Before You Rebrand, Read This

Rebranding is one of the most disruptive, expensive, and significant exercises any business can undertake.

And you know what?

Generally it’s a complete waste of time.

This isn’t to say that most businesses don’t need to improve their brand and brand strategy – they do. It’s just that when they do it they normally go about it the wrong way – wasting not only the money it costs, but the opportunity it represents.

Here I want to spell out for you best and worst approaches to rebranding a business so that when you do it, you join the elite club for whom “brand” really means something.

First, let’s look at the typical approach. I call this…

Outfit branding

Outfit branding is what takes place in 99% (or more) branding projects. It is, as the name suggests, an exercise in deciding what “outfit”, what “clothes”, a business will wear.

Basically you take your business to the agency and you say “hey, here’s what we’ve got, make it look as appealing as possible”. And sure enough, they’ll do just that. They’ll give you a great looking logo, packaging, website, and general aesthetic. They’ll also give you some beautiful snappy copy to go with it. The goal of all this will be to present your current business in the best possible light. And, for most of us, that’s what we want from the project. That’s all we expect.

So what’s the problem?

Well the thing is, such a project doesn’t generally have an especially profound effect on the company’s performance. It’s certainly fun, it certainly feels good, and occasionally it can move the needle (especially if the prior branding was hideous)… but fundamentally it’s superficial. Just as a new outfit won’t turn the average bloke on the street into Carey Grant, so too will new branding fail to turn your business into anything special.

The reason for this is simple.

True “brand” – meaning the presence and reputation you hold in the market – is not created simply by the image you present to the world. It’s created by a combination of all the parts of your business working in unison:

Product + distribution + format + price + culture + aesthetic + communication + etc.

A business is a “whole” which should be greater than the sum of its parts. The great brands are those where the whole is exceptionally coherent and unified. Where every part of the business is “branded”, if you like.

When you take one of those parts like your aesthetic and work on it in isolation, without working on the other parts simultaneously, then you do nothing to create that alignment. You’re just putting lipstick on a pig, as the saying goes.

This then reveals the alternative, and optimal, form of branding which we might call whole company branding.

Whole company branding, rather than just putting lipstick on the pig, actually works on the pig itself. It brings into play certain questions which are normally absent from rebranding exercises, such as:

  • Range; do we need to add / remove products to match this new identity?
  • Format; do we need to change the way we deliver the product?
  • Manufacturing; do we need to change the way we make things to match our promises?
  • Distribution; does this identity lend itself better to some channels than others?
  • Culture; does this influence the kinds of people we should hire?
  • Etc. etc.

The goal is to shift the entire company as one unit, and bring it into sharp focus so everything is singing in harmony.

I understand that, in theory, some superficial branding exercises might be aimed at bringing the aesthetic of the company into line with the rest of the business. Like it’s “the last piece of the puzzle”, which will then unify everything. But realistically that is not normally the goal of a rebrand.

Normally companies decide to rebrand when they want to change. When they feel the status quo isn’t quite working for them. Rebranding is not typically a conservative exercise, it’s a revolutionary one.

So therefore, if you feel the need to change things, then damn well change them. Evolve the whole thing. Don’t just stick a band-aid on it, the way most rebranding exercises do.

So why doesn’t everyone do this?

We might ask at this point why whole company branding – if it’s so great – isn’t the norm?

It all comes down to the way businesses approach strategy.

For normal businesses there is a difference between “business strategy”, and “brand strategy”.

The “business strategy” is of course the way the business seeks to get leverage in the market. Generally, especially with large corporate brands who establish the norms of “best practice” which all other brands follow, this will not be consumer oriented.

A consumer oriented strategy is one which aims to get leverage by what is offered to the consumer; a non-consumer oriented strategy is one which gets leverage by other means, such as efficient deployment of resources.

Now non-consumer oriented business strategies are fine, but they have one flaw: you can’t use them to design your brand. That’s why businesses have to come up with a separate brand strategy.

A brand strategy – the strategy of how you present the business – needs to be consumer oriented. Therefore old school businesses end up with not one, but two parallel strategies:

Business strategy – not consumer oriented
Brand strategy – consumer oriented

This “dual strategy” model is what has shaped the branding industry as we know it today. It has siloed brand away from the “real business”, leaving it as a purely stylistic endeavour which doesn’t touch the other parts. This has led to branding agencies becoming hyper-creative, but not particularly good at the business side of the equation. This is fair enough – under this model it’s not their job. They’re just there to “do the pictures”. They are free to create brand strategies which are pure style, but have no business substance at their heart.

Because of all this, when you operate a dual strategy model, whole business branding becomes impossible.

You can’t use the business strategy to inform the brand, because it’s not consumer oriented. And you can’t use the brand strategy to shape the business, because it’s superficial.

Whole company branding requires one strategy which unifies everything. And that must be:

A consumer oriented business strategy.

A consumer oriented business strategy is simultaneously able to define how the business will get leverage in the market AND how it will present itself.

Take IKEA as an example. Their business strategy essentially boils down to this:

Provide designer furniture that’s so cheap anyone can buy it.

That’s it. It’s clear, it illustrates their market offering, and is centred on providing consumer value. The way they are able to do this is of course via their revolutionary flat-packed system, plus various other logistical strengths which lower costs, and open more room for design investment.

Now because it’s consumer oriented, it also acts as a good brand strategy. All they have to do for their brand is take the business strategy, and rearticulate it in a jazzy sexy way. You’re simply saying “here’s what we offer”, but you’re doing it in an attractive style. And that’s just what they did, summarised in their tagline:

The Wonderful Everyday.

This slogan quite literally means you can have world class design (“wonderful”) in your normal humdrum life whoever you are (“everyday”). It’s just presented nicely.

That’s exactly what branding should be. The business strategy – which is activated across the whole company – dressed up pretty.

In conclusion then:

  • Great companies don’t treat branding as a superficial outfit
  • Great companies practice whole company branding
  • The way they are able to do this is by having a consumer-oriented business strategy
  • This enables them to unify all parts of the business, including brand, under one single thought

Any rebranding exercise should start at the top – business strategy – and cascade outwards across the whole enterprise.

Very very few businesses do this.

And that means all the more rewards for the few that do.

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