Managing a corporate rebrand, part 1: risks and red flags
by Charlene Gervais
A well managed rebrand can catapult the organization into new territory. But a poorly managed one can lead to lost opportunities, frustration, and a negative ROI. Clear these hoops and you're off the the races.
A true corporate rebrand is a strategic, companywide initiative. Which means it’s important, intense, and complicated. Maybe that’s why a recent analysis in HBR found a 78% failure rate on organizational transformation.
More than just a logo refresh, a substantial corporate rebrand may be necessary with a new business strategy that requires internal realignment and external expression, mergers or acquisitions that encompass a full audit and refocus of the brand, and game-changing product launches that shake up brand architecture.
Whatever the reason, this level of transformation ofter presents a legacy-defining opportunity for leadership – and a new approach to change management. In this part 1 of 2 on managing a corporate rebrand, we explore common warning signs and pitfalls to avoid.
But first, the existential question of rebranding:
To rebrand or not to rebrand?
If the reason for the corporate rebrand is fundamentally weak, the rebrand may be unnecessary, ineffective or even potentially harmful. For example, these are NOT reasons to rebrand:
The team is bored and wants change for the sake of change.
A new CMO or agency is looking to make their mark on the company.
You’re reacting to a new trend or gutsy competitor (if you’re chasing, you’ll always be behind).
The business is failing to deliver and customers are leaving, and the rebrand is an act of desperation. (You can’t brand your way out of that scenario; only once deeper operational improvements are made can a rebrand truly begin.)
When your reasons are rational and solvable by a rebrand, you could be ready to move forward! But be careful – the path is long, winding, and could be more than you bargained for. Here are some red flags that indicate a corporate rebrand is at risk.
1. The work happens in a silo.
Siloing can occur when the rebrand lives only at the executive or leadership level, and doesn’t tap into employee and customer insights to guide the work. This is a missed opportunity. Per one MIT Sloan Management Review article on competitive advantage, “front-line employees can offer a true treasure trove of insights,” yet many executives “risk making decisions in isolation within the C-suite echo chamber.”
Another example of siloing is when a consultant or agency is tasked with the rebranding work, and fails to build alignment along the way. Outside expertise can ensure the work goes smoothly, especially if your team is inexperienced in this type of transformation. But facilitating team alignment must be part of the process, or you could be looking at less buy-in and more do-overs.
2. The rebrand isn’t resourced properly.
A corporate rebrand takes people, time, and money. Prelaunch and launch activities often require a lot of heavy lifting behind the scenes: conversions, workshops, events, campaigns, client communications, and more. It takes time to think things through, work out the kinks, build alignment. Revisions happen.
Be realistic in your planning and scheduling, and understand what your team can and cannot take on. If proper resources haven’t been allocated, the work can feel rushed or shortchanged, or may communicate to employees that it’s not that important. And if it’s just one more thing on their plate, they’ll never give it the consideration it deserves, and may even come to resent it.
3. The corporate rebrand strays from the company mission.
Not all companies are mission-driven. But for those that are, a rebrand pushed by external market forces may cause “mission drift,” which refers to your company’s actions being out of sync with your purpose and promise. (“Mission drift” has appeared with different definitions in places like HBR and Inc. – fascinating topic, never a good thing in your own organization.)
Straying from your mission can cause long-term damage to your business and brand. It’s important the executive team anchor the rebrand in the company’s core beliefs, even (especially!) if it was set in motion by outside forces like a market opportunity or competitive disruption. If the new strategy is necessary for growth but goes against what you stand for, you have a lot to work out.
4. The work is artificial – or overly aspirational.
Strong brands are unearthed, not manufactured. They reflect customer insights and company solutions, and find the space between your best self today and an attainable vision of tomorrow. But sometimes they go too far.
For example, if your research uncovers what your customers want, it can be tempting to build the brand they're asking for without being authentic to yourself. You want to find the sweet spot in the Venn Diagram, not construct a bridge between two disparate worlds.
Relatedly, a brand can get ahead of itself with an overly aspirational expression. This happens when the business pursues a new vision and significant change, but isn’t there yet (maybe not even close). If the business can’t deliver what the brand has promised, all you’ve done is manufactured customer dissatisfaction.
5. Communications start late or miss the mark.
Communications around the rebrand should start when the effort begins. This is critical to building understanding about the reason for the new strategy (early comms should focus on the “why”) as well as progress and expectations. Absent clear communications, employees get anxious – will I lose my job? Will I have more work? – and look for answers in gossip pools.
When mapping out your corporate rebrand, overlay a communication plan that accounts for who needs to know what and when. Typically these work best with an inside-out approach, where some audiences get action items (content creators, sales reps, public-facing execs) and others just FYI. Consider creating a brand rollout checklist to get started.
6. The work is left incomplete.
Like many major initiatives, a corporate rebrand often starts with a bang and ends with a whimper. Sometimes the end product is rushed or half-baked, which can cause disappointment, confusion, and lost opportunity. Or the work continues but the communications stop, leaving the impression the rebrand stalled or quietly died.
Other times the work culminates with the outward expression (digital reboot, new marketing and sales materials) but stops short of the more existential components. How will the rebrand change how we hire, measure performance, and promote employees? How will it inform future product launches and ongoing brand stewardship? Addressing these questions ahead of time is often what separates great rebrands from meh ones.
TL;DR – Change is hard. If there’s a good reason for doing it, there’s a business case for doing it right. Yet most corporate rebrands fail, typically for common reasons you can identify and avoid.
So if you’re about to undergo a rebrand, keep an eye out for these risks and red flags. And look for part 2 of this series in a few weeks, when we’ll go deeper into the benefits and rewards of nailing it.