Launching a Successful Rebrand

Published in GCI Magazine, November 2008

Navigating the world of brand management is a tricky endeavor. There is no real rule of thumb on how often to refresh a brand, or what timing is appropriate. Since branding is ultimately the public’s perception of a product or service, it is natural for a brand to evolve over time as the market changes their experiences or if the overall culture transforms. Branding transcends fashion or trends, so it is often difficult for business owners to know if what they are presenting to the market is “out of style.” Although there may not be a perfect moment in a company’s growth for launching a rebrand, there are a few instances that make for good timing that the brand’s target consumer will understand and accept.There are many different degrees in evolving a brand, but rebranding typically involves a brand refresh, a brand “marriage,” or a full rebrand. Branding for an already established company can be delicate, as there is always baggage that needs to be addressed – particularly if the brand is fairly well-known. The consumer will already have his or her own idea of what the brand stands for, and changing this perception is a complex undertaking. In contrast, new brands can be approached with a clean slate since the public has no experience yet – however, consumer trust and confidence in the brand must be earned, which often takes some time.

In some instances, rebranding can be handled with a brand refresh. A refresh is like a modest facelift – it tightens everything up and keeps it looking current, but when it’s all over the brand will still look like itself. The most common reason for a refresh is simply time. Part of the objective of a refresh is to address a dated look and feel – but often there are other shifts in a company’s product lineup or ideology that warrant an evolution. Refreshing a brand usually begins with a brand identity update, including logo design and color scheme. The updated identity is then implemented across all touchpoints such as printed collateral, packaging, website, retail environments.

In the past ten years or so, there have been a slew of branding refreshes to modernize brands that were established in the golden age of advertising in the 50’s and 60’s. Usually, these refreshes involve keeping the main concept of the original brand identity but creating an evolved look and feel. For example, UPS kept the original 1960’s shield concept in their new mark but did away with the wrapped package element in order to open the company up to being more than just a shipping and delivery service. Chevron’s recent refresh kept the same military-inspired mark and overall color scheme of the original logo while modernizing the letterform design and the graphic rendering style. Since these brands are so iconic, there was equity in the logo marks that was maintained in the refresh. Additionally, the original concepts behind the marks were conceptually sound, allowing for a strong foundation for the refresh.

In the instance of corporate mergers, acquisitions, or new management, a brand marriage may be appropriate. The recent merger of FedEx and Kinko’s required a new logo mark to make the FedEx business to business brand more consumer-friendly. The solution maintained the existing FedEx word mark, while introducing a new colorful icon. In the case of NBC Universal, the peacock mark was combined with a gestural globe element to fuse the two pre-existing brands, allowing each sub-brand to continue to operate under their respective identities. Since most mergers are a conceptual fit by nature, a brand marriage can often be addressed with a new corporate mark and relatively minor updates to the brand communications pieces. However, for the small to mid-sized company, new management can mean a completely new direction for a company, in which case an entirely new branding direction would be appropriate.

A full rebrand is a completely new conceptual and strategic direction for the brand, architected and executed across the corporate identity and all brand touchpoints. Some reasons for a full rebrand include a shift in the overall company leadership, evolution or changes in product lineup, or expansion into new consumer markets. Small to mid-sized companies often grow organically without a solid brand platform and will inevitably arrive at a plateau in their sales or overall growth. Some of the time, this can be partially attributed to lack of evolution in product development – but more often, it is often a lack of connection between the brand and the audience that stops the company from maximizing it’s potential. At this juncture, the brand often must be reassessed in order to propel the company to the next level. Even if a company is relatively successful, its brand can get lost in the marketplace if not properly differentiated from competitors, limiting the company’s opportunities.

One of the most famous recent examples of a company executing a successful rebrand is Target. It’s hard to remember a time when Target wasn’t cool, but just about ten years ago the brand was perceived in the same light as other discount retail competitors such as Walmart and Kmart. Most people think of the iconic advertising campaign when thinking of Target, where hip music fused with visually clever representations of the broad product offering. Although the successful campaign played a large role in changing consumer’s perceptions of the Target brand, the campaign alone did not make for the dramatic transition. Before any brand development began, Target began its new direction by upping the quality and cool factor with an exclusive line by architect Michael Graves, and today they continue to innovate and stay fresh with relationships with well-respected designers such as Isaac Mizrahi, Philippe Stark, and Zac Posen. With the combination of a higher quality product lineup and an authentic brand expression, Target is now known for bringing quality products and great design to the masses with their low prices as opposed to only being a “discount retailer.” The consumer was able to accept the dramatically new brand direction because the product was consistent with the message, and now Target captures a younger and more educated customer than its competitors.

A rebrand can be like therapy for a company or organization. It forces the individuals within the company to take a hard look at who they are and how they are perceived, all while staying open on how they can improve on it – which can be incredibly difficult. Although the creative agency employed to lead a rebrand will do the heavy lifting, it will require a lot of work on the company’s end in executing the new direction. Not only does the new brand have to be communicated to the customer through marketing, but it must also be reinforced within the company’s culture. Branding should be a collaboration between the decision makers of the company and the creative agency creating the work, so it’s critical to enter into the process as well-informed as possible.

Assess your existing brand equity.
The more familiar the public is with a product or service, generally the more equity a company has in their existing brand and therefore more care has to be taken to avoid alienating existing markets. For smaller companies, it is often appropriate to take larger risks with a more dramatic transformation as there is much more room for new markets to become familiar with the brand. For startups, there is no existing brand equity and therefore the possibilities are wide open.

It’s never too late for a new strategy.
Almost all companies start small, and therefore tend to grow organically – usually without much of a plan for the brand strategy. This often leads to disorganization in the product lineup, a variety of looks within the brand execution, and ultimately dilution of the brand. It is not uncommon for companies that have never branded themselves to be successful, but there is almost always a wall if there is no strategy. If the rebrand is conducted with a solid strategy as a foundation, the consumer will accept, understand, and even celebrate the new brand expression.

Don’t take it personally.
One of the questions that come up in speaking with business owners that have never branded their company is “Why should I spend time and money on a rebrand when I have built everything myself and I am doing fine?” Understandably, it’s hard for business owners to emotionally detach themselves from their company since it was built on their passion and hard work. But branding is about connecting a company to the consumer on an emotional level, and although it is important for company leaders to believe in the result, they may or may not be the target market and must remain objective in order to lead a successful rebrand. Since the business owner is so close to his or her brand, a fresh and unbiased approach can be invaluable.

Don’t lose your roots.
You have gotten to where you are for a reason, so make sure to analyze which parts of your brand are already successful. It could be a name, a signature product, or even a color. Some creative agencies will want to put their own stamp on your brand regardless of your brand’s history, but don’t let them lose sight of things that are important to you.

Hire the right agency.
Most small to mid-sized companies hire different professionals or agencies for different tasks, and as a result often don’t have a cohesive approach to their brand expression. There are a lot creative agencies out there that offer services that may address a specific brand touchpoint but are often limited in their scope of services and their knowledge of brand building as a whole. For example, a web design company might be really strong in technology, but is probably lacking in an overall understanding of brand strategy or design aesthetic. If a full rebrand is required, it is best to hire an agency that specializes in the holistic process of branding and can execute strategy across multiple platforms consistently. In-house teams can then be employed later on to execute and maintain the new strategy based on established style guides, or “blue prints” for a brand.

Walmart recently launched a brand refresh in what seems to be an attempt to combat the clean, modern, lifestyle-friendly approach taken with Target’s brand. “Wal*Mart” was updated to a more succinct “Walmart*” in the new identity, with the new mark taking a more iconic direction in the star logo element (similar to the Target bull’s eye) and a modernized execution of the word mark. The new tagline – “Save money. Live better.” – along with an ad campaign emphasizing emotional benefits create more of a lifestyle appeal. Walmart has also changed its uniform for store workers from outdated polyester vests to khakis and polo shirts similar to Target and other retail chains.