A Cautionary Tale Of Re:Branding Gone Astray

Without teamwork, perseverance, honesty and leadership from our clients and us, a brand may never reach its true potential.
Most of the branding articles that you read are happy, glowing tales of how an agency rebranded a client and turned them into a superstar brand with double-digit growth. Well, this is not one of them. I like to believe that 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 re-branding 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 your expression of your company’s image and beliefs. For it to be successful, you need to believe in your 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 one 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 a mid-sized service firm which came to re:group to rename and reposition its brand. This company was looking to demonstrate a new vision and commitment to their industry and to provide new focus, guidance and discipline to their staff. They identified early on that they thought they needed a new name and a new way to talk about themselves. Unfortunately, it turned out that their management team had only two people who were really convinced they 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 from beginning to end in the entire process. Every one involved needs to take a vested interest in its outcome and be willing to make changes if needed. It is not for the faint-hearted. Branding looks at how you think about yourselves and how your constituents view you. It takes a really honest look at what you are good at and what you aren’t. 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 they present themselves and 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 re-branding 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 point of difference – “ cleans better than the #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 this client, we interviewed almost 50 of their clients for their perspective and asked them what they did better than anyone else. When we presented our company with their primary customer insight they felt that since they didn’t deliver this to every single client they therefore couldn’t promise it. Which leads to two very important points: 1) if you don’t have the support and interest internally to deliver or work towards 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 re-branding on the management team. But there is something that can be even more devastating to an effort:

Lesson #3: Beware of changing horses in the middle of the stream. 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 this particular situation, the client team changed constantly. From the beginning to the end of the project only two players remained. All the others had left the team to be replaced at various times by team players without 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.

Another lesson that is important to learn is that just because you’ve internalized your message, doesn’t mean your customers have. You are much, much closer to your brand than you can ever expect them to be. Which leads us to:

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 like Mr. Clean have obvious meanings or associations. “Associative” names like Zest or Blockbuster use real words related to the product. “Coined” names that are invented words that sound appealing, like Kodak or Coca-Cola. There are “Egocentric” names, named after an owner or parent company, like Ford or Ben & Jerry’s. And lastly there are “Arbitrary” names, which are real words with no immediate connection to the category like Apple or 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 in his or her head (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 towards and that are available for trademark. Our client was no exception to this rule. Following four exhausting rounds of naming with twenty people weighing in, we finally landed on a name that was eerily similar to the one they had. They liked this name because they evaluated it subjectively and literally, but not strategically in connection with the criteria. Ultimately, they decided they liked their original name and would keep it with a few adjustments. This was an expensive lesson for this 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 this 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. Or:

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 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 them from the competition and position them as forward thinking and contemporary looking. Numerous rounds of identities were developed. Like 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.” This is the death knell to any art director who toils endlessly to come up with imaginative yet strategic ideas for their clients. In the end, many on the client team decided that they liked looking like everyone else and wanted to remain traditional looking. Since there was no consensus they kept their old identity.

So 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. Add to that, 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 taking responsibility for decisions. Hindsight being 20/20, we should have stopped the process early on when we realized that this team could not be led by them or us and were never going to be on the same page or empower decision-making to others. Ultimately a great deal of money was spent on some very thoughtful branding work – that went nowhere. Moral: Branding is like herding cats. You’ll only get them going in the same direction if they’re all chasing the same prey!

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