• Transform magazine
  • May 17, 2021

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Five minutes with Alex Marshall

Alex Marshall headshot

Alex Marshall, head of creative and strategy at business rebranding specialists StartsWithA, speaks to Transform magazine about the ins and outs of rebranding. He discusses what pushes longstanding brands to rebrand in the first place, the brand challenges that a 20 year old organisation can face that a younger company might not, and the biggest mistakes made when rebranding.

Why would a longstanding company want to rebrand in the first place?

Interestingly, in most cases, I would most likely not recommend a rebrand. Rebranding is a challenging, complicated and often messy process (that grows in complexity exponentially with the age of the company). There is the real ever-present risk of damaging hard earned brand equity if a rebrand is not handled delicately. As a general rule: the longer your company has been operating, the more justification you need to rebrand. 

Most of the rebranding work we do at StartsWithA occurs at the moment when businesses are embarking on a period of change, typically a shift in strategic objectives: the launch of a new product/service offering or expansion into a larger market. At this stage, it becomes apparent that a misaligned legacy brand will decrease the chance of strategic success for the business. The benefits of a well planned strategic rebrand as part of a broader company step up are significant. Most organisations we work with report a drastic increase in credibility, value perception, reputation and industry recognition of the business, which in turn produces more sales at higher prices, volume and frequency.

When used in this manner, a rebrand becomes a tactical weapon within the business evolution process that can enhance the impact of all the other actions taken. A rebrand is undoubtedly one of the most powerful ways to signal that you are evolving into something new, just don't do it on a whim.

What brand challenges does a 20 year old organisation typically face that a younger company might not?

The main differences between young brands and older brands in relation to rebranding are equity and interia. The longer you are in business, the more time that audiences are exposed to your brand which usually results in increased brand equity in the form of reputation, affinity, recognition and recall. Additionally, longer established companies tend to build up a larger array of brand assets, devices, processes and tools within their ecosystem.

This mix of a deep branded ecosystem and existing reputation presents a different set of challenges to that of a younger brand, most notably in the form of inertia to change. A larger branded footprint tends to make organisations slower to move and in many cases, simply do not move at all. This is why we see so many companies in the 20 - 30 year range that have become outdated, feeling that their brand doesn’t accurately represent the people or work they do any more.

The second big challenge that longstanding brands often face is internal aversion to change.  Leadership teams at long established companies often feature members that have been with the company for a long time (sometimes since its inception) and have built up significant personal sentiment related to specific parts of the brand. While internal passion can be useful in many situations, personal attachment to the legacy brand can hinder objective decision making and reduce the appetite for making the big decisions with the rebrand. Team members that only know the existing brand can be reluctant to step outside of their comfort zone and there is larger effort required to align a multitude of internal opinions of a consensus approach to move forward. The big risk this presents to the project is defaulting to “decision by committee” and diluted outcomes as a byproduct.

How do you prevent equity loss with a rebrand?

Brand equity is the value associated with the brand itself as an asset for the organisation, usually generated over time through the process of the brand operating and engaging with its audience.

In almost all cases, loss of brand equity is something that you would want to minimise and should be front of mind as a key influencing factor for decisions through the process. At the start of a rebrand, it’s important to define what key elements of the brand make the brand unique and distinct compared to others. Is it our vision? Is it the sectors we focus on?  Is it our logo? Is it our values? Is it our brand name? etc. Inviting staff and clients into this conversation is valuable to build a clear picture of what pieces are at play in the brand.

With these fundamental questions answered, it becomes easier to identify what parts of the brand must stay and what parts can be changed.

As an example of a technique we commonly leverage; colour is an elegant and non intrusive way that you can transfer brand equity forward within a refreshed brand delivery. Research shows that having a signature colour can increase brand recognition by up to 80%, so the strategic retention of a signature colour through the rebrand process can work magic in maintaining the “feel” of the brand.

What's the biggest mistake people make when they rebrand?

The biggest rebranding mistake we see is not bringing clients and staff on the rebranding journey. Many companies see a rebrand as an internal project driven by a small internal team delivering in silo as part of their other strategic actions. Decisions are made behind closed doors and the final brand is presented to the team/clients at the end of the project.

A rebrand should be seen as an amazing opportunity to bring your clients and staff into a closer conversation with the organisation. At worst, you might hear some challenging opinions about your brand that you don't like but at best you will be creating a new dialogue with an audience of engaged people who are ready to take part in your story as it progresses. The amount of value and ideas that you can gather from your staff and clients is difficult to overstate.

A secondary benefit from audience interviews is that it provides a strong wealth of opinion from the people that matter when tempering some of the subjective ideas of the stronger voices within the internal  team. The challenge with many brand decisions is that subjective opinions can be countered with subjective opinions, so for real strategic progress, you need objective data.

How does the rebranding process differ from creating a brand from scratch?

Although some find this opinion controversial, I would argue that rebranding is a much more difficult task than creating a brand from scratch. The amount of information that needs to be ingested, considered and applied through every decision is many times greater with a rebrand than starting from scratch.

For longstanding organisations, there is a vast amount of documentation and data related to the brand that already exists that needs to be audited, analysed and understood before any recommendations or decisions can be made. Much of this documentation is legacy and not relevant but cannot be ignored either. This is on top of the usual research that needs to be completed on audience, market, and competitors. This, paired with the challenge of larger team sentiment alignment and potential equity loss, makes rebranding a vastly different experience compared to creating a brand from scratch.

If the creation of a new brand is the development of a new office building on a blank patch of land, rebranding is the equivalent of rebuilding a skyscraper from the ground up without it falling down in the process.