2020 was a year of big challenges, and it’s not over yet. But guess what? It never will be. As long as we’re in business, there will be challenges to navigate. Hummingbird is using this space to focus on how big brands have navigated some challenging times, how some have bounced back or gotten ahead with smart branding.
We investigate the four areas of branding that Hummingbird concentrates on with its own clients—strategy, identity, awareness and loyalty. The companies in our series stand out for various aspects of their branding, whether it’s better positioning, a well-defined corporate identity, strong brand awareness, leadership and reputation management… The list goes on, because the possibilities for smart branding are endless. We hope these stories inspire you.
I come from a long line of Southern bakers. My grandmother baked every day with the flour my grandfather produced in our family’s grist mill, flour from soft winter wheat. So when I started baking, I bought the same kind of flour. It’s nice and light, great for cookies and biscuits.
At the beginning of the pandemic, I wanted to try my hand at sourdough bread. (Yes, I’m one of those.) But when I zipped over to the grocery store, the cupboard was bare. My brand was sold out. In fact, the only brand left was King Arthur.
I’d never given that red-and-white bag a second glance. It was more expensive, and it looked… alien. But what the heck—I bought it and took it home. I read about making your own sourdough starter on King Arthur’s website, snagged a recipe, baked a loaf, discovered the resources and the community KA provides for bakers and… that was it. I became a King Arthur fan for life. And then the story of their rebranding—amidst a pandemic, no less—impressed me even more.
Try It Once, Trust It Always
King Arthur has a good pedigree. Founded in 1790, when George Washington was president, it’s one of the oldest companies in the US and our second largest flour brand. The company’s Vermont campus has a baking school, a bakery, a café and a retail store (on-site and online) that offers 800+ baking-related products.
The King has a loyal online following that validates the tagline “try it once, trust it always.” Engagement is robust, with 1.2M Facebook fans, 719k Instagram followers, 41k Twitter followers, 66k YouTube subscribers and 95k Pinterest followers. And don’t forget all the people (including me) who turn to the KA website for guides on baking pies and sourdough boules… online classes in Japanese milk bread and Cornish pasties… the Isolation Baking Show and Bread School videos… and 2,000+ recipes. People are passionate about this brand.
The Decision to Rebrand
Well before the pandemic created sudden demand for home baking supplies, King Arthur was thinking about rebranding. Their logo had remained essentially unchanged since 1790. The company wanted to move beyond the white knight on horseback bearing a standard with a cross. Pretty cool in 1790, but in the 21st century, overtones can skew masculine, militaristic, religious and possibly racist. King Arthur wanted to attract new audiences and expand its customer base, wrapping bakers of all stripes and skill levels in its apron.
About 18 months pre-pandemic, King Arthur hired an outside agency to guide them through the rebranding process, which involved hard conversations around who they really were. King Arthur decided it was a company of bakers, for bakers, and they needed a logo and brand to communicate that.
A Collaborative Process
As a 100% employee-owned B Corp, King Arthur wanted to be part of the process, and their branding agency treated them as collaborative partners. Whether rebranding or branding from scratch, the process involves soul-searching, analysis, listening and discussion. It’s a group activity.
The agency conducted stakeholder interviews and group discussions about everything from products to company values. An online survey captured the voice of the customer on how people felt about the logo (and thus, the brand). Respondents got the impression of high quality and trustworthiness—so far, so good. But survey results indicated that people had an emotional connection with the brand in spite of the old-fashioned logo. They connected with the company but not with the guy on the horse, which meant the first logo change in 200+ years.
In a webinar with The Professional Association for Design, King Arthur’s branding partner mentions zeroing in on a conversation about sprinkles, a social media exchange that held the keys to the kingdom. One customer who loved, loved, loved sprinkles prompted a King Arthur reply, “If you’re into sprinkles, you’re one of us.” This eureka moment identified joy as part of King Arthur’s essence, along with authenticity, higher purpose and premium quality.
A Crown, a Title and a Message for Everyone
King Arthur’s new logo honors its heritage with the same barrelhead circular shape. But its essence is now captured with brighter, more joyful colors, and the guy on the horse has been replaced with a simple, elegant wheat crown. Less intricate, more identifiable, more like a seal (think Nike Swoosh). And more symbolic:
- Anyone can wear a crown; everyone can be baking royalty.
- A crown can be for a king or a queen.
- Wheat is the source; without it, there wouldn’t be baking.
With the rebrand, King Arthur launched its Bake Joy campaign, tagline and messaging in a warm, inclusive brand voice. Baking becomes less about the perfect food shoot, more about sharing and enjoying the process with others. As seen on Instagram: “There’s room for everyone in our kitchen.”
Conversations kept coming back to the company’s name, which hadn’t been up for rebranding but suddenly became important. Why was the company still called King Arthur Flour when it had 800+ products? Flour, yes, but also tools and pans, flavor extracts, and ingredients like Sticky Bun Sugar. King Arthur decided it was more than a flour company, so it became King Arthur Baking Company.
Rolling with the Unexpected
The beginning of a pandemic might have been a fortuitous time for launching the rebrand of a baking company, but rollout did not go as expected. The launch planned for June 2020 in New York included city-wide popup events, billboards and a tie-in with a food convention—all canceled because of COVID.
“And then overnight, baking became America’s pastime,” says Ruth Perkins, Senior Creative Director of King Arthur. Product demand skyrocketed. In March, calls to KA’s baking hotline tripled. From March to May, page views went up 300% (most looking for sourdough advice, so I’m part of that statistic). Website direct sales shot up 600%.
The launch became about intimate conversations with people in their kitchens, because that’s where they were. King Arthur:
- Relied on digital and social media for customer engagement and education.
- Sent out influencer kits with swag, products and recipe books.
- Designed a fun Instagram filter that let fans wear the logo crown on their profile pics.
- Mailed “surprise and delight” kits to fans at home, complete with a small origami crown (some pets got the royal treatment).
- Developed the Isolation Baking Show, a video series to help bakers build skills.
Results were sweet. The week of the launch, social engagement increased 9x. News stories about the rebrand were everywhere, generating 500M impressions. Launch posts on social generated more than 36,000 comments, the vast majority positive.
King Arthur’s is a story of a brand that actually did better during the pandemic. But from a branding standpoint, they were ready for whatever happened, good or bad. Brands doing things right going into a downturn are better positioned to survive dips in the road. And dips may drive opportunity if they’re ready for it.
King Arthur did a lot of things right with brand strategy and brand identity. The company:
- Identified a business goal of expanding its customer base and researched the upward trend in baking.
- Thoroughly reexamined company values and identity.
- Defined target markets, uncovered insights and the voice of the customer, and positioned King Arthur as a home base for bakers of all skill levels.
- Reworked its logo and messaging to be more inclusive and joyful while honoring the company’s heritage.
- Emphasized philosophy (“Here at King Arthur, we have always believed that everyone deserves equal access to the joy of baking”) and guarantees (“Our ‘never bleached’ guarantee… means our flour gives you the same results, every time you bake”).
Testaments to brand loyalty were all over the web, even before rebranding. Interviews, discussion groups and surveys helped King Arthur take the temperature of loyal customers and bring them along on the rebrand.
Brand awareness got a boost from social channels and digital content to reach customers where they were (stuck at home) and delight them with things like crown filters and stickers for their posts. Gifts of KA swag in people’s mailboxes helped jumpstart online engagement. And media coverage gave The King lots of PR. With an agile marketing plan, the company reworked the big splash of the planned launch into lots of little splashes, which made… a big splash.
I’m happy for the red-and-white bag and the people behind it. I’m mostly happy for all of us bakers who have a hero to help us through hard times. I’ve been baking bread for months now, and I named my sourdough starter—yep, that’s a thing—Little Engine. “The one that could” is implied.
Rita Lewis is a freelance writer who specializes in content marketing and strategy. Her interests include business and industry, education, health care, philanthropy and the arts. She’s passionate about helping business leaders express their best thoughts and, of course, baking.
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