Most of the branding articles that you read are happy, glowing tales of how an agency rebranded a client and turned that client into a superstar brand with double-digit growth.
Well, this is not one of them. We often learn more from our mistakes than from our successes. I am telling this story as much for ourselves as for our future clients. It is our reminder to teach our clients that rebranding is a strategic process that involves commitment from all the key stakeholders.
It is more than writing new ads or developing a new logo. Your brand is an expression of your company's image and beliefs. For it to be successful, you need to believe in the brand's promise, and support it internally and to your customers. You need to look at it deeply, closely, and critically to find its best expression.
Through our experience with a particular client, we were reminded that without teamwork, perseverance, honesty, and leadership from our clients and us, a brand may never reach its true potential.
Take the case of the midsize service firm that came to us to rename and reposition its brand. The company was looking to demonstrate a new vision and commitment to its industry and to provide new focus, guidance, and discipline to its staff. The company identified early on that it needed a new name and a new way to talk about itself. Unfortunately, it turned out that its management team had only two people who were really convinced that the company needed to change anything, which brings me to our first lesson.
Lesson 1: If everyone on the team is not willing to seriously consider a branding exploration, then your efforts may be in vain
Branding is most effective when the key decision-makers are involved in the entire process. Everyone involved needs to take a vested interest in its outcome and be willing to make changes. It is not for the fainthearted.
Branding looks at how a company thinks about itself and how its constituents view the company. It takes an honest look at what the company is and isn't good at. The client team should be willing to embrace the good, the bad, and the ugly, and to have the vision to think differently about how the company presents itself, and go on to make adjustments if needed.
Unfortunately, all the key decision-makers on the client team were not in agreement with the effort or vested in developing a new brand image and position.
Another important aspect of effective rebranding is honesty—with yourselves, your constituents, and your targets.
Lesson 2: Your brand promise should be meaningful to your customers and deliverable by your company
Brand positioning (why you are better or different) is all about finding new opportunities for your product or service. Whether it is a distinct difference ("cleans better than the No. 1 brand") or an emotional benefit ("We bring good things to life"), every brand has some benefit that is unique and special to its customers. That's why talking to your customers about your brand, combined with some creative thinking, can help you discover the customer insight that will make your brand stand out.
In the case of our client, we interviewed almost 50 of its clients and asked them what our client did better than anyone else. When we presented our client with its primary customer insight, the company representatives felt that since the company didn't deliver that to every single client, it therefore couldn't promise it.
That leads to two very important points: (1) If you don't have the support and interest internally to deliver or work toward your brand promise, then you need to find one that you can deliver, and (2) if you discover a consumer benefit that your customers believe you are really good at, then it is worth the effort to do what it takes to deliver on that promise; your customers are usually excellent judges of what makes you special—don't ignore them.
Earlier, I spoke of having less-than-unanimous buy-in for rebranding among management-team members. But there is something that can be even more devastating to an effort.
Lesson 3: Beware of changing horses midstream
Branding efforts generally follow a methodical process of first conducting discovery with your internal stakeholders, auditing your competition, and then talking with your customers.
Along the way, valuable learning is accumulated that ultimately helps in developing the brand platform—positioning and message strategies.
In our situation, the client team changed constantly. Throughout the project, only two players remained. All the others had left the team and were replaced at various times by team players who didn't have the learning or background on the assignment. It was very time-consuming and inefficient to continually revisit the learning and answer previous questions. A consistent, dedicated client team is extremely important to a branding project. It will also save you a lot of time and money.
Remember: Just because you've internalized your message doesn't mean your customers have. You are much closer to your brand than you can ever expect them to be.
Lesson 4: A name is just a name until you give it meaning and invest in it
Naming is one of the most challenging exercises an agency can do for a client. It's not that there aren't enough name options out there. Descriptive names, such as Mr. Clean, have obvious meanings or associations. Associative names, such as Zest and Blockbuster, use real words related to the product. Coined names are invented words that sound appealing, such as Kodak or Coca-Cola. There are egocentric names, named after an owner or parent company, such as Ford and Ben & Jerry's. And there are "arbitrary" names, which are real words with no immediate connection to the category, such as Apple and Amazon.
So how do you start? At re:group we start with a set of criteria to evaluate names. How well the name options meet the criteria will help you decide which is the best name. Supposedly. But it never, ever works that way.
Why? Because everyone has an idea (that they usually can't articulate) about what the name should say or sound like. If you are fortunate, you can develop a few names that everyone gravitates toward and are available for trademark.
Our client was no exception. Following four exhausting rounds of naming, with 20 people weighing in, we finally came up with a name that was eerily similar to the one our client had. The client liked the name because it evaluated the name subjectively and literally, but not strategically, in connection with the criteria. Ultimately, the client decided to keep its original name with a few adjustments. That was an expensive lesson for the client and a lesson in patience for us.
A name is what you make it and what you are willing to invest to make it stand for something. It should reflect the brand image, but it will probably not mean much to your customers until you provide the meaning. Don't let the subjective group mentality destroy a potentially good name. Google would never have seen the light of day with our client's group!
Perhaps the most important lesson of all is that you need to know what you're trying to accomplish, trust your marketing partner to help you find it, and stick to your initial criteria.
Lesson 5: Beware of "I'll know it when I see it"
With a new name usually comes an identity. It, too, should be developed against criteria. What should it say about your brand? Does it reflect the brand personality? Does it need to work equally well in color and in black and white? Will it be used in signage, on premiums, on the Web?
Again, the possibilities for identities could be unlimited without adherence to some strategic criteria.
In the case of our client, we developed strategic evaluation criteria. Among them was to differentiate our client from the competition and position the company as forward-thinking and contemporary-looking.
Numerous rounds of identities were developed. As with the naming, some of the team members were unable to evaluate the identities in relation to the criteria. We often heard, "This isn't it. We'll know it when we see it." That is the death knell to art directors who toil endlessly to come up with imaginative yet strategic ideas for their clients.
In the end, many on the client team decided that they liked the brand's looking like everyone else and wanted it to remain traditional-looking. Since there was no consensus, the team kept the brand's old identity.
* * *
The conclusion? Lack of leadership is a death knell for any branding effort. The marketing client failed to rally the team behind a common mission, keep the herd together, and designate the ultimate decision-makers. Moreover, one of the key people in favor of the new branding left halfway through the project. The result was a branding free-for-all with everyone weighing in but no one taking the lead or the responsibility for decisions.
In hindsight, we should have stopped the process early on when we realized that the team members could not lead or be led and were never going to be on the same page or empower other to make decisions. A great deal of money was spent on some very thoughtful branding work—that went nowhere.
The moral: Branding is like herding cats. You'll get them going in the same direction only if they're all chasing the same prey!
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