It’s a tale as old as New Coke: a company decides it needs to rebrand, spends months and millions doing it, alienates its customers, loses a ton of money, and scrambles to bring back its original branding.
Indeed, there’s a certain doubt and anxiety wrapped up in the phrase “rebrand” and it’s easy to see why. Even companies with deep pockets and access to top talent struggle to pull off a successful rebrand, as the risks of tampering with brand identity -- everything your customers know you for -- are inherently high.
But not all rebrands are a recipe for disaster. In a recent conversation with 99U, Brian Collins, chief creative officer and co-founder of branding company COLLINS, and Leland Maschmeyer, chief creative officer at yogurt maker Chobani and co-founder at COLLINS, shared some of their best advice for executing a successful brand redesign.
Here are some of their key pillars for success.
Not every problem can be resolved with a rebrand, nor should a company rebrand “just because.” The decision to overhaul your company’s logo, typography, imagery, voice, and advertising and marketing approach is a big one that should be thoroughly vetted.
Maschmeyer says it’s best to start out by identifying whether the following three truths apply to your brand. “In the question of when to do a rebrand, it's really when one or all of these three things are your core business problem,” he says.
When Maschmeyer began working with Chobani, the problem was in all three areas: the company faced a ton of competition from copycats trying to drive them into a commodity by competing on price and needed to cultivate a brand that customers would choose no matter what. Secondly, the company was entirely defined by its product and didn’t have the elasticity to stretch into areas outside of Greek yogurt. And finally, the company was also outspending the marketplace three to one in its advertising and marketing efforts.
When companies are trying to carve a way forward, they can benefit by looking to the past. “We’ve often asked the business leaders we work with: ‘Do you have archives?’” says Maschmeyer. He gives the example of a company from the 1880s that was looking to rebrand and had a closet filled with old company memos and “dusty crap” that had accumulated over the years. In going through those mementos, piecing together a timeline, finding hints of the company’s former ideologies, Maschmeyer began to find a story that not only told where the company had been, but where it could go.
“When we presented it to the CEO, she was flabbergasted -- I mean, absolutely astounded that we were able to find something in there. She got up and gave us hugs.”
The takeaway for businesses contemplating a turnaround? Dig deep. Go into your history. You may find clues that can guide you on a better path forward.
Before Spotify rebranded, it saw itself as a tech company, communicating with customers about streaming speeds and music feeds. And its growth was suffering -- the company had tapped out most of its early adopters, who were into the music technology, and needed to make inroads with people who didn’t care for “engineered-driven language around music,” as Collins puts it.
“When you want to scale, you can't just speak to early adopters; you have to have a broader, more popular language,” he says. “The aesthetic and the symbols Spotify was using all said ‘engineering’ when they really should've been saying, ‘Wouldn't you like to listen to this great piece of music? Would you like to listen to this song?’
The company’s rebrand was centered around connecting the company to music culture in an authentic way, rooting itself in the broader themes of the survival of music, the enrichment of the musical experience, and the greater connection between fans and their favorite artists. Spotify’s Discovery Weekly feature, widely considered one of its most successful aspects, was born out of that new story.
For anyone considering a rebrand, telling the right story is key. And even if it’s a departure from the story you told up until this point, experts say it shouldn’t feel like a total shakeup; it should feel like the thing you always wanted to say, but didn’t know how.
Brands gain relevance, support and elasticity when they connect themselves to a futuristic idea, say Collins and Maschmeyer. But some brands focus only on the aesthetics of aligning themselves with an idea and don’t put in the effort to understand it. Others see themselves as the sole purveyor of a certain future, when in reality, they’re better off keeping the door open for other brands to join. Explains Maschmeyer:
"I think that's such a big part of corporate culture today where if you can't own something -- if you can’t put a moat of lawyers around it, and say, ‘This is ours,’ then you don't do it. And I think that's the completely wrong approach if you want to be relevant and have a positive relationship with the future. There are so many ideas of the future out there and they're all competing with each other and desperately wanting support, sponsorship and the creative energies of the public to help those futures bloom and become mass ideas normalized into our everyday life. And so if a company says, ‘You know what? We really care about mass sustainable transportation. That's what we're going to.’ It doesn't matter if there are 20 other companies devoted to that same vision. It's a big vision that everyone can get behind and contribute to in their own unique way. That's the thing -- the vision should be shared, but how you contribute to that vision should be unique."
Collins uses his experience with IBM when he was at Ogilvy as an example of a company that did it right. Two decades ago, the computing giant lifted the term “e-business” into cultural relevance through stories and smart branding. “IBM didn’t trademark the word ‘e-business,’” he says. “Anyone could use it, so we could all socialize that future very easily. And it ended up reshaping the company.”
An essential part of any rebrand involves doing extensive research on the patterns and behaviors of your customers. It’s there that you’ll be able to come up with new ways of reaching them, but also to find the voice that will resonate with the audience most.
Spotify, for example, noticed was that people were making playlists on their platform and naming them according to moments -- i.e., dates, dinner parties, hangovers, happy days, sad days. They began to pay more attention, looking at specific songs and when they were playing with specific cultural moments so that they could connect with people at the exact right times.
“They had this one great piece of communication to all of the people who played ‘It's the End of The World As We Know It’ during Brexit: ‘We feel your pain.’ It was great,” says Collins.
Branding materials from Chobani. Photo courtesy of COLLINS.
Whether you’re hiring outside consultants or doing a redesign yourself, make sure to get all of your key stakeholders involved in the process. Collins and Maschmeyer say that the best work happens when companies are fluid about where ideas come from and see the project as happening under the work of a unified team.
“It sounds a little kumbaya, but it’s actually true,” says Collins. “Because if you don’t make them feel connected to what it is that you’re doing, and they don’t have a deep sense of ownership of it, when you pass it off to them, they’ll run away with it, change it all and do whatever. They will not protect it.”
Even now, years after the Spotify redesign, he says leaders at the company continue to preserve and protect the work they created back then. “The foundation you build is the thing that protects the work and the brand over time,” he says.
Matt McCue is the former editor of 99U. He lives in New York City, but he is willing to travel long distances for a good meal. Find him on Twitter at @mattmccuewriter.