Brand updates do not automatically improve a brand. Adjusting some bevels and kerning will not somehow fortify a brand’s weak points and harness its full potential. In the most concise, consolidated, compelling and customer-centric way, an effective rebranding strategy reflects a company’s overall mission and strategy—updated—in miniature.
Surprisingly, it doesn’t take a magician to conjure the perfect rebranding strategy. Illustration by OrangeCrush
A lesson in understanding the risks of a poor rebranding strategy
I was invited to visit a very upscale financial advisory firm to learn how to serve very wealthy clientele. Trust is a focal point of any brand, and this firm is regularly handed millions of dollars to invest (and risk) on behalf of their clients.
As the well-dressed host handed out expensive, extravagant booklets that had been embossed, laminated, and spiral bound for this one meeting, they sheepishly drew our attention to their new logo. What they said was part apology, part mockery: “We paid more than a million dollars for our new logo, and it’s just one italicized, underlined, upper-case letter.”
I glanced at their new brand and immediately understood their embarrassment and disappointment. It was in fact a single letter, in Times New Roman font, capitalized, italicized and underlined. While some enormous and mysterious amount of thought, research and money may have led to this logo, it really did look like anyone could have produced it with no real care or purpose. It remains their logo 10 years later, and employees are probably still struggling to explain their least thoughtful, least effective investment.
This is not how to update and re-introduce your brand. The brand update did not offer immediate and self-evident value to current and prospective customers. How had this rebranding strategy failed so completely at such a high-level company?
It failed because updated brands aren’t necessarily better brands. They only offer material, measurable improvements if they’ve been carefully reshaped to match a strategic, comprehensive and deliberate update to a company’s overall positioning strategy. If you’re updating your brand without any consideration for your customers, you risk making costly, public branding blunders.
Find your real reasons for rebranding
Before you undergo this impactful and very public process, it’s important to define and document) the reasons for rebranding, including the weak points or insufficiencies of your current brand. So, before you resolve to renew your brand, you’ll need to build a compelling case to prove to your company that the exercise is worth the expense and risk.
Brand weaknesses can be common across many industries, but they can also be very unique and specific to your brand. Below are examples of both, although we’ve refrained from picking on specific companies in the latter.
Common brand weaknesses
- Genericism: Your product seems generic and indistinct, much like a commodity you could buy anywhere.
- Poor Price/Quality Positioning: Your product faces both higher-quality competitors and lower-cost competitors.
- Reputation Issues: A record of poor customer service, product issues or public blunders.
Specific brand weaknesses (of non-specific companies)
- Beverage companies must reckon with the perception that their products can lead to health issues, alcoholism, and even deaths.
- Energy companies that rely on oil production, strip mining, and coal burning, must reckon with the perception that producing their product causes multifaceted environmental damage.
Carry out an audit
A prudent first step in your rebranding strategy is a full audit of your current brand, where you would identify, define and document its shortcomings, out-of-date aspects and competitive or positional weaknesses within your market. It goes without saying that a brand audit cannot stem solely from one person’s opinion, even if that person is the head of the company or the most longstanding employee. That would be similar to a scientist drawing a firm conclusion from one single data point. You’ll need a great many data points—including many from your current customers—to form a firm basis for a focused and effective brand update.
So, part of your audit should involve querying your customers and posing some open-ended but carefully phrased questions about their brand. This doesn’t have to be an expensive exercise involving in-person focus groups; customers are often very willing to share their opinions with you as long as you make it easy and convenient via online surveys.
Use the best survey tools to personalize data
If you have a larger budget and a lot of interest from within your company, you could pay the extra costs of robust customer experience (CX) survey tools like AskNicely, SurveySparrow, or HubSpot. These tools allow you to delve more deeply with conditional follow-up questions, and “question & answer piping,” which can help you personalize the survey based on a respondent’s earlier answers. So, if a certain subset of customers responds favorably (or unfavorably) to your brand during the early open-ended questions, you can have them elaborate and explain exactly why in great detail, yielding much more clarity and detail than their broader answers in the beginning.
But, if you’re still building your case for a brand update within your company, or you haven’t yet justified an expenditure of effort or funds, you could still get some basic insights from your customers via common free survey tools like Google Forms, SurveyMoney’s free offering, or Typeform’s scaling, usage-based pricing. With a little extra effort dedicated to asking the right incisive questions, you can still elicit a lot of the same customer sentiment information from these more basic tools.
Having said that, your tools of choice are far less important than what you ask your customers. In any interaction from dating to depositions, the answer is heavily shaped by the question… unless you’re speaking to a politician, in which case they will answer a completely different question than the one you posed.
Refine questions to pinpoint data
As much as we’d love to give you a one-size-fits-all question set that suits every industry, every vertical, and every company, it would likely be a poor fit for all purposes. So, consider the ultra-basic question set below to be solely a starting point. You’ll need to refine it to fit your brand and your prospective customers:
- How would you describe our brand to someone unfamiliar with it?
- What distinctive qualities make our brand different from others?
- What is the first thing that comes to mind when you think of our brand?
- When did you first buy one of our products?
Think about the type of answers you want to receive. Do you want someone to list 1-5 reasons or answers? Are you looking for a solid yes/no or true/false to give you the information you need?
Give yourself the best chance of success by perfecting questions down to the letter. From simply asking yourself is this a “how” question or a “what”; to honing in on the tone of language used to encourage rather than intimidate users; surveys truly are an art form.
Speak to a broad audience
Lastly, make sure your survey responses come from a diverse and representative sampling of your customers. In other words, don’t inadvertently sample only from the most vocal and willing customers—the type that most readily respond to surveys.
A large part of what you pay for with expensive market research is a representative sampling from all customer types and even non-customers: old, young, affluent, price-sensitive, eager to share feedback, prone to silently buying (or abandoning) your brand. With the right demographic questions (age, income, etc.) posed within your surveys, you’ll have some assurance that the insights from the survey are actionable by including every kind of customer.
From audit to action: defining your rebranding objectives
Find your focus
If you begin a rebrand for the wrong reasons—or no specific reasons—you’re plotting an aimless course toward a poorly defined or totally undefined outcome. Honing in on the reasons for rebranding midway through the process is too late. You need specific and strategic reasons for taking on this lengthy and risky process from the starting point—asking a representative variety of your customers to help you identify and define the strong points and weaknesses of your brand.
One of my first jobs was at a nonprofit that decided to update their brand arbitrarily on the whims of their directors. There was no market research or customer involvement in their brand update, and unsurprisingly, it did not result in any measurable improvement in exposure, reach, or customer sentiment—many of them were wondering exactly why it happened, and employees had no substantive answer.
While a well-managed, proactive company will likely take the initiative to update their brand, their primary reasons for doing so shouldn’t be “because it’s been a while,” or “Our director is tired of our logo.” Besides satisfying the personal preferences of influential executives, those are not specific and strategic reasons that serve as a strong basis for a brand update.
Reasons why you might need a new look
So, what might more substantive reasons be? As much as we’d love to hand you a general list that’s perfect for each reader’s purpose, it would be antithetical to the point of branding itself. A good brand is unique and distinctive; it’s hard to draw one out of an industry agnostic, one-size-fits-all list. Because your company and its products and services are unique, your reasons for rebranding should be as well.
Having said that, below are some common reasons. Keep in mind that you should define and address your company’s unique equivalents:
- Your products are compared to, or even confused with, competing products, signifying that your company is failing to stand apart in a specific and articulable way. You’ll need to find a strong and unique value proposition that no competitor can offer. Honda and Hyundai are both headquartered out of Asia, make affordable durable cars, and both have a silver “H” as the centerpiece of their logo. It’s fairly easy for a customer to confuse or conflate the brands.
2. Your products are falling short of a claim that is part of your brand promise. If you claim to have the best quality, best value, unrivaled customer service, longest warranties or lowest price, but you don’t deliver on those promises, your brand integrity suffers, and prospective customers are reluctant to believe your other claims. You’ll need to make sure your products deliver on these brand promises, or else you must adjust your products and promises to match.
Hardware company Sears used to offer a lifetime warranty and replacement guarantee on their popular Craftsman tool product line, but a struggling Sears sold the Craftsman brand asset to Stanley Black & Decker in 2017. This left purchasers wondering if their lifetime warranty still exists, and with whom. At the time of this writing, Stanley Black & Decker continues to uphold it.
3. You have a public reputation—often taking the form of online reviews, press coverage, and social media—that contradicts or fails to match your brand values. You’ll need to create congruence between what the public says about you and what you say about you. Victoria’s Secret suffered lasting brand damage when one of their executives made transphobic and fatphobic comments in an interview, alienating many customers and creating a large and pervasive amount of negative press.
Honda and Hyundai: confusingly similar companies, products, and logos by Joe Savu
Comparing your old and new brands
To make sure your brand update is a worthwhile process that benefits both company and customer, each weak, outdated, or insufficient facet of your old brand should be specifically addressed and rectified within your rebranding strategy. You have likely spent enormous amounts of time, energy and effort in your current brand; don’t leave any of that investment behind. Every change or update of your brand should stem from specific reasoning.
For example, if your logo is confusingly similar to a competitors’, much like Honda and Hyundai, and this hypothesis is confirmed by your customers, you’d have a firm basis for a thoughtful logo redesign that serves its intended purpose—to distinguish your brand from others in your industry.
Similarly, if your chosen slogan is not resonating with your customers, that would again serve as sound evidence to rework that part of your brand.
I’ve seen a number of commercials for Skyrizi, a medication promising clear skin via the tagline “Nothing is everything,” presumably meaning a lack of skin conditions means “everything” to someone who chronically struggles with them. As a writer, I’m bothered by the contradictory, abstract, existential and non-specific nature of the tagline. But, as a marketer, I’d value the voice of the customer over my own views. After all, they pay for the product—we get paid for working on the product and catering to those customers.
Another objective of your brand update is to improve the longevity of your new brand. You do not want to undergo this process often. Part of futureproofing your brand involves steering it clear of fleeting trends or attaching it somehow to today’s zeitgeist. These trends will change sooner or later, and your goal is to have a lasting brand update untethered from today’s momentary milieu.
Introducing and leveraging your new brand
Introducing your new brand to your customers should not be done without explanation. If done right, this brand update is equally beneficial to both company and customer, so good news should be shared far and wide.
Having said that, few customers would be thrilled if you simply rolled out a slightly revised logo and made minor changes to your mission statement. If you’ve followed a sound process, you should be proud of and feel comfortable standing behind each specific change. It shouldn’t be hard to articulate why you’ve updated your brand and how it benefits your members.
A good starting point is sharing the updates with customers who helped inform them, so those that played a role in your outreach and surveying. Knowing that they played a part in reshaping the brand, you’re likely to get a generally positive reception, even if you didn’t solve every last business issue with your brand update. Membership means something when you help plot the course of a company; make sure to include a sincere “thank you” to those who helped kick the tires on your company’s public presence.
Then comes the more impactful work. You’ll have to perform some meticulous—and possibly tedious—updates to logos, language, and other obsolete branding assets. You’d be surprised how quickly these can propagate across many moving parts of your company: websites, mobile apps, business cards, brochures, and even the signage at your headquarters. You might assume that updating the digital versions of your brand are easiest, but many instances of old logos and branding materials have been disseminated beyond your control. Don’t be discouraged if you can’t update every last image on the Internet containing the older iteration of your brand.
Employees may wear it on their uniform and executives may find it on their business card next to their names, but the true purpose of a brand is to distinguish your products, convey their unique value and make a positive, memorable impression on your customers. As the leader of your rebranding strategy, your job is to gather the views of both paying and prospective customers, aggregate them carefully, refine them into actionable brand improvements, and implement them in your new brand.
Make sure your employees understand and are readily able to articulate the reasoning and customer benefits behind the new brand. If you don’t, you’re setting up the previously described circumstances where employees are uninformed or even embarrassed about your new brand. You’ll want them to be proud of it, and that pride will form naturally if you’ve involved them in the process.
Once your staff is ready to revel in your new brand, you’re ready for a bigger, broader, and more public stage. An email to your customers is essential, or they’ll be left confused, even to the point that your new brand may appear to be an entirely different company rivaling the one they know. It’s important to capture all of the goodwill and loyalty you’ve built with your old brand and usher it into your new one.
Within this campaign, as strange as it may sound, I’d encourage you to invite your customers to complain about your new brand. Change can be unsettling, and many customers—even your most loyal and valuable—are not engaged daily with the inner workings of your company. So, it’s important to fully explain the reasoning behind the rebrand, the (positive) impact it has on customers, and finally, some reassurances that you’re still the same company that they rely upon.
A press release is also appropriate, as long as it places an emphasis on the real and tangible benefits your new brand offers to customers and prospects. This should not be a press release simply outlining the name change of a company; it should be an announcement about recalibrating your mission and values to match those of your members.
A final note before you begin your rebranding journey…
As a final step, I would document as much of the market research, internal branding decisions, and brand objectives as possible. If you’ve done your job well, it will be a very long time before a rebrand is merited. However, when that time inevitably arrives, you’ll want a clear roadmap of the impetus and end result of the previous rebranding strategy. Assuming you’re an up-and-coming designer rising through the ranks of a great company, the most likely benefactor of this diligent documentation is you.