Rebranding: 5 lessons on how to avoid a fail

Rebranding can often take more guts than brains. The smartest, most savvy branding experts could come up with the ideal new pathway to re-launch a brand, but if the internal stakeholders don’t buy in, then failure is inevitable. Leadership with the guts to foster change is as much—or even more—important than the brains to create a vision of what’s possible. Here are five lessons on how to succeed.

  1. Don’t make it about your opinions, but rather about your customers’ opinions. The first reaction someone will have about changing the name of your brand, or the strategy of your brand, or both, is an identity crisis. Who am I if I am not associated with Brand X? Naturally, a new identity is frightening because everyone knows what they are leaving behind, but not the place to which they are going. Also, everyone will have an opinion—a very subjective reason why the organization should or shouldn’t rebrand. Take the subjectivity out of it with customer insight research. Get a cross-section of audiences: current customers, current prospective customers, customers who have given you the boot, and a new segment of customers from where the future of income is most promising. Put them through a series of branding exercises designed to tease out what they currently think about your brand and what they might esteem in your brand if you were to progress to a new identity. This research becomes the objective foundation of why you should rebrand: “it’s not me, it’s what the customers want.”
  2. Take baby steps. There is an old joke: a man goes away on vacation and asks his friend to take care of his cat. While on vacation, the man gets a call from the friend telling him that the cat has died. The man is sad, but also outraged at how the friend broke the tough news. “Don’t call me once and tell me the cat is dead; first call me and tell me the cat’s up on the roof; then call me and tell me the cat is getting sick from exposure; and THEN call me to tell me the cat is dead.” A few days go by and the man gets a call from the friend. The friend says, “your mother is up on the roof.” Change is one of the most frightening prospects. Don’t announce that you are going to do a strategy workshop, change the name, and then completely re-do the visual identity. It’s too much to take it all at once. With each step, reassure them—and yourself—that the process will decide if any of these things are right or even do-able.
  3. Invite everyone to the party. If things are going to change, then employees must think of themselves as being part of the change. It will reduce anxiety and make the strategy session an object lesson in collective enthusiasm. That’s right: more than anything, branding or rebranding is above all a transfer of enthusiasm from the top down, and from the inside out (i.e. employees to customers). You cannot expect customers to embrace your rebranding effort if the company itself is not behind it at least 80%. (Let’s be real, here. It’s never going to be 100% at the start. The other 20% will come along in time or else be replaced by others who do.) When fielding a strategy workshop, invite the management and middle management to put their fingerprints on how the session goes. Arrange them in cross-discipline groups so that they stop thinking like an individual and start thinking like a team. Charge them with the responsibility they get paid for: selling the vision they’ve helped create to their employees. If things get confrontational (and I would be surprised if they don’t), bring back the customer-insight research to settle any arguments about who this brand is really for.
  4. The strategy is the oracle. It answers all questions. It is the final voice in any debate. Should you change the brand name, or just refresh the visual identity? Look to the strategy for your answer. If the name doesn’t express your strategy, then it must be changed. If the visual identity doesn’t express the strategy, then it must be changed. Should the organizational structure that manages the brand or the company be changed? Again, look to the strategy. It absolves any one person from being the target of anger or disappointment. After all, who developed the strategy? All the managers. And though it might appear cruel, if someone on the brand team or in the company revolts, then they should be let go for the sake of the rebranding effort. No one and nothing is above the strategy.
  5. Set realistic expectations. If you think that everyone on the brand team or in the company is going to welcome a rebranding with open arms, you are setting yourself up for disappointment. Paraphrasing Darwin: the species with the greatest chances of survival are not the strongest or the smartest, but rather the ones most capable of change. This is where the “guts” come in. You cannot allow the love of a new name or new logo to come down to a coin toss. Two things are on your side and you must take advantage of both. First, create “Brand Champions.” These are leaders in the company who are charged with swinging the votes toward acceptance and even passion. By definition, a leader is someone with a following. Let Brand Champions lead the charge and others will eagerly follow. Second, time is your best friend. Just as with losing a loved one requires a grieving period, so too must the old brand be mourned before employees inevitably move on to acceptance. A month from now, a quarter from now, a year from now, everybody will have embraced the rebrand.

There’s a story about Pablo Picasso in Paris after the first world war. The world could not be recognized any more. Its identity had been forever changed. And no one could foresee where things were headed. During this crisis, Gertrude Stein asked Picasso to paint a portrait of her. When she saw it, she said, “Pablo, it doesn’t look like me.” Picasso replied, “but it will.”

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