose managers may be reluctant to abandon family traditions, feeling an imperative to pass them on to the next generation, while still remaining flexible to change,” says Ravisi.

The researchers identified three strategies that managers use in these circumstances to deal with the tension between promoting change and maintaining a company’s sense of continuity with values from past leaders.

The first strategy, which they call ‘elaborating’, is based on the gradual revision of historical statements, selectively building on and extending parts that support current strategic developments.

The second, ‘recovering’, involves creating entirely new statements that draw on founders’ writings and anecdotes to establish continuity between foundational values and current strategic developments.

The last, ‘decoupling’, allows the co-existence of historical statements and new ones, enabling a company to separately maintain continuity with historical values and show concern for new issues, such as social and environmental responsibility, that may not have existed at the time historical statements were written.

“These three strategies may help managers confront tensions rising from the need to support strategic change while at the same time respecting historical values and guidelines,” Ravasi adds.

The study was based on a large database of corporate mottos of ancient Japanese firms. It focused on 25 cases still in operations today, using a combination of archival and interview data to investigate when, why, and how they had revised their historical mottos in times of change.

Not all change is good

For major businesses in the Western hemisphere, sometimes old is gold. Coffee conglomerate, Maxwell House, has held on to its slogan since 1907 when then-US president Theodore Roosevelt drank the coffee and said it was ‘good to the last drop.’

However, some of the world’s biggest brands, including FedEx and Pepsi, have gone through dozens of business mottos over the decades. This handy infographic details their branding journey.