Merck KGaA exits 'sea of sameness' with futuristic rebrand

Merck KGaA's new "Vibrant M"

Merck KGaA has been playing a guessing game.

The rules: Look at 6 photographs, each from a pharma company website, and try to figure out which belongs to Merck KGaA.

It's a challenge that's been foiling players from both inside and outside the company, the pharma's head of branding and communications strategy, Axel Löber, told FiercePharmaMarketing. Each of the 6 pictures features employees in a lab. They're heavy on blue and white for a clean look. And they're virtually indistinguishable.

"Basically, everybody is using the same picture style, the same language," he said.

The German company calls that phenomenon the "sea of sameness." And it's a sea it refuses to drown in.

Last week, Merck rolled out a rebrand to ensure that no one would confuse it with another pharma company--visually speaking, that is. The result of a year and a half of design work--as well as customer surveys in 10 countries, in-depth interviews with management and feedback-seeking on the company's Facebook-like intranet network--it's a colorful, futuristic new look designed to reference the shapes that appear under the microscope while emphasizing forward-looking technology.

And it's one that has surprised employees. "If you look at this company, how we presented ourselves beforehand, there's a huge difference, a huge gap. Many, many of them didn't expect that," Löber said.

So far, at least, the reaction has been positive. Around the company's Darmstadt campus, people have swapped their old "M" jacket pins for new Merck pins that come in an array of hues. "Merck, at the moment, is becoming a really colorful place," he said.

The bold new visuals aren't the only elements of the initiative, though. Merck has also dropped divisional tags Merck Serono (biopharma) and Merck Millipore (life sciences supplies), opting instead to go simply by "Merck" in a move it says will decrease confusion.

"We had customers and stakeholders who thought Merck was a subsidiary of Merck Serono," Löber explained.

There's just one problem. Sticking to "Merck" may increase confusion between the company and its larger American rival, Merck & Co. ($MRK), which goes by the title in Canada and the U.S., the world's biggest pharma market. The two have already been the subject of multiple mixups, some more serious than others.

For its part, German Merck insists the streamlining wasn't a play to assert its right to the moniker. "That wasn't the purpose of why we did it," company spokesman Gangolf Schrimpf told FiercePharmaMarketing. But it was no accident, either.

"We are well aware of the question you are raising," Löber said, noting that "we have to see how that develops." In the meantime, though, employees can take it on themselves to "go out and tell the story of Merck--meaning our Merck," he said. "This is, from my point of view, a very good start to reduce that problem." -- Carly Helfand (email | Twitter