From Gandalf the Grey to Gandalf the White: 4 Lessons in Rebranding

Gandalf the White Fighting

From Gandalf the Grey to Gandalf the White: 4 Lessons in Rebranding

With its medieval settings and societies and distinct lack of economic strategies beyond simple trade and agrarian systems, The Lord of the Rings is probably one of the last places modern businesses would turn to for guidance.

That would be a mistake.

Like Frodo’s mithril-coat hidden beneath his travel-stained clothes, the lessons for businesses hidden between the pages of Tolkien’s great epic illustrate valuable applications, including how to enact a successful rebranding campaign, as illustrated by Gandalf’s change from “The Grey” to “The White.”

 

One Brand to Rule Them All

But before we can talk about rebranding and how Gandalf does it, first it’s important to understand the purpose of branding and why it matters. At its most simple, branding helps differentiate companies from each other in the mind of the consumer. But it’s how the differentiation gets done that really makes the difference.

In the world of business, people’s perceptions matter. How they feel and what they think about your company will influence how they act: whether they will buy, bash, or succumb to bland ambivalence. Because we humanoid creatures (be it elves, men, hobbits, or dwarves) are rarely rational, especially when it comes to spending our money, a brand is what inspires people to take action.

A deliberate branding strategy—or, in some cases, rebranding strategy—works like the universal pull of the one ring (but typically with less mal-intent) over the peoples of Middle-earth. Through branding, businesses can choose which message they want to send, the perceptions they want to cultivate, and the customers they want to attract.

 

The White Rider, or Gandalf Rebranded

Gandalf the Grey becomes Gandalf the WhiteIn the fifth chapter of The Two Towers, Gandalf returns after being lost in the mines of Moria. He is not, however, the same Gandalf as before. Not quite.

In sloughing off his old grey rags in favor of shining white robes, the metaphor of Gandalf’s transformation illustrates many of the principles businesses should consider in their own rebranding efforts.

 

1. There’s More to Rebranding than Simply Changing One’s Clothes

The switch from being Gandalf the Grey to Gandalf the White was more than just a clever name change seeking to manipulate Middle-earth through color psychology. Though his transformation can be summarized by the difference in his outward appearance, it was driven by a fundamental shift in his identity, which was in turn precipitated by a deeper need and purpose.

The same must be true for businesses looking to rebrand. Simply changing your name, logo, website, or any other outward aesthetic without a more compelling reason is an expensive and arbitrary exercise that is most likely doomed to fail (check out some of these examples; pay particular attention to Pepsi, Radio Shack, Tropicana, and The Gap).

So what constitutes a valid reason to rebrand? According to this article by Entrepreneuer.com, it boils down to two main reasons:

  1. Your audience (or their needs) are changing
  2. Increased competition

 

2. Become the Gandalf Your Market Needs & the Competition Fears

If we go back to Gandalf, both of these concerns were present and served as the “deeper need and purpose” underlying the decision for him to rebrand and become Gandalf the White.

Leading up to his transformation, the world around him was changing and his old identity no longer fulfilled the needs of Middle-earth or his companions. He had been the wise & merry guide—the “Grey Pilgrim.” But with the coming of “the great storm” and the final War of the Ring, the world didn’t need guidance. It needed the leadership of the powerful & decisive “White Rider.”

Consider these two quotes, one from before his rebrand, and one from after:

  1. Frodo: “‘Gandalf was our guide, and he led us through Moria…'”
  2. Aragorn: “‘And this I also say: you are our captain and our banner…the White Rider has passed through the fire and the abyss, and they shall fear him. We will go where he leads.'”

When Gandalf changed his brand, he changed how his market perceived him. In doing so, he altered the course of Middle-earth and expanded his audience beyond the 9 in the fellowship. He reached new target demographics, setting in motion the might of the Ents, the Rohirrim, and the men of Gondor to overthrow the darkness of Mordor.

So, what does your industry need? Like Gandalf, when you discover how your business can provide what your audience wants, rebranding comes naturally.

Similarly, if your business is losing out to the competition, rebranding can turn things around. In Middle-earth, the market share of wizards was held by Saruman, the chief & leader of the Istari and head of the White Council. But Gandalf, by changing his image and identity, was able to edge him out, becoming “Saruman as he should have been.”

His rebranding efforts succeeded, culminating in the moment when he broke Saruman’s staff. How’s that for decimating the competition?

 

3. Gandalf the White Was Still Gandalf

Rebranding requires delicately balancing your new identity without completely abandoning who or what you were before. People get very emotionally attached to what they’re familiar with, and unless you hate your current customers, you don’t really want to upset them. Instead, you want them to continue the journey with you.

Gandalf the Grey, for example, was very well loved. And though he shed a lot of his quirks & idiosyncrasies in Fangorn when he shed his old gray rags, he did not completely abandon who he had been. Remember, he did not become Saruman. Though he took on Saruman’s role, he was still Gandalf, the wise wizard who spoke in riddles and loved to laugh, though now he had less occasion for it.

In Gandalf’s rebranding efforts, it was ultimately the remaining ties to his old identity that saved him from failure. Until they recognized their old friend under his new robes, Gimli, Legolas, and Aragorn were actively trying to kill Gandalf. Needless to say, he would have been a huge flop had they succeeded.

Because he was able to preserve his heritage, not only did he survive, but it also took his success to the next level. Even when he couldn’t be everywhere at once, his former companions became the standard-bearers of his new brand to the cultures & countries throughout Middle-earth.

 

4. Like Gandalf, Consolidate Your Identity

Prior to rebranding, Gandalf was known to different people by different names, each with a different meaning. To the Hobbits he was simply Gandalf, the old wandering conjuror who knew how to put on a fantastic fireworks display. To Gondor, he was Mithrandir, the Grey Pilgrim, a lore-master. To others he was Incánus or Tharkûn or Láthspell or Stormcrow or Greyhame.

The effect of this jumble of names is captured in a conversation between Faramir and Frodo. At first Frodo is unsure who Faramir is talking about, until Faramir shares the following quote Gandalf once said to him: “‘Many are my names in many countries, he said. Mithrandir among the Elves, Tharkûn to the Dwarves; Olórin I was in my youth in the West that is forgotten, in the South Incánus, in the North Gandalf…'”

In the business world, this kind of confusion is a death sentence. MediaNovak, a creative design agency that does branding, puts it this way: “Schizophrenic brands don’t last because they lose trust from their market quickly.” (Source: www.medianovak.com/branding-secrets)

Gandalf himself must have realized this, so he simply shed all of those old names. When he comes back rebranded, he is only ever referred to thereafter as either Gandalf the White or, very rarely, the White Rider. By simplifying his identity, he makes sure people remember him and what he stands for.

This kind of brand consistency is what helps transform an old man with many names into a singular, powerful force. No longer do the peoples of Middle-earth have to wonder if they should turn to Gandalf or Mithrandir or Greyhame.

 

The Wizardry of Branding

Gandalf’s story of rebranding came when he was at his lowest. This same narrative is mirrored by so many of today’s most well-known brands (Apple, J.Crew, Burberry, Harley Davidson, and Target, just to name a few). These companies made changes when they were at their lowest, and it turned them into world-wide powerhouses.

Though Gandalf was a wizard, rebranding doesn’t have some unknowable magic formula. If you simply remember how Gandalf transformed himself from an old man meddling on the sidelines into an active participant who shaped the fate of Middle-earth, you too can find success.

Robin Johnson
[email protected]

Robin Johnson worked at Boostability for four years, serving as the Custom Websites Content team lead.