airt insights

November 13, 2017

Rebranding revisited

As is true for most advertising and design agencies, prospective clients often approach us seeking help with what some of them call rebranding. Usually such requests stem from a desire for design renovations to existing marketing materials. Phrases like, "We need to update our logo," and "Can you freshen up our layouts?" or "What we need is a design makeover," tend to come up. Usually clients frame the project as a small one, the scope of work defined solely in graphic design terms, like you might describe painting the façade of a house.

We've certainly been known to tweak logos, redesign brochures, refresh website designs, and revise print and display advertising templates. But even a logo doesn't exist in a vacuum. Considering a new one can, and perhaps should, raise some strategic questions. Choice of fonts, type styling, colors, a logomark or "bug," and the spatial relations of all of the above cannot help but suggest overarching design motifs. As such, even though revising a logo may seem like a simple and subjective matter, it always raises for the design conscious the question of brand image.

Simple questions. Hard answers.

Ideally, an organization's logo projects the essence of: 1) how it wants to be perceived, and hopefully, 2) what it actually is (or at least is striving to become). These aspects of organizational vision can be expressed in the answers to four simple questions in as few words as possible-hopefully, specific and non-clichéd ones:

  1. How does the organization wish to be seen?
  2. How is it actually seen right now?
  3. What does the organization wish to become?
  4. What is its current reality?

Looking at an organization from these vantages clearly involves more than graphic styling. The Brand (with a capital B) is more than the paint on the house; everything under the rooftop is the brand, too. And no painterly flair can compensate for poor construction for very long.

This big-picture Brand can in fact be the basis for organizational strategy. In companies with lasting success, it almost always is. The Brand is something the entire company must build, not just marketing. What's more, it's never complete and is always a work in progress. That means the fundamental strategic question at any given time is, "Where is our brand headed now?" Wherever it was, it's probably not there anymore.

Building brands from the inside out

To approach rebranding in this encompassing way takes courage and faith. For starters, the marketing team must see the value in slowing down and putting strategy before tactics. This is not uncommon, though pressures from sales and the marketplace can still compel impulse marketing. The harder part is convincing senior management to look deeper and get better reality, i.e., to seek evidence about actual product, service, and marketing performance, rather than corroborating opinions and anecdotes from "friendlies."

Design without depth of inquiry produces templates and little more. They might look nice, but that's as far as it goes. The "refreshed" logo complete, subsequent efforts involve interpreting its implied style for the sake of tradeshow, convention and event graphics; maybe a website upgrade; perhaps new company ID and signage; various promo items like T-Shirts and hats; or perhaps new sales literature and digital and print presentation materials. Eventually there's enough material in the works that all the templates are codified in a style manual, so that suppliers and other creative resources can mimic them without rhyme or reason.

This is the road more travelled. It's reminiscent of the well-intended friend we've all known who gets a complete makeover, but forgets to exercise, eat right, or change how he or she otherwise thinks and acts. Such skin-deep change wears off soon, without having altered our friend's quality of life.

Does rebranding work?

Along the rebranding yellow brick road, it takes a brave soul to ask, "I wonder if our new brand is working?" Enter elephant into room. It takes a brave and honest soul to go a step further: "How would we know?" In comes a whole herd.

Some brand management consultants claim any brand can be valuated, in dollars and cents, and its value entered on a balance sheet as an asset. Unfortunately, even these "scientific" algorithms rely on subjective variables. In actual practice, few companies allot the time, resources and money to objectively evaluate brand performance.

But measuring it matters, even if the instrument isn't 100% precise. There are numerous ways to baseline brand performance quantitatively and periodically assess change (some noted in this previous article). What better way to inform marketing strategy? Most companies focus on short-term sales as the primary measure of marketing success. As such, the system of brand measurement needs to take pipeline performance into account to be regarded as relevant and useful by management.

Advertising, design and branding agencies need to make money. To do so, we take projects as they come and meet clients where they're at. Some of these will be rebranding projects lacking performance accountability. Truth told, it's the norm. Clients who want tactics get tactics. Even so, moving things around in digital design files should not be mistaken for moving things that actually matter: human hearts and minds.

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