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A Guide to the Inevitable and Painful Process of Rebranding Your Company

Morgan Norman
Mar 4, 2019 · 7 min read

Rebranding a company is expensive, painful, time-consuming, and — I cannot stress this enough — incredibly risky. Sometimes it’s necessary, sometimes it’s aspirational. And sometimes it’s just plain reckless.

A rebrand can and should be a complete overhaul of the customer experience. It’s beyond colors and logos, but it’s also sales decks and tools, voice and tone, email touches, help documentation, messaging, email templates, investor updates, and… on and on…. And that’s just the external experience — product and end-to-end experience have to reflect the rebrand, too.

“Rebranding is not arts and crafts, colors and logos. It affects every single brand touchpoint.”

Think for a moment about every way that people interact with your company and employees. All of this will need to change.

That is why rebranding is so painful, and also why it’s so dangerous. Leaving behind your old brand is risky. The grass is not always greener.

The Inevitability of Rebranding

Now that I’ve instilled a healthy dose of fear, let’s consider the very real and often necessary motivation to rebrand. It boils down to two challenges:

  1. Your current brand doesn’t reflect who you really are. Your company has outgrown your brand because your product has evolved, your go-to-market strategy has changed, or your existing brand has proved ineffective. This is inevitable — every company will need to at least tweak and evolve its brand multiple times a year to stay relevant.
  2. Your current brand is not clear. Who is this company? What do they do? If your sales team has to clarify basic information about your company, your brand is not clear. This tends to happen in product-first companies — the ones led by engineers with a narrow focus on creating a winning product, who tend to neglect “soft” business functions like brand. Companies like Salesforce prove that branding is powerful. No one loves using the product, but the company is massively successful.

These are very good reasons to rebrand. The feeling of an outdated or unclear brand is visceral. You’ll know when it’s time.

Still, after overseeing rebrands at Microsoft Dynamics, Zuora, NetSuite, Dialpad, and now Copper, I can confirm that even the most compelling incentives don’t make the process any easier. Rebrands are inherently divisive. People are going to tell you they hate this or want to change that. People who never cared about your old logo will have a lot to say about the new one. To pull off a rebrand, you need conviction — and the occasional stiff drink.

A “Rebrand” Could Be Too Much or Not Enough

You can improve your brand without throwing the existing one out the door. In other words, a full rebrand may not be necessary to achieve your goal. In many cases, making small, iterative improvements that I call “recuts” are the best solution.

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You can always start small and ramp up, but it’s very difficult to undo the damage from changing too much too quickly.

Here are three ways to think about updating your brand.

1. Recut: Iterate First

Overhauling a wholesale brand can feel like trying to boil the ocean. Even with a ton of resources and total buy-in from the rest of the company, there’s a never-ending list of things to be done.

That is why I always recommend recutting before — or maybe instead of — rebranding. A recut is a small but thoughtful improvement to a single experience. An improved voice and tone guide, an updated sales deck or keynote, a demand gen program, integrated or social campaign, or even a new email nurture series, etc.

Jim Collins, author of the must-read book Good to Great, calls this “firing bullets”:

First, you fire bullets … to figure out what will work — calibrating your line of sight by taking small shots. Then, once you have empirical validation, you fire a cannonball … on the calibrated line of sight. Calibrated cannonballs correlate with outsized results; uncalibrated cannonballs correlate with disaster.

You might fire bullets as a means of testing. What you learn from calibrating will inform the cannon that you eventually fire. But it’s possible that a cannon simply isn’t necessary.

The progress you make by recutting can transform your entire brand one small piece at a time. You’ll end up rebranding slowly, which is a much safer and less costly option than undergoing the entire process all at once.

To take this a step further, many people conflate the need for a rebrand with the need to fix a single problem. When people say, “We need a rebrand,” they often mean, “We have this one glaring issue, and we don’t know what else to do.” Whenever the word rebrand comes up, explore the problem before spending months or a lot of money blowing up your entire brand.

At the very least, use recuts to address obvious problems in your sales, marketing, product, and support. Sales decks and customer stories, for example, should frequently be reviewed for clarity, simplicity, and accuracy. The same goes for your website, which should clearly explain your product and your mission. Perhaps the easiest way to make an impact on your brand via a recut is a new voice and tone guide. Better messaging across the board lifts your entire brand.

2. Rebrand: Overhaul the Entire Brand

A rebrand is an overhaul of every brand touchpoint — end to end.

Rebrands are painful because of their wide reach. There are ways to make the process less painful, but there’s no “easy button.” The best thing you can do is break the process into phases, try to foresee as many hurdles as possible, and be prepared for a number of surprises. Here are a few things to think about:

  • Take stock of your internal resources. You will need copywriting, design, and development as well as help from marketing, sales, support, and product teams. Assess your internal resources to decide what to outsource. Also understand how many folks have been through recuts or rebrands before, and their strengths and weakness as everyone wants to touch a rebrand
  • Agencies are only as good as you are. Outsourcing creative and strategic work to an agency can be a godsend if you give them a clear mission and manage them as an extension to your team. I’ve had the luxury of working with some baller agencies: Butchershop, Code and Theory, Ueno. Obviously, the right agency can give you an amazing makeover, but they are partners, not magicians. If you choose to hire one, plan to invest time getting them acquainted with your existing brand, industry, gaps, and vision for the future. Provide access to the stakeholders and customers so the agency can conduct research.
  • Don’t take criticism personally. One reason that rebrands are so challenging is internal resistance. The second reason is everyone believes they are a marketer, just as everyone is an art critic — and they all believe their POV is what is most important. It’s not that your team is opposed to criticism, or change (but there will be some moderation required and politicking); it’s simply that not everyone will agree with each other. Branding is part art, in that it’s subjective, and part function, which is easier to speak to at times. If people react negatively to colors, photos, layouts, copy, they aren’t wrong. Hear them out, don’t take it personally, and be prepared to iterate.
  • The media might crush you. Slack recently updated its logo after identifying some very good reasons to change. The new logo is sleek and simple — and has been summarily crushed by the tech press. After a quick surge of negative press, attention faded and everyone moved on. Your company may not be as ubiquitous as Slack, but you’ll almost certainly get at least a dose of negative feedback. Most creatives know there will be haters — things like brand colors, look and feel, website layout and structure, and marketing campaigns are subjective. It’s important to stay focused and keep evolving.

Make rebranding less painful for everyone by stating upfront how the company, customers, and employees will benefit from this process. It’s helpful for others to understand that a rebrand is a means to an end, not an end in itself.

3. Rename: Start From Scratch

Renaming a company entails all of the work of rebranding, plus some additional and precarious tasks. Renames can add levels of complexity most teams are just not ready for. I do not recommend renaming your company unless you have some profound issues with your existing name. You will need to consider doing the following:

  • Justify the rebrand internally, and then announce the timeline externally.
  • Understand the impact positively and negatively on the rename. This will include everything from cost, legal knockout searches, trademarks, SEO, backlinks, existing brand awareness, application domains, endless webpages, partner and customer training and education, and more.
  • Find every mention of the old company name in every document, email, contract, presentation, help doc, etc., and then update it. And it’s a guarantee you’ll miss stuff here.
  • Migrate your domain, a process that requires time and money but also comes with its own set of risks. (Here’s a domain-migration checklist to get you started.)
  • Be ready for pushback. ConvertKit caused such a stir with their recent name change that they undid it.

Renaming a company is an extreme measure. Trust me, we just did this at Copper. It took months of work. More than a couple dozen people from our team worked on it, and we hired an agency to help execute. There’s no way to document the entire process in this article, but know that it was grueling work. It might not be perfect — a rebrand never is — but it aligns with our mission and now it’s full-speed ahead.

Is the Juice Worth the Squeeze?

Rebranding is a nightmare, that we all have to turn into an amazing experience. I cannot state that more clearly. Due diligence is key to deciding on the scope of your rebrand. Conviction is the only way to weather the tedious work. And not taking the negative feedback personally is the only way to emerge on the other side still sane.

Once you launch your new brand, don’t let go of your momentum. Every brand is in a constant state of evolution and the iteration should never stop.

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