Why rebranding is like home improvement - there are 3 ways to do it, but 2 things you MUST do first

This week I had a mildly successful back-to-school shop with the kids.  (One pair of football boots down, one to go).

September is in the air, and this year, even more than others, that ‘back-to-school’ feeling is hitting businesses too.

All the questions I’ve got within the last week have been about ‘rebranding’ in September.

Perhaps the lure of new shiny pencil cases is making you feel your brand needs an update too?

If so, then just hold your horses for a moment before you get sign-off on a big September ‘rebrand.’  

‘Rebranding’ is a very loaded and misunderstood term – usually interpreted to be all about changing the signals of what you stand for – primarily your visual identity and verbal identity.   It’s used as the great panacea – for declining sales and low pricing, lack of customer engagement, or employee motivation.

And, let’s be honest, it’s also kind of exciting and makes people feel important.

But to avoid, “I’m spearheading the rebranding project,” turning into, “I squandered several thousand dollars…”, keep reading.


And it’s a bit like home improvement.  

    Some parts of your house are becoming tired and need updating, or you feel they don’t reflect who you are, so you redesign them.
    Many things about your house work well, but there are some things you are missing.  So you add an extension.
    You have a house and it’s no longer fit for purpose. You need a new one to better suit your needs.  Your solution is to move to a new address or rebuild from scratch.

So how do you know if you need to refresh, expand or completely rebrand?

Well you start by figuring out whether your current brand is fit for purpose. There are two parts to this. 

  1. Fit for purpose has a functional element. Is your branding functioning in the most optimal way possible across all of your different customer interactions?
  2. Does your branding reflect your brand strategy? Your brand strategy should identify WHY you exist, WHO you are, HOW you do things, HOW you want to look and feel and WHAT you do.

It doesn’t matter if you are a two-person start-up, or three companies who have just merged.  If you do this work strategy work together FIRST, then you can figure out the right type of rebrand for your business. 


For example, in answering these questions you might realise that your brand strategy is solid but your brand signals are not functioning well enough.  Just like Google in 2015 who evolved their brand on realisation that, 

“Users now engage with Google using a constellation of devices, and our brand should express the same simplicity and delight they expect from our homepage, while fully embracing the opportunities offered by each new device and surface.”

If this is you, then take a lesson from Google here, and ensure that you are just optimising your branding, and not changing it too much.

Or take Mastercard, who refreshed their brand in 2016 and then took a further step to remove the name Mastercard from their logo in 2018. 

Their goal was to convey simplicity and modernity, while preserving the company’s heritage and enormous brand equity. This was primarily a functional change.  The refreshed mark had carefully recalibrated colours that were designed to pop against different backgrounds and work seamlessly across all digital platforms, devices and retail channels. But take a step back and look at it, and you see it’s a very careful refresh maintaining such strong equity in colours and shapes (the interlocking circles), that they were able to remove the name completely from the mark 2 years later. 

These are brand refreshes on one end of the scale.

At the other end, take a look at Oracle, who ‘rebranded’ last year.  In looking at their brand strategy, they identified a new ‘WHY’: ‘to help people see data in new ways, discover insights, unlock endless possibilities’, and wanted to come across as much “more human” in HOW they do things. 

Associations with their brand were quite negative, so Improving the user experience and perceptions in this way required them to look at all of their interactions with their customers – and led to a significant redesign of their products, branding and marketing.

This was a refresh on every level, but it wasn’t a completely new brand. Whilst they needed to shift some customer associations quite dramatically, they still built on equity they already had – their name stayed, they maintained their association with the colour red, but adapted it to a much warmer hue.  They humanised their look and feel further by adding the use of illustrations inspired by Asian, African and Aboriginal art and data.  They redesigned every room in the house BECAUSE they redid their strategy, and needed to shift the associations customers had about them - but they didn’t signal that they’d moved to a new house. Again, the change was very carefully managed. 


Most rebrands sit on this sliding scale of visual and verbal ‘refreshment’ and in order to understand how far down the slide you need to go, you start with your brand strategy. Answering your WHY, WHO, HOW and WHAT questions in the right way for your business also always includes customer research, which helps guide you on understanding the equity you have and the positive aspects you should not change, along with the areas where your intentions don’t match their perceptions. 

For example, when I worked on Gatorade’s redesign in 2002, we started the focus groups by asking consumers to draw the Gatorade bottle.  Even then, it was evident that the lightning bolt was one of the most associated signals with the brand, and it’s been retained in all redesigns since.

Gatorade faced consumer backlash in 2009 when another redesign was seen to change the signals too far - resulting in an unwelcome sales decrease of 13.7% in the first quarter, and a market share decrease of 6.3%. Gatorade stood by its new logo, but the relaunch took a while to be embraced by customers. 

But other rebrands were a scar too far. GAP’s new logo in 2010 only lasted a few days after consumers complained in their thousands on facebook and twitter.  Consumers even created 14,000 parody versions on a ‘Make your own Gap Logo’ website.   

The year before, Tropicana did a complete about-face on their new redesign after sales decreased 19%, or roughly $33 million, in the 2 months after the new pack hit the shelves.

So, if you are embarking on a refresh, be careful. You may be excited about change, but the most important people -  your customers - may not.  When you understand what a brand really is, you’ll be much more wary of messing with any signals associated with it. 

The other BIG caveat here, is that delivering on your brand strategy can’t just be solved by a visual identity refresh.  (This is a whole other article in itself). Changes in brand associations most often require human, behavioural change, not just identity change. It’s the old, ‘you can’t put lipstick on a pig’ analogy. 

And if all you need is a slightly simpler, more modern and better functioning design across all your customer touchpoints, but you are not wanting to change core associations in your customers minds about you, the equity in your brand signals is strong, and your brand strategy isn’t changing - then don’t dramatically change the signals you’ve created that are building these associations. Optimise CAREFULLY.

It’s like repainting your bathroom and updating the leaking shower hose – a bit cleaner, brighter and better functioning, but not dramatically different.


So, let’s quickly cover the other 2 other types of rebrand:

There are occasions when you don’t need to change any of your ‘signals’ - your brand identity - but you do need to expand your brand.

For instance, you might find, like many luxury hotels I’ve worked with, that you have a really strong sense of HOW you want to look and feel and WHAT you are, but you haven’t really answered WHY you exist, WHO you are and HOW you do things. 

What this meant, for an icon like Claridge’s, was that there was no need to redo their visual brand identity, but we did need to help their employees understand WHY they came to work every day and HOW they were expected to do things to live up to their WHY. 

So, their budget went completely on employee engagement – not a penny on any new logo or colour palette.

They just needed to EXPAND their brand strategy and its reach - not refresh any ‘branding’ signals.   

And what about complete rebrands?

Well, be VERY wary of these.  Changing everything - including your name and your visual identity is a drastic signal that you have completely changed as a business and means you walk away from potential equity you’ve built up with your customers. 

Of course, if you’ve only got 3 customers, or you haven’t really started selling yet, then changes that feel drastic to you, will have little impact on your bottom line! You can communicate with the 3 customers personally, and it gives you a valuable engagement opportunity to tell them how your strategy has changed and hence WHY you’ve changed your brand identity. (Please, please do this – and don’t just say – do you like our new red logo??? MISSED OPPORTUNITY). 

But in established businesses, this sort of rebrand happens only for a very significant business or legal reason (like the creation of Accenture from Andersen Consulting).  Even M&As and changes of ownership rarely see companies walk away from brands completely, but generally see them retain the strongest brand in the mix, perhaps adding a descriptor (Like Dell Technologies, or Droga5 - 'Part of Accenture Interactive') and transitioning back to one brand with descriptor over time.

When a name change is required for efficiency or clarity reasons, but brand equity is strong, companies take pains to retain all of the other brand signals that have built strong associations in customers’ minds (see Marathon to Snickers, Jif to Cif).  

So, by all means, get yourself a new pencil case for September, but before you commit to rebranding, commit to reanalysing, researching and redefining your brand strategy first.

It could save you so much money – and customers - in the long term. 




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