When most people think of rebranding, they think of refreshing a visual identity. Turns out that is just the tip of the iceberg. In fact, I'd say 75% of the work around rebranding happens before you start designing the visual components of the identity.
Rebranding is something that comes up when internal or external environments have changed at a company, events such as:
- New or increased competitive pressure
- Shifts in strategic direction
- Leadership changes
- Customer feedback
- New or upcoming products/launches
- New funding
So where do you start if you've decided that rebranding is something you are ready to do? I don't have a formula, but I'm happy to share how I've approached rebranding at the startups I've worked for. While some details varied from company to company - such as timeline or depth of research, they all shared some common approaches.
I decided to focus on scenarios where you are not hiring an external branding firm to help with this. While I am a big fan of bringing in expertise as needed, some companies just don't have the budget or the culture to do this. My steps here are from my own experience working in the unique environment of high growth startups.
So, assuming you are doing this without an external partner, here is an approach worth considering:
I start by gathering inputs from 3 areas
Branding can be a slippery thing to get your head around. It used to be a "promise" that a company made to its customers. While that still holds true, it's also the perception that other people have about a company and its products/services, things which aren't in a brand's direct control. So to understand what a brand is or should be, I always start by gathering inputs from 3 areas:
Stakeholders - For the startups I worked with, stakeholders were primarily founders, executives and employees from different departments. Founders and executives because they typically set the strategic vision for the company, and employees because they embody the brand and in some cases like sales or customer service, they hear directly from customers on a regular basis. Talking to employees can also give you good data on elements of a brand that people are attached to, and what has worked or not worked with the existing branding and positioning.
Market landscape - Brands don't exist in a vacuum, so its important to understand the general landscape in which a company operates. Part of this includes researching competitors, but it goes beyond that to look at general industry trends to forward looking indicators such as where innovation is happening, where funding is going and new technologies on the horizon. This is not just about reading reports - though secondary research can be useful - it is also about finding the individuals in the industry who always seem to have their finger on the pulse of what's on the horizon. Bloggers, journalists, associations, conference speakers, etc...
Customers - Customer interviews are all the rage these days but I've seen some smart marketers do a terrible job of talking to customers, leading the witness, or asking some questions directly that the customer is not necessarily equipped to answer. I still think it's important to understand how customers view the options that exist for solving the need that they have. You can collect customer inputs both through direct interviews (with good questions!) as well as mining public social media data.
Next, I synthesize the data I gathered
Marketers often try to draw conclusions as we are collecting data. I've done that before. You know, you hear something in an interview and think you have the answer. Turns out, that's not a great idea. For one, it's best to focus energy on collecting research in phase one, rather than trying to make sense of it all. Also, it can be easy to get led down a path from a single data point, when the story may change as you see the sum total of everything you've gathered.
I haven't found one magic bullet for synthesizing data. I have used card sorting exercises, transcribing interview data and looking for patterns. I have also done mapping exercises, plotting the things that matter to customers - e.g. pricing and product innovation along different axis of a matrix to understand where our brand fits in the customers' eyes and in the environment in which we operate.
One framework I have found extremely helpful since learning about it just a few years ago, is the Jobs to Be Done (JTBD) framework. It's a great way to frame a brand in the eyes of the problem the customer is trying to solve. Every time I've done JTBD research, I've uncovered competitive alternatives that were surprising, usually outside of the direct product category we compete in.
Prototyping positioning, messaging and visual identity
So, you have all this great insights from your efforts above. Now what? When I've had in-house designers on my team, this is where we'd start working together to take what we've learned and turn it into some prototype messaging and branding concepts.
I have typically worked on positioning first, then messaging and visual components.
As far as positioning goes, I create 2 documents. The first is a one-pager that captures the following:
- Company vision (one sentence)
- Category we are in (one sentence)
- List of key market trends (usually 4-6 phrases)
- List of company products/solutions that address those trends
- High level benefits of working with our company (3-5 phrases)
- Summary customer scenarios (3-4 sentences that describe a typical scenario where a customer would want to engage with your company. You might have 3-4 scenarios)
I use the above to centre our team's efforts from our company perspective.
Next, I create a one-pager that illustrates the "jobs" that the customer is looking to "hire" a product or company for. This document puts the customer perspective front and centre. The image below is an example of a rough JTBD chart (I haven't made it pretty, sharing so you can see the main point!). Notice that I am capturing the functional customers requirements, but also the emotional (personal and social), which are often overlooked but can really matter to the customer.
These documents are useful cheat sheets for the whole team. This way whoever is writing copy or working on visual identity is clear on the assumptions and starting points for the outputs we are developing
The work of putting together a messaging guide starts with understanding where this messaging is going to be used. In the past, marketers focused mostly on deliverables like brochures, PR boilerplates and sales scripts, but today much of our communication is also delivered through things like email messages and website copy. Pick the key messaging outputs you will be creating in the short term and include those in your messaging guide. For example:
- Company description (25 and 100 words)
- Website home page hero panel copy
- PR boilerplate
- Conversation snippet (if you met someone at an event, how you'd describe where you work)
Messaging guides can be as brief or elaborate as you need them. I've put together guides as short as 1 page and as long as 25 pages. My advice here is to think realistically about what you need and who will be using it - don't spend time on something just to have it sit in a folder somewhere.
Sometimes I've put this into a beautiful print format, to create more of an impact with the people who will be using it. Other times, it's been in a wiki for easy access and updating.
I am not a designer so I'm not going to tell you how to create a visual identity - all I would add here is that it's important to bring your designers into this process as early as possible (ideally even in the research phase if possible), and to have your designers make decisions based on the key principles you've established through your research.
I would also make sure you think about identity beyond the logo. Work with your designers to establish other visual components to your rebrand efforts, such as photography, illustration styles and icon treatment.
It's amazing how words and images can work together to create an impression, and how subjective that impression can be. The more you can do to clearly define your visual design standards, the easier it will be when it comes time to implementing it.
Testing and refining
Testing and refining is not something that just comes at the end of this process. Ideally, you are testing or at least socializing internally your work along the way. During one rebrand process I had weekly meetings with my "internal clients" - the CEO, the Head of Business Development - because they were a smaller hands on team. At other companies, I've shared work at the end of each phase, in a formal presentation. Choose what makes sense for your company culture.
Testing with external people such as partners or customers is trickier. You have to have a certain kind of culture and relationship with the external stakeholders to be able to share work in progress. If you can make the case for investing the time and effort to test with a small group before releasing it more broadly, I highly recommend it.
To be honest, most startups I've worked with preferred to test the final rebrand results once the work was live in the market. This is not for the faint of heart - everyone from employees to customers to press and analysts can be very opinionated about how you represent and communicate your brand. And rebranding is not something you want to be doing over and over again in a short period of time.
My key takeaway for testing anything is to be clear about what you are trying to test for, and how you are going to measure the results. Many startups, working quickly, go mostly by informal conversations and reactions. The problem is that doing this can again skew the real feedback.
This is where us marketers can learn from our design colleagues. Look at some of the approaches they use for usability testing for example, and apply them to testing in a marketing context.
Branding (and rebranding) is often diminished or misunderstood by startups, but it can influence people's opinions of your companies and products. A rebranding exercise can be as quick or as drawn out as you have time and budget for. I hope this post gives you some ideas to use for your future rebranding initiatives.