A Brief Rebranding Guide for CEOs

(And other organization leaders)

Thinking about rebranding your company? Need to refine your brand because of an looming project like a website redesign? Have a new product launching? Fear not! This short guide provides an overview of the branding process with a step-by-step outline so company leaders can confidently engage in a comprehensive branding effort.

Brand Planning

Rebranding an organization with a long history and many stakeholders is a long and difficult process, yet it is critical to get right. If you succeed, the new brand can vault your organization to another level — and if done poorly, can set you and your company back for years.

If you succeed, the new brand can vault your organization to another level — and if done poorly, can set you and your company back for years.

Before you do anything, you need to be asking several important questions about your critical needs and where your company is going. To do that, you, your executive team and your board should have a very clear understanding and direction of where you going. A rebrand should serve as a force-multiplier for achieving this vision. So you should be able confidently answer the following questions:

  • How will our new brand be in alignment with our long-term strategic plan that help us to live out our values and achieve our mission and vision? If you don’t know what your mission / vision / values are, you have some serious work ahead of you before you should even think about rebranding.
  • What do we need our brand to do in achieving that for us? This question should result in a list of overall objectives that can be quantitatively and qualitatively measurable. (i.e. top-line revenue growth of x% per year because we are attracting a larger audience through a more professional and attractive brand, etc.)
  • Where is our future audience/market going and how do we align our brand to their needs and sensibilities? This should match and align very closely with your mission and vision. Your audience is going to change — so make sure that you understand those changes from a demographic and psychographic point of view.
  • What are the ideal brand attributes the we would want to be described as? This should be answered in the form of one-word descriptors or personality characteristics in the same way that we describe people: funny, serous or interesting. Be honest with yourself about negative descriptors that you currently own such as “needy” and think about how your brand can shift these attributes to be positive.

Once you’ve answered these questions, it is time for you and your team to do some benchmarking and positioning:

  1. Gather up the logos and brand representations of orgs in your competitive set — the ones that are in your class or addressable market that you compete with for dollars, eyeballs and mindshare. This should include printed material, products, digital experiences, etc. so that you can get a holistic idea of how they execute on brand.
  2. Next collect the top branded companies that are outside of your local market but are in the same general level of size and influence as you in their market.
  3. Finally, create a list of the aspirational brands that are in your industry and that you may compete with but are far larger, set the standard for excellence as organizations within your category, and have brands that deliver for them.
  4. As a fourth category, you may gather excellent brands from any industry that you admire, but this should only serve to get everyone on the same page about what excellence means.

Now that you’ve gathered all of these brands, begin comparing them on factors such as simplicity, memorability, style and personality. You should be able to rank these organizations against a frank assessment of who you are currently and where you would like to be based on your answers above. If you want to get fancy, try plotting these out on a 2 x 2 chart so that you can visualize the position of these orgs.

Pay closest attention to your competitive set because one of the essential objectives of this rebrand process should be the differentiation and elevation of your brand over your competitors.

Finally, identify the best examples of brand execution that are applicable to your strategic direction and study what makes those brands successful and extract and apply the most critical aspects to your situation. Note: this is not about copying what these great brands do, but it is about learning and soaking in as much as you possibly can to direct you in what you should and should not be doing.

You should now have a clear understanding of what you want your brand to be able to do for you strategically and functionally, which will guide you throughout the rebrand process in every decision you make.

Note: If you are already overwhelmed by the big questions that you need to answer, I suggest hiring a branding consultant who can assess your needs and help you work through these questions with a process that might include stakeholder interviews, brand audits, and facilitation of brand strategy offsites, turning those results into a cogent plan for moving forward.

The Core Design Elements of the Rebrand

Naming

This will vary from company to company, but renaming your brand and your brand family should at least be on the table to consider. This could include very small changes such as removing non-essential elements such as “Systems” or “Inc.” that help you to emphasize the uniqueness of the other word(s) and simplify the overall name. It could also mean that based on audience perception and brand recognition or other strategic imperatives, you should consider a complete re-naming that better aligns with your mission and vision for the organization. You wouldn’t believe how many companies are out there who, for a variety of reasons, wish they could rename themselves, but don’t have the ability, internal alignment or gumption to make the change. Sad.

So, your name (current or new) should idealy do the following:

  • Work functionally (clearly convey who you are and what you do)
  • Set you apart from your competition (you don’t want to be like them — you want to be head and shoulders above them)
  • Be easier to say and nicer sounding (simple is almost always better, right?)
  • Be easier to read and remember (relates to brand awareness and perception)

Remember, it is never a waste to study new or better names even if you ultimately decide that doing nothing is the best route. There is much more to say about corporate naming practices, not to mention the trademark implications, but this criteria should get you on your way.

Identity Design

We often think of rebranding as a new logo, and that is often the component that gets the most focus on any redesign, but any good rebrand is about a holistic transformation of your brand identity and experience. That means that a logo is the tip of the spear for this effort, but it should not stop until your rebranding efforts reach every corner of your organization rather than relying on a fresh coat of paint to make things look pretty.

That said, let’s start at the logo. A typical logo consists of the following two elements: logomark (the icon) and wordmark (the name). Both of these can be highly customized and should be flexible enough to work in a variety of situations and arrangements as well as work independently of the other. An identity system is the natural extension of a standard logo design; it allows for variety and flexibility within the typical logo lockup as well as the introduction of brand hierarchy and a family of sub-brands. For example, a fashion brand may want to segment their children’ products so they might need an execution of the mark with an additional “kids” tagged on. Having a system that considers these issues and solves current and future needs up front is essential to the long term success of the rebrand. We will address this in a moment, but the tagline should also be included as an element to be designed as part of the system.

The firm you hire (or your internal team) should also be able to show how the logo will work in a variety of settings in signage, print, digital, broadcast and so on. Some of these designs should be required to be delivered as final, output-ready artwork to be instrumental in the brand relaunch and others will be mock-ups that will point your other teams in a certain direction (such as websites and apps). It is up to you to decide how far you want the rebrand team to go on this as this scope will greatly effect timeline and overall cost.

Brand Guidelines

The final piece of the identity design should be a toolkit of design guidelines that outline all the critical components and decisions that make up a corporate redesign. This includes logo usage guide, family variations, and all hierarchy layouts.

Color
The guidelines document should address color — not just just your colors in your logo, but all the color variations and a full, complementary color palette that can be applied to any application.

Typography
The typography section should not only detail the font used in the wordmark, but also the corporate fonts that should be the standard for all type treatments throughout your organization. That usually means font families for the headlines (big, bold and loud) and body copy (legible, clear and flexible) and any other specific font needs you may have. Your brand may even call for a custom typeface if additional uniqueness is required or the reading experience is the primary vehicle of brand experience (i.e. newspapers).

Voice
This is an often unknown but essential aspect to identity design. Voice is a guide for how your organization should write and speak — it should convey this by writing copy that demonstrates essential style characteristics, colloquialisms, descriptors and other unique attributes of how your brand should be read and heard. Brand voice should start with your high level brand messaging such as positioning, mission, and vision statements, manifesto, product communications and elevator pitch.

Image
Brand image should address how you visualize your brand through pictures and illustrations. It should convey a treatment style, a functional execution of how you use photos and drawings to reinforce the brand principles that are delivered in the logo.

Application
Finally, this brand toolkit should deliver a full array of examples of how the logo works in a variety of situations. A short list includes: Business collateral (business cards, letterhead), swag (mugs, pens, tee-shirts, etc) corporate signage, uniforms, livery (trucks and other vehicles) printed marketing materials, ads, website, apps, video animations and broadcast “bugs”, tradeshow exhibits, and of course, products and packaging.

Bonus — Brand Strategy Book
If you are feeling really ambitious and confident about your strategic plan and vision / mission / values, have your team deliver a printed book, poster, or website — a tangible artifact of these core strategic imperatives as they apply to your organization delivered through the visuals of your new brand identity. The results of this document can be powerful and energizing to your internal organization, stakeholders and external audience (if you choose to release it more broadly).

Tagline

Finally, the tagline should holistically embody all the core ideas and new direction for you brand. It is often a much more compact version of your mission statement or some other overarching idea and is sometimes called the “brand promise”. It should be no more than a few words, should integrate well with the logo (but does not always need to be there for the logo to work) and sum up everything you stand for. Think that’s a lofty standard? It’s important — so make it count.

Hire Your Team

So who do you hire to pull this off? This is a incredibly complex subject in itself, but I will endeavor to give you some simple criteria to help you make the choice easier. In the end, no matter who you hire, you are looking for a person or group of people who you work well with, who demonstrate the ability to provide ideas and insights (ability to think strategically) and can then translate those thoughts into the craft of design and brand execution. That’s it.

You have a few different options for who to hire (this is by no means exhaustive):

Internal team inside the design or marketing department
You better have a strong case for your team’s ability to execute at a high-level on this process if you are going to go internal. With this type of work you need to be aware that you are displacing their standard work output for the foreseeable future. Your team must have strong leadership in abundance, previous examples of delivering successful rebrands, and elbow room to maintain independence from the rest of the organization. Overall this approach may save you money, give your organization ownership over monumental change, incredible pride and sense of accomplishment, but watch out for quality lapses, politics, process bloat, other distractions.

Freelancer(s)
An individual or group of independent freelancers can be a savvy and frugal option with the potential of delivering on your needs as long as they have demonstrated a strong ability to deliver — this means that you are looking for skilled and successful craftspeople who understand the strategic value of branding. It is likely this option will require a more hands-on approach to managing the process.

Small Design Firm or Branding Agency
This type of boutique firm will often be able to deliver a very strong style or visual point of view and ability to execute at a cost that is typically less than you would pay a large established firm. These groups are often closer to the ground, run fast and lean and don’t always provide the perks that you might associate with a large firm. You will most likely be working directly with the partner or design director and they will have a number of people working behind the scenes to help them execute on your project.

Large Design Firm or Branding Agency
The large firms will most likely have a body of work and client list that is impressive, a polished and refined pitch and host of resources at their fingertips… and a big price tag. To ensure that the cost is worth it, you must connect directly with the person who will be leading the project. It’s may not be a question of if they can deliver something impressive, robust and thoughtful — but do they have the passion, insight, ability and desire to truly deliver for you?

Things to consider:
When reviewing prospect options, pay attention to how they present themselves, both in person, in dialog and their marketing communication tools: It should all be consistent, match your organization’s style and sensibilities and give you confidence that they can execute on your big ambitions for this rebrand. It also worth noting a critical factor that is often ignored is relationship — It’s a simple truth, but you should enjoy working closely with the people you hire.

Their portfolio of work will tell you (almost) everything else you need to know about them:

  • Have they done this type of work before (if not yes, they better provide strong and compelling evidence for why the believe they can deliver)?
  • Does a good portion of the work that they’ve done fit the personality of your new brand direction and do they have the ability to execute on it?
  • Can you see a clear line of strategic thinking and storytelling in the design itself, in the narration of case studies, or as they talk about the work in person?

Finally, you may consider going with a mix and match approach. You might have a strong team internally, but you want the confidence that comes from external execution. Then pair those teams together (as long as they understand their roles and responsibilities in the work) and watch as new ideas and exciting possibilities take direction.

Be clear about the requirements you have for the type of firm or people you want to hire such as local/regional/national, specialty or generalist, etc. Put together a team to compile, review and assess potential candidates for consideration. Once they have selected a larger group of good options, review them together and narrow the list down to no more than 3–5 options. Once your team connects with them, you should meet with them in person (ideally) or over the phone where you go over the project details and get to know them. They will be sizing you up as much as you-them. If you both feel like you can work together are completely aligned, only then should they provide you with a proposal with formal overview of the firm, related projects, execution deliverables, process and timeline and cost for that work.

In short, never, ever, create a RFP (Request for Proposal).

To RFP or Not to RFP?

I say no. There are rarely good reasons to do a RFP (Request for Proposal), and when it is required, it involves regulatory or political constraints. If you’ve never seen one of these all-to-common-beasts, count yourself lucky. They are a legacy of bureaucracy and bloated decision making, of endless requirements, inane details and pie-in-the-sky hopes and dreams. I know this is not how you want to run your rebranding process, right? Plus, design firms generally view RFPs as (a sometimes necessary) evil, so you will be immediately off on the wrong foot with this approach.

Instead, your team should produce a brief. What is a brief? Well, it’s a short (obviously) document that simply describes what you need done, basic constraints and what you hope to achieve (objectives) through the work. If you have followed the steps in the outline so far, you will have no trouble delivering a simple and clear (one page!) document that explains this information.

To simplify further, most briefs should have:

  • A one sentence overarching description of the project
  • A short overview of your org and your overall strategic plans including your mission/vision/values
  • A basic outline of deliverables
  • A short list of key objectives these deliverables should achieve
  • A short list of key constraints (timeline, budget, etc.)

The brief should NEVER include:

  • Process outline (this assumes you know how it should go better then the experts you are hiring)
  • Request for spec work
  • Disingenuous or ambiguous requirements / unreal budgets
  • Vetting requirements (You’ve already vetted the firms you want to work with)

Pro tip: If you’re ready to pull the trigger on a team that you really like, but are still unsure and nervous about the commitment that comes with such a long and costly process, perhaps you should engage them in a smaller (paid) project to test how well you work together. This can be a very effective option to test a relationship.

Notes to the CEO:

  • This is YOUR project. You own it. Do not delegate it. Make every decision yours and immerse yourself in the process so that you never feel you don’t have a good grasp on what is happening. It’s that important. You may delegate the process and vendor management to a direct report — typically your VP Marketing or related position, but every major step should go through you.
  • Everyone on your executive team should be fully engaged in the process. You should be getting their candid and honest feedback on how the choices affect their responsibilities and needs. In the end you should have general alignment with your exec team and if there is strongly-held dissenting opinions, that they understand and feel good about why you are making a different choice.
  • Your board should be completely bought in to the idea of the rebrand — it will come at a significant cost in focus, time, energy and money, so they should be backing you up on this from the beginning. Every board is different, but most likely you will want to update them throughout process, educating them along the way for the major decisions you make so that they are not blindsided by the big changes that inevitably will come, even if it is a very smooth and logical process. If you’ve done the your job right, they will have already bought into the strategic plan and vision for your organization and this should make perfect sense as part of that plan.
  • Do not open up choices to be voted upon by your employees or even worse, your external audience. There are many ways you can get a representation of their needs, hopes and fears for a process like this, but by putting it to crowdsourcing, voting or some other format just means that you are admitting to not knowing where you are going or what you are doing at the helm of your organization. This is not to say that you can’t get help. If you lack experience in this process or confidence in your ability to make decisions on things outside of your skill set such as design and style, bring in expertise from inside or outside your organization to provide you with objective insight and help guide you through the process.

In Closing

Thanks for working your way through this outline! By now you will have learned the basics of brand planning and strategy, the core elements of a rebranding effort, what kind of team to hire, and the basic building blocks for a successful process.

There will always be bumps ahead, but if you follow this guide, you will save yourself and your company a lot of headaches and set your firm on an exciting and potentially transformational path.

Happy trails!


Daniel Vogelzang is an independent consultant using facilitation, strategy and design to transform brands. Drop a note to see if he can help your company as you consider your branding next steps. Originally published on danielvogelzang.com.

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