Do You Really Need to Rebrand?

We suspect one of the most intimidating challenges marketers face is the prospect of a rebranding effort. We’ve been contacted many times to provide expertise on the topic. This often comes from prospective clients whose business may be experiencing a sluggish period where they suspect their “brand” is the problem. The phone call to the agency goes something like, “I think we need to rebrand.” Then we’ll say something like, “Hmm, tell us more about why you think that,” then the conversation often veers into things like logos, TV commercials, slow sales, and “Brand X who is stealing our share because their branding is way better.”   

However, a rebrand for a company can be a significant undertaking. Expensive, disruptive, and potentially confusing for your loyal customers. Then, of course, there’s the question – what if you’re wrong? In today’s edition of Plain Talk, we’ll walk you through the considerations and steps you need to take to determine if you really need to rebrand. We’ll talk about: 

Define “Brand”

Before we can have a meaningful conversation about whether to rebrand or not to rebrand, we should all be on the same page about what a brand is. It’s important, too, because there is a lot of confusion on the topic. Is your brand your logo? Your jingle? Your spokesperson? Your ads? Is it your mission? Values? Your philanthropy? We think marketing sherpa and bestselling author Marty Neumeier nailed it when he said 

“A brand is a person’s gut feeling

about a product, service or organization.” – Marty Neumeier

Those other things above certainly can contribute to how people may perceive your brand, but again, to quote Neumeier, ultimately, “your brand isn’t what you say it is; it’s what THEY say it is.” When you think about this, it really makes sense. It’s why some people think a brand is great and others not. Why the same pickup truck from Chevy can elicit adoration or derision.   

When most clients talk about a rebrand, they are really talking about a change of branded elements, ads or visual identity (like logos, fonts, etc.). Since these things have a limited impact on your “brand,” there may not be a lot of great reasons to change them as often as some companies do. So why do they?  

Common reasons for bad “rebrands”

Knowing that we can contribute to but do not control the meaning of our brand to loyal customers, prospects and others, why do companies decide to change their brand? Here are five reasons we see driving attempts to change or update their brand identities: 

1. Change of leadershipThis is more common than you might think. Someone new takes over and has the power to turn the company upside down to “make it their own” or to change something they personally don’t like.

2. BoredomThis is also a very common reason. People who have worked on a brand for a long time can get tired of it. Customers don’t look at your product, logo or ads even a fraction as much as you do. Not even if you are Coke. So, no, your visual identity is probably not the problem. Go ahead and leave that serif font alone for now.  

Coke logo changes over time

3. CrisisThis is always the reason that gets the liveliest conversation. Some clients have come to us in the midst of a public relations crisis. Something bad happenedreally bad. They believe the brand will never recover. They want to change everything, including the company name and basically go into the product version of the witness protection program. If this sounds like you, we go pretty deep into this subject here 

4. Greener grassThis relates to competitors. There can be a real temptation to look at a competitor doing something well and try to emulate it. Using competitive intelligence to improve company performance makes sense. However, copying another brand has its own potential risks, so you may be better off sticking to your brand values.  

5. Sales slowdownYou’re getting warmer. Real changes to business success are worthy of thorough investigation. If “brand” is the culprit, by all means rebrand. Unfortunately, brand problems (using the visual identity definition) are often just a scapegoat for underlying issues. These could be product (ask New Coke), operational, service-oriented, etc. But none of these things have to do with your “tired serif font.”

How do you know if you have a brand problem?

There are, of course, situations where a change in your brand is warranted. Let’s look at a few:

1. Expansion pains and crowding In the late 90s, a bunch of video production companies popped up in different cities across the U.S. Oddly, many of them chose the name “Spectrum.” Spectrum Video or Spectrum Productions or just Spectrum. The choice makes sense. Something about the way light passes through the camera lens, maybe mixed with the double entendre of the “spectrum of services they offer.” Something like that. But over time, some of those companies who had the right to use the name in their state grew and started bumping into other Spectrums. Sometimes, this caused friction; sometimes, the successful Spectrum did not want to be confused with the wedding video Spectrum, etc. At some point, many of those companies started to change their names and, in some cases, file a trademark for the new name. The existence of similar companies with the same name is a valid brand problem. It’s also a great reason to consider rebranding your customer-facing assets (visual identity, etc.) while retaining the things about your brand behavior that made you great to begin with.  

2. New managementMany SMBs carry the name of their founder. That works great for family companies and even some monster brands. However, in some cases, the family company is so closely associated with a person (founder, family) that if purchased, the purchasing company may need to consider changing the name of their purchase. We don’t recommend this lightly, especially if the family brand has a great reputation. If a company does this, we work with them to develop internal and customer communication plans to smooth the transition. 

3. Acquisitions and brand confusion Similarly, but on a different scale, we helped long-time client and global manufacturer Cummins a few years back. They needed to reposition their product portfolio under a new brand architecture to overcome years of acquisitions that were causing brand and product confusion. The successful new, simplified brand communication strategy, architecture and accompanying brand communication contributed to helping make Cummins one of the most recognized brands in the U.S. As America emerges from its latest “merger mania” period, there are likely companies out there, maybe yours, who need to make similar changes. 

4. Catastrophic PR incidentMentioned above as a potentially BAD reason to make a change, there are some good exceptions. In 2012, after years of telling the public and various anti-doping agencies that he had never used performance-enhancing substances, Lance Armstrong came clean about doping. This was immediately an existential problem for The Lance Armstrong Foundation. The Foundation had built a massive nonprofit on the heroic story of cancer survivor Armstrong beating cancer and coming back to win race after race (without doping). The name change to the Livestrong Foundation was a no-brainer

Live Strong Website

5. Sluggish sales Also mentioned above, dropping sales is a sign that something is wrong, but what? All of the potential missteps we’ve discussed have one thing in common. None of them really consider the opinions of the people who decide what a brand is. Customers and prospects. So, when thinking about the possibility of a “rebrand,” you need to answer an important question first: What does your target customer think about your brand and other brands? How far away is your projection of your brand from their reality? Is this gap causing my sluggish sales?  

Diagnosing and curing your brand

In the end, sluggish sales are the result of virtually any mistake we can make as a company, including bad brand management. But those slumping sales are a symptom. And, like any disease, the best response is to track down the cause. For most companies, that should start with a brand audit by an outside firm. Why outside? If a company suspects someone of embezzlement, they bring in an outside accountant to perform an audit because the best advice on the situation will be objective advice. Same here. Because it is very hard for even the most qualified internal marketing people to be critical of their own brand. After all, companies spend every day “drinking the Kool-Aid,” and it can feel disloyal to consider that you and your teammates might be missing the mark. Outside consultants can help you look objectively at your challenges and opportunities. And a brand audit is pretty straightforward. You see some combination of: 

  • Customer research including: 
    • Quantitative – Surveys on things like brand awareness, affinity, purchase intent, and the same for competitors, etc. 
    • Qualitative – Rich interviews to add dimension to the quantitative data. Why do they love/hate you? How do you make them feel? 
    • Competitive review: Deep dive into your competitive set to understand who is growing/shrinking and why. How are they positioned? What do people say about them in reviews? Social media engagement? Sentiment? How are they doing with earned media? Is the press positive? Negative?  
    • Customer experience audit – Each of these is, by necessity, designed for your category and brand. How do you interact with customers at retail? Online? On your call center? Chat? What are your most common complaints? How do complaints track historically? What other service measures are in place? (e.g., secret shoppers, shelf eye tracking, online heat mapping, or session monitoring). Have you recently changed pricing? Return policies? 
    • All of these measures are really about brand behavior and the authenticity of your brand behavior. They are meant to see if you have a brand problem or a business operational (behavior) problem that is hurting your brand. The one thing you should refrain from doing is using intuition or guess. There’s too much at stake. Understand your challenges based on professionally designed research. Guessing about your brand problems is the marketing equivalent of Russian roulette. 
    • Brand Strategy: If customer research is akin to the “tests” for your brand illness, developing insights and a strategy from that research is like your diagnosis. It will depend entirely on what you find out from research, so there is no one-size-fits-all approach because the symptoms can vary too much. A couple of ways this could go might include: 
    • Revised brand architecture – We mentioned above some factors that could require you to reorganize how you talk to consumers about products. These could include name, logo, color, product line, premiumization of lines (pricing), updates to brand purpose, values, etc., and of course, a plan to implement the changes.  
    • Operational problems – Retail history is sadly full of stories of companies that lost their mojo. This often happened after an IPO or some change in ownership where bean counters (bless them) looked for ways to improve profitability for shareholders. This often came at the expense of things like quality, service, access, return policies, etc., that customers highly valued. J. Crew was flying high between the preppy singularity of the late 80s and the Michelle-Obama-Leno-$800-skirt-days. But then they crashed hard under crushing debt that caused bad operational decisions and ruined customer trust in key brand equities like quality and hassle-free returns, etc. 
    • Management problems – Yes, these are operational problems, too, but of a different sort. Here’s a quick story. Once in the past, we conducted a call center audit for a client. This was a painstaking process of listening to hundreds of hours of recorded calls. The goal was to see if we could help them determine why their close rate was not where they wanted it to be. We found some smoking guns related to the call center scripts, hours of operation, important training-related issues, etc. We delivered an organized and compelling report to the person in charge; they did nothing. If a company is unwilling to make or even experiment with evidence-based changes like those we found, the brand will continue to founder. But if management issues are recognized, even retraining, or moving a single person can break the logjam, causing your brand problems.  
    • Creative problems – Maybe your product and service are great, but your message is off. We all remember the Pepsi/Kendall Jenner protest commercial and what a disaster it was. It turned a lot of people off of Pepsi, at least for a while. From social content to million-dollar TV spots, your communication is still brand behavior, and it can blow up on you if you are more interested in making a splash than being authentic.  
    • Process problems – Some brand-related strategies are just opportunities to do things like improve engagement. Things like: 
      • A regular customer satisfaction survey (CSAT) 
      • A well-written social media playbook to make sure fan engagement is on brand and represents you well 
      • Media training and PR planning (including crisis plans) to make sure you know how to work with the press and influencers when times are good (and not so good) 
      • Improved training and incentives for customer-facing teammates  

These are just a few simple process improvements that can help correct customer satisfaction issues impacting brand health and sales.  

So, do you? 

So maybe you do need to rebrand, but maybe you don’t. Probably you don’t. But if you want to be sure, there’s good news. This process can help you pinpoint the challenges causing slumping sales and turn them around. If you want to know more about our experience helping clients make that call or just have some questions, drop us a note here or phone us at 502.499.4209, and we’ll be happy to jump on a call.

Mike Nickerson, Chief Marketing Officer PriceWeber Marketing, Louisville KY
Mike Nickerson Chief Marketing Officer