Rebranding: a long-term strategy

Your brand is more than just a name and an eye-catching logo. Branding encapsulates everything about your business, from its vision and values, customer support and sales directives, through to marketing materials and the perception of your company by existing and potential clients. Simon Wright, Managing Director of design agency Greenwich Design, believes branding is as essential to a business as its products or services. “Your brand identity is the business,” he says. “It is central to everything you do.” He adds, “If you look at a company like Apple, without their brand identity they would be just another computer manufacturer.” So to whom should your business turn if you believe you have an image problem or want to define your company brand?

Having worked with some of the biggest brands in the UK, including Mothercare, Marks & Spencer, Shell, and PwC, Simon recommends that companies source an ensemble solution. “It’s crucial that agencies are involved from an early stage,” he says. “Even if it’s just in an observing role. But don’t expect the results to come from just one business. Involving just a branding agency will be very expensive, so it’s important that you think about a group of agencies, including design, advertising, sales promotion and PR, rather than just one.” You will need the specific expertise of specialist agencies for each element of the rebranding process, such as logo design, social media campaigns and customer service directives. Each agency will bring a fresh dynamic to the table, ensuring that all areas are thoroughly addressed.

Why approach external agencies?

One of the main reasons to consult a third-party about your brand is to gain an objective view, as Simon explains. “You may have people internally who understand your brand. However, they can get caught up in the technicalities around why something has been done and can lose sight of what this means for the consumer. Whereas an agency will be working on other brands and there’s a value in seeing what other organisations are doing. Plus they’re more likely to question what changes mean to the consumer and push for a more substantive change if they believe this is needed.”

For an agency or a group of agencies to work effectively, they need to understand the client business from the ground up. “At the core of this process is the need to interpret a company’s strategy,” says Simon, going on to point out that a good agency will ask plenty of questions. If they don’t give your company’s tyres a good kick then you should be worried. “Creating a brand identity is all about understanding what the company’s offering and values are and taking them through what it means to create a brand, which is not always a straightforward process.” It can be difficult to transfer internal assumptions and company identity into a tangible set of brand guidelines that can be applied to every aspect of an organisation’s operation – from cross-company departments, to suppliers and customers.

Management and measurement

While Simon admits there are no definite answers in branding, there are some areas of best practice a business can adopt that can make the process easier. Having management buy-in is crucial to a rebranding exercise, as is having someone within the business who can take full responsibility for the process and ongoing brand management – ideally someone trusted by the board who can liaise between the business and the various consultancies.

Another area to consider from the outset is how to measure the success of the brand. What metrics are you going to look at? Simon advises businesses not to get too hung up on calculating a return on investment within a defined timescale. Significant rebranding can take time to bed in. “The bottom line is that this isn’t a science and you can’t predict what the public will do,” he says. “But there’s no harm in measuring website traffic or sales targets. Tools such as Customer Categorisation or Net Promoter Score are good examples and will help to provide you with key insights before and after you rebrand.”

Gauging reactions

Once you have several solutions, the next step is to test and re-test the new brand to gauge the response of your target audience, but be aware that this won’t provide you with a picture that is 100% accurate. The advertising world is littered with businesses that thoroughly tested their brands only to find that real customers behave and act in a completely different way to how they react in a test environment. In the early 1980s, Coca-Cola decided to rebrand after seeing a drop-off in their market share to rivals Pepsi. They launched ‘New Coke’ in 1985, only to find that the public were happy with the ‘old’ Coke they’d been drinking for almost 100 years. Three months later, the company re-introduced ‘Coca-Cola Classic’. Similarly, Gap changed their logo in 2010, expecting customers to accept the change, but the public flooded Twitter and Facebook with complaints, forcing the business to return to the old logo almost immediately.

As Simon points out, branding changes shouldn’t be sudden: if done regularly and consistently a brand can move with the times and take their customers with them. “This is not just about the logo and the colour pallet, or the soft and hard collateral that makes up a brand,” he says. “It’s how consistently you apply it. If you look at a brand like PwC, who at one point had lots of different identities in different countries, it now has a single global identity with a tone that befits a global brand.” However, Simon believes that this is the exception rather than the rule when brands successfully revolutionise rather than ‘evolutionise’.

While many businesses view the final branding designs at the end of the process, the good brands see this point as just the beginning, and will be planning a policy of regular 6 to 12-monthly brand reviews. “You need to review your brand on a regular basis,” says Simon. “Because the review will tell you if the brand needs refreshing. The last thing that you should do is to wait until you are no longer brand leader because you’re on a slippery slope by then, and you can be suddenly overtaken by brands that are unknown to you.”

Five key business lessons 

  1. Expect evolution not revolution – you could scare people off if you try and change things too much. If you look at the Heinz baked bean tins over the last 20 years, you'll see they have changed dramatically but that change has been gradual.
  2. Work with everyone who uses the brand – while a brand agency will be an expert in interpreting ideas and preparing the design, another agency will specialise in using PR to promote and effect the change.
  3. Be open-minded – take on board expert opinion and external perspectives.
  4. Think long term – a brand identity could take up to five years to implement, so make sure that you plan for the long term.
  5. Listen – listen to every piece of advice before making key decisions. It's so important and it's the one sense that we don't use properly.

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John Carroll - Helping businesses achieve International success. Head of Product Management & International Business, Santander UK