Rebranding your organization is an exciting endeavor. Updating brand pillars or core values, crafting fresh messaging, and (gasp!) creating new brand visuals can feel like picking out features of a custom vehicle or surfaces for your home renovation. Fun stuff!
But rebrands are not to be embarked upon without good reason.
First, let’s agree on a definition for the term. As mentioned in We Rebranded! No, You Just Unveiled a New Logo, a rebrand involves “a change in mission, a change in service offerings, or a change in a fundamental way of doing things. This change is often accompanied by a creative marketing and communications effort to tell the world about the new you.”
Rebrands can (and indeed should) alter the perception of your organization. But sometimes, the altered perception comes at a cost not justified by the benefit of the rebranding effort. Be sure to perform a cost/benefit analysis of your rebrand before beginning. Account for at least the following:
- Time required to execute the rebrand
- Time required to fully roll out the rebrand (all at once vs. iteratively over months or years)
- Expense associated with hiring professionals like Colour Outside to assist with the rebrand
- Expense associated with updating visuals in digital, print, apparel, signage, and other applications
- Expense associated with getting the word out about the more significant elements of a rebrand (e.g., merging and dissolution of previous brands, name changes, etc.)
- Expense associated with legal and/or trademark fees
- Level of confidence in your organization’s ability to bring your various constituents with you along the way
- Potential lost brand awareness and recognition if a name change is part of the rebrand
You should thoroughly deliberate these factors and many others before a rebrand.
But perhaps the most crucial consideration is your organization’s reason for its rebrand. There are, after all, good and bad reasons to rebrand. Good rebrand motivation can produce a healthy transition; bad rebrand motivation can result in lost awareness, lost customers, and long-term brand damage.
So how do you know if you have good reason to rebrand? Read on. And as you read, give honest thought to whether you want it for solid or ill-advised reasons.
1. Right: Your Organization Is Planning a Fundamental Identity Shift
A fundamental identity shift involves an organizational change so significant that the people who know you best would say, “You’re different.” And not just because you have a different logo, but because you are fundamentally different. Your mission is shifting. You plan to operate in a different industry. You will no longer serve the same demographic of customers. Your identity will evolve into something new, and the previous brand won’t convey this effectively.
An example of a fundamental identity shift is the emergence of the Meta brand from Facebook. Although Facebook as a branded product continues to exist, Meta represents the birth of a parent from the child. As a result, the vision, mission, and fundamental identity of Meta are far broader than that of the Facebook application. Meta’s staff understood this, and rather than try to do the long, arduous work of creating a new public understanding of the Facebook brand as both a parent company as well as a digital application, the parent company identity of Facebook rebranded to become Meta.
This new brand provided an opportunity to establish a new reputation—a second first impression. This was easier and more effective than convincing the world that Facebook is now something altogether new. It was a rebrand with good reason.
2. Right: Your Brand Is No Longer Accurate
Maybe your organization isn’t planning some fundamental shift, and no significant changes are peeking over the horizon. But things aren’t aligned like they once were.
You’ve been around for a while. Maybe you started a business a few decades ago with brand collateral that hasn’t been updated, or there have been significant shifts in your industry since your entrance. These are small but continual evolutions that occur in you and around you that cause you to wake up one day and realize, “My brand no longer reflects my organization.”
Perhaps your brand feels like it’s speaking to a different era. Or to an outdated audience. Or to a subset of technology that has since been abandoned and surpassed by your community. At any rate, you are due for a change.
Google’s 2015 rebrand is a great example. Like Facebook, this was the birth of a parent, resulting in the formation of Alphabet as Google’s parent company. Google was redesigned and repositioned as a subsidiary line of products and services.
In Google’s own words, they felt the change better allowed them to serve users who “now engage with Google using a constellation of devices,” and better express “the same simplicity and delight they expect from our homepage, while fully embracing the opportunities offered by each new device and surface.”
Google felt their previous brand didn’t properly align with this reality, so they rebranded with good reason.
Other common instances of inaccurate branding include outgrown or expired organizational affiliations within brand names. This can often be seen in churches renaming as congregations move on from (or downplay) denominational affiliation.
This is a reasonably simple change so long as the name affiliation is at the end of an otherwise meaningful name (e.g., Los Angeles People’s Church of the United Church of Christ). A separation from the United Church of Christ denomination for this fictional church could simply result in a new name, “Los Angeles People’s Church.” Where this gets difficult is in a name like “First United Church of Christ” (the actual name of many churches), in which the denomination name and the individual church’s name are inextricably linked. A denominational separation here would almost certainly require a rebrand, and with good reason.
3. Right: Legal Conflicts
One of the most prominent mistakes startups and “mom and pop” businesses make when incorporating is to bypass the name trademarking process. They run with unvetted names and branding because they know their area well and aren’t aware of any other businesses with their desired name (see 10 Things to Do Before Naming Your Brand).
Don’t make the mistake of thinking that trademarking is just for big businesses. Even if you don’t have your sights set on being a household name someday, your chosen name may infringe upon someone else’s trademark.
What if no trademark exists for your desired name when you incorporate it? Should you still go through the expense of trademarking? Yes. Another business with your name (or a similar enough name) can pop up in the future and snatch that trademark. This creates the regrettable consequence of granting a new business eligibility to file an infringement claim against your older, established business.
Additionally, don’t make the mistake of thinking your un-trademarked business can fly under the radar unnoticed. Today’s marketers leverage intelligent social listening software to monitor online mentions of their brand name and their competitors. And if you’re trying to market your own business online with good search engine optimization practices, you will eventually get noticed.
But does this really happen, and does it happen in smaller suburban markets? Yes. In 2021 Colour Outside signed a branding contract with a new, already-named construction company. This company had come up with whatever name they liked best, bypassed the trademark process, and asked us to create brand collateral for them (logo, website, and print publications). Just one month into our work with them, our client received a cease-and-desist letter from the legal counsel of an established, trademarked construction company with a similar name.
Although our client didn’t want to change their name, they chose to rebrand with good reason rather than gamble on a legal conflict. Because they had limited investment into their brand up to that point, this change worked out well for them in the end; they now have a new name and are doing well. But for more established businesses with more time and money invested in their brands, this change can be very costly in many ways, even if it’s changing for a good reason.
Insight: If you’re willing to do your own research and application, the trademarking process with the United States Patent and Trademark Office will usually cost you less than $1,000. If you want to hire an attorney to handle it for you, costs typically range between $4,000 – $8,000. This money spent to protect all the hard work invested in your business is always worthwhile.
4. Right: Mergers
In 2019, household names in banking merged to create a new brand. BB&T and SunTrust became Truist (As it happens, one of Colour Outside’s market research contractors was involved in the research that led to the selection of the Truist name!).
For purposes of this Colouring Book post, it’s crucial to distinguish mergers from acquisitions (see reason 7 below). Truist characterized this business deal as a true “merger of equals.” This means that one company was not acquiring the other; they were coming together to form something altogether new.
In cases like this, retaining just one of the two original brand names is inappropriate. It communicates acquisition, not merging, and would likely result in unnecessary internal politics. As a result, one of two things usually happens in these mergers:
- The new name is a merging of the names of both businesses (e.g., “BB&T SunTrust”), or…
- An entirely new name is adopted (e.g., “Truist”)
The challenge with option one above (which, coincidentally, is also a popular convention for acquisitions) is determining which original brand name comes first. The first occurrence often indicates the highest importance or priority, which can again result in unwanted politics.
In any case, mergers generally constitute a good reason for rebranding efforts, as they truly represent a new era in the life of the businesses involved.
5. Wrong: New Leadership “Making It Their Own”
I understand the value of a leader having a sense of ownership over their purview; this can be powerful. But many new leaders make the mistake of impatiently forcing this sense of ownership and individual identity on the organization they lead. This often manifests as unvetted rebranding with unnecessary identity shifts and accompanying naming and visual changes. Rather than assuming ownership by taking long-term pride in sustained organizational success, they choose the easier route of short-term pride stemming from underdeveloped decisions, name changes, and new logos.
Earlier in my career, I consulted with an organization that brought in a new leader. She seemed capable, hungry to lead, and had the requisite professional pedigree. But things quickly turned sour after her installation as the new leader. She began making decisions that were misaligned with the organization’s established (and successful) identity. She cultivated an internal staff culture that represented a sharp and unpleasant departure from broader organizational values. And yes, name and logo changes were introduced.
While not all the changes she introduced were entirely off-base (there were good reasons for the name change), her motivation for most decisions was rooted in a desire to quickly make the organization her own. She didn’t trust in her supervisors and direct reports to give her time to continue a tradition of steady leadership characterized by thoughtful, if historically slow, decision making. Rather, she capitulated to her desire to see quick, dramatic returns from her own leadership. And unfortunately, her first few years were also her last few years.
Many organizations go through this same transition story. A passing of the baton from one family generation to the next, the introduction of a new outside leader, and other commonplace successions should not be viewed as inevitable causes for a rebrand. Many organizations are healthy and possess high levels of market awareness and positive reputation that took years to cultivate. We should appropriately value these brand assets.
6. Wrong: You’re Bored With Your Brand
“Do you think Coca-Cola’s designers are tired of Coca-Cola red?” I asked my client.
I was working at William & Mary as the University’s Creative Director & Brand Strategist. William & Mary’s brand guidelines were the recognized authority on their brand identity, and green and gold were firmly fixed as century-old primary brand colors. Our office was a sort of internal creative agency for the admission office, administration, and various departments, and my campus client had just told me that they were tired of William & Mary Green. They wanted to explore other color options.
You must keep in mind that although you see your brand collateral every day, your audience only sees it occasionally. Moreover, you are fiercely competing for recognition and memorability in a world of information and advertisement overload.
Rebranding because something is old or because you and your team are bored will result in self-inflicted marketing damage.
“It’s old” is not a good enough reason to rebrand. “I want something fresh” is not a good enough reason to rebrand. There must be meaningful business imperatives behind these decisions.
Coca-Cola is so recognizable because of its unwavering commitment to consistency. So can consistency and designing with the same assets year in and year out be boring for internal teams? Sure. But a good designer will find ways to infuse work with new life while adhering to recognized and consistent brand assets.
And as I told my client, “If you’re tired of seeing your brand assets, you’re just starting to get it right.” It’s a healthy sign that you’re presenting a consistent brand to the market.
Boredom is not a good reason to rebrand.
7. Wrong: Acquisitions
Did you know that Clorox owns Kingsford charcoal and Hidden Valley Ranch? That’s right, the bleach company.
That bleach company makes the briquettes you grill your food with and the delicious white nectar you dip your pizza in (if you’re a heretic like me). And that’s just the beginning; they own a host of other brands, too.
Clorox, however, is brand savvy. Although they have aggressively expanded their business portfolio with diverse company acquisitions, in most cases, they allowed the acquisition to retain its previous branding. Smart move.
A less experienced or less insightful business, perhaps in a stroke of name ego or as a result of ill-advised consolidation, may have forced the acquiring company’s brand name on the acquisition. But who wants to eat food grilled with bleach? Although, of course, they never would have started manufacturing briquettes with bleach, association by name is a powerful thing.
Generally speaking, unless an acquired business is a problem or rescue case, acquisitions are only obtained in the first place because they are successful. And if they’re successful, there is likely a lot of equity in their brands. Therefore, rebranding acquisitions is generally discouraged and not in and of itself a good reason for rebranding.
What about Brand Damage?
Is brand damage a good reason to rebrand? That depends.
Brand damage is a sensitive topic. Leaders within the same organization can disagree on whether damage has occurred, whether it’s widespread, and how the organization can recover from it.
Two guiding questions can help determine whether brand damage warrants a rebrand:
- How old and established is the organization?
- How severe is the damage?
If the organization is young, it may be less work to rebrand than fix the damage and regain the market’s trust. Even if the damage is not severe and confined to pockets of the organization’s reputation, an unestablished brand may be easier to uproot than forge a new reputation.
However, if the organization is established, its brand awareness may be deeply embedded in the market. In these instances, working through damage under the banner of the original brand may be a better path than attempting a rebrand. If this feels daunting to you, keep in mind that today’s consumers are looking for authenticity. They are drawn to organizations that admit faults with transparency, ask for forgiveness, and pursue meaningful change. This can be highly rewarding work, even if it’s painful and difficult.
If you intend to repair your existing brand rather than rebrand, make sure you do it with a little more transparency and actual change than Wells Fargo. After their now-infamous fake account scandal, they released an ad campaign telling the world they had changed. But in the years since, more malfeasance and impropriety have emerged. You can’t advertise yourself out of unaddressed character flaws.
Colour Outside’s staff have consulted on rebrand efforts for community colleges, centuries-old universities, research institutions, industrial manufacturing acquisitions, construction buyouts, and for many more evolving organizations and business transaction events. Contact us today to inquire about a consultation for your organization.
– Justin Schoonmaker