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Sisyphus by Titian

Rebranding is Hard. Part 1.

Retooling a mature brand requires Sisyphus-like dedication.

Our ad agency, Mintz + Hoke is 45 years old this year and recently underwent an 18-month rebranding process. In part two of this series, I’ll talk about the steps we took and decisions we made to bring the brand to life. But before that, I want to explore why rebranding is not a job for the faint of heart.

First, I want to say that branding a new organization is not exactly easy, but it’s a cakewalk compared to rebranding a company with some mileage on it.

With maturity, comes complexity

Don’t get me wrong, mature brands have a lot of things going for them. Many have built equity in the marketplace. They have a narrative and a history to talk about. They often have their own built-in cheerleaders and brand evangelists, both inside the organization, and among their most dedicated customers.

The thing is, often the great things that mature brands possess can also be barriers to success. Entrenched brand equity can be a problem if old brand values stand in the way of where the organization wants to go. Narratives can get old and lose their relevance as new consumers check you out. And both internal and external evangelists can be so wrapped up in what the brand has been, that they have a very hard time seeing what the brand could actually become.

Before coming to Mintz + Hoke, I saw a number of these kinds of rebranding challenges up close and personal. I took part in an effort to help the world’s best known media company shore up its radio division and sell its values into hundreds of affiliates nationwide. I helped a growing single-cup coffee company tighten its messaging as it prepared for the inevitable expiration of its patent and therefore its grip on the market. And I worked within the property division of one of the world’s largest insurance companies to rework its messaging and align it with the parent brand’s position. Among other engagements. (I could drop names here, but I’m too classy for that. Legal counsel agrees.)

The pitfalls of rebranding

Why are these kinds of engagements so hard? There are a few reasons.

Pitfall one: Stakeholders disagree. The leadership of good-sized organizations in mature markets did not get where they are by deferring to others. They have opinions and philosophies. They have pet projects to protect and agendas to push. This is why one of the first things we do in any branding engagement is get an understanding of the management and key stakeholder landscape by conducting one-on-one interviews. Here, it’s important to find some consensus and report findings back to the entire group. The goal is to get everyone pointed in the same general direction. Without consensus, it’s too easy for one strong personality to drive a rebrand project off the road.

Pitfall two: Positions in mature markets need to be carefully carved out. A classic positioning statement is designed to build a fence around what a brand stands for in the minds of their customers, employees and partners. This psychic territory needs to be clear. It needs to be different. It needs to be defendable. And it needs to be relevant. This is a relatively simple process for start-ups in new business areas. But in mature industries, positioning can be like dancing the tango in a minefield. We have been known to spend two weeks or more crafting a working positioning statement and refining it until it fits. It’s a lot of mental heavy lifting to get it right, which may explain the unsightly bulges in our frontal lobes.


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That’s right. Harley wine coolers.

Pitfall three: Customers need to give brands permission to be something new. Do you remember Harley Davidson Wine Coolers? It was a real thing. And it flopped. Why? Because those consumers who knew and felt what the Harley brand stood for had no tolerance for such a giant, disconnected leap in brand extension. They might be able to stretch and give Harley Davidson permission to launch a beer (which they did and it sold well), but the permission obviously did not exist to extend into something as foreign to bikers as wine coolers. That’s why it’s critical to have some well-designed qualitative and quantitative research to understand where your audience’s head is at before you rebrand.

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Identify the load-bearing walls of your brand -- the attributes that would be costly to touch. 

Pitfall four: Change is painful. It’s so true, it has become a cliche. Yet, in rebranding it’s doubly true. When people have bought into a brand for months, years or decades, the resistance to change is almost palpable. In a way, rebranding is like renovating a house. There are some things about a brand that are akin to load-bearing walls, and changing them will require a whole lot of work, materials and engineering to do right. In some cases, it’s best to work around the load-bearing walls of a brand and put a sledgehammer through other things.

Pitfall five: The cost. Set aside the cost one might pay a firm like ours to do this kind of work entirely and just look at the cost of your management team’s time. The cost of evangelizing the new brand within your organization. The cost of changing every sign, every business card, every letterhead and the silk-screening on every product. Think about the cost of educating the customer about the new brand. A lot of companies put this stuff off for far too long just because it will have an impact on the overall operating budget. Justifying the cost is difficult, and it often only happens when an organization can no longer afford to move forward with a brand that has lost its relevance. We feel your pain.

Pitfall six: Some people think rebranding is just about coming up with a new logo. And, in reality, it’s so much more than that. Meetings, interviews, research, testing, reports, findings, double-checking, retesting, writing. In fact, developing the new identity look and feel is perhaps the easiest part of the process.

So now that we’ve talked about the pitfalls, in part two, I’ll talk about how we rebranded Mintz + Hoke. Interestingly, we did so amid three or four rebranding projects we were doing for clients, which made the experience even more intense. Stay tuned.

Grant Sanders is the Creative Director at Mintz + Hoke in Avon, CT. When he’s not working on cool branding engagements and shepherding creative through the agency, he’s usually with his wife and dog at his home on Nantucket Island — one of his favorite brands of all time.

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