If 20-plus years of brand consulting have taught me anything, it’s that rebranding is (and should be) a huge pain in the arse. Taken seriously, a rebrand touches every part of an organisation:

  • It involves cultural change–think human resources / people teams, learning and development;
  • It affects product strategy and innovation across product teams, sales, supply chain, operations, research and development;
  • It should work seamlessly with the broader company strategy including the C-suite, board of directors, planning, investor relations, channel management, corporate social responsibility / environmental, social, and governance.

Even a cosmetic redesign (rebranding’s superficial cousin) requires the cooperation of marketing, production, legal, customer experience and IT teams. In other words, the investment required (and we’re not just talking about money here) is staggering. Meanwhile, the fee involved in hiring a brand consultancy to evolve your organisation’s brand strategy, positioning, and identity system remains modest. Depending on the size and complexity of your business, you can expect to pay somewhere in the region of £100,000 to £250,000–around $120k-$300k at today’s rate and a fraction of a percent in most large organisations’ profit and loss statements.

There’s no shame in admitting that your organisation isn’t ready for a rebrand.

The challenge? Rebranding projects are cheap to initiate, but expensive to execute.

The result? Brand consultancies are often commissioned for rebrands by marketing teams whose organisations aren’t fully aware of–or committed to–the project’s broader implications. These types of collaborations are set up to underdeliver from the outset. And I would know, I’ve worked on plenty of them.

Semi-disposable “rebranding” is on the rise

At best, these rebrands deliver a sexy new look, sharper messaging and a more coherent design language. But that’s as far as they go. The cultural benefits aren’t reaped because the people team is focused on its own set of initiatives. The product range remains bloated. The innovation model goes unchallenged and unimproved. The customer experience is only superficially reskinned. And, worst of all, the new brand makes bold promises that the wider organisation isn’t prepared to satisfy.

This is bad news if you’re a client, but great news if you’re a brand consultant because the benefits of this type of “rebrand” are usually short-lived. Three (or so) years later, it becomes clear that the new brand doesn’t fit the organisation–generally prompting another “rebrand”. If this comes off as excessively cynical, just consider how frequently organisations commission rebranding projects. In the 20th century, for example, Burberrys (as it used to be called) undertook only one major overhaul of its brand. We’re only 23 years into this century and they’re already on their second. Tellingly, these recent “rebrands” have coincided with the arrival of new creative leads rather than any fundamental change in organisational direction.

It’s now common for organisations to reposition and redesign their brands every few years or so, while rebranding briefs are also cropping up with increasing frequency. In the past year, around 80% of the rebranding briefs I’ve received have come from organisations that already rebranded within the past 5 years. Most of these rebrands don’t need to happen. There’s plenty of value yet to be squeezed from the existing brand and all it would take is some careful tweaking to the existing strategy and design system.

How can you tell if your organisation is REALLY ready for a rebrand?

Surprisingly enough, this question is fairly straightforward to answer. Two things need to be true: Firstly, there must be strong agreement across the organisation and its leaders that the brand is acting as a brake on growth rather than a springboard for success. This is the first thing I look for when discussing a rebranding brief with a prospective client: Does the leadership team feel that the brand they have is more reflective of their past than representative of their vision for the future? Is the people team frustrated that their desired employee experience isn’t reflected in the brand? Do the product and innovation teams feel frustrated by the disconnect between the brand and the offer? Is there an organisation-wide appetite for change? If so, we’re halfway there…

Second question I try to answer: Is the organisation willing and serious about changing? An appetite for change counts for little if the means to change aren’t made available. The best rebranding briefs mention the workstreams that will follow a rebrand project, but this happens rarely. So, the second thing I try to clarify is which parts of the business will be involved in rolling out the rebrand, and how the rebrand project fits with their other priorities. Very often, there are synergies to be gained from aligning the rebrand with other projects in the organisational plan. Is the people team about to redesign the appraisal process? Great! Let’s use the brand positioning to develop an Employee Value Proposition and agree on a set of desired leadership behaviours. Is the customer experience team planning a user survey? Terrific! Let’s include a “brand” section in the questionnaire and use this to inform the rebrand. The more crossovers we can identify between the brand project and other workstreams, the greater the impact it will deliver.

It’s a bad sign if no such synergies exist. It’s a bad sign if the rebrand project is “owned” exclusively by the marketing team. It’s a bad sign if no resources have been committed to reshaping the product offer or redesigning the customer and employee experience. It’s a bad sign if post-rebrand workstreams haven’t been included in the organisation’s strategic plan. And it’s a very bad sign if the CEO, CFO and COO aren’t intensely interested and intimately involved in the rebrand project itself. It’s better to delay a rebrand project until the business has identified and committed to subsequent workstreams than to commission a rebrand project hoping that the wider organisation is sufficiently inspired by the process to act upon it themselves. And if the wider organisation is unable to commit in this way, then it’s better not to commission a rebrand project at all.

If you’re not ready for a rebrand, what’s the alternative?

There’s no shame in admitting that your organisation isn’t ready for a rebrand. In fact, this might be a sign that your organisation doesn’t need one. If you’ve been through a rebranding or repositioning project in the past five-or-so years, chances are you haven’t yet exhausted the benefits that your existing brand has to offer. The most compelling brands I’ve worked with (think Durex, Farfetch, Nissan, Twinings, Virgin, and Wimbledon) tend not to reposition or rebrand much at all. Instead, they work to squeeze as much value as they can from their existing assets.

Doubling down on the brand you have is not the same as settling.

Part of the problem is that while repositioning, redesigning and rebranding are common industry terms, there’s no equivalent term for doubling-down on your brand. Perhaps the concept would best be described as “upbranding”? Rather than changing your brand, you choose to focus instead on embedding and elevating its role within the organisation. Allow me to give you an example…

Around 15 years ago, I worked on a project to rejuvenate Barclaycard. The idea behind the brand was pretty solid: to stand for “simple payments”. The brand, however, was much more associated with credit than payments and far from simple (its card portfolio was enormous and confused). Repositioning and rebranding would have been a fairly quick way to signal change, but the business sensibly decided to commit to the existing strategy instead. Simplicity was the right ideal to work towards but hadn’t (yet) been delivered.

So, we developed insight into the different types of “simplicity” people want when it comes to paying for things and how this depends on the types of payments they make. We developed a quantitative segmentation of people and their payments. We created a portfolio strategy to simplify the product range and encourage people to use the brand for payments (not just credit). And we aligned this with an innovation strategy to help the brand anticipate and respond to the benefits of NFC-enabled smartphones. There was no grand brand relaunch or shiny new design system; instead, the existing brand just got simpler and made more sense.

Resist the rebranding temptation

It’s extremely tempting to issue a rebranding brief, particularly when a brand doesn’t seem to be delivering enough value to the business that owns it. Resist this temptation! Consider first whether you’ve reached the limits of your existing brand. Organisations that reposition and rebrand every 3-5 years don’t come across as nimble or dynamic–they appear rudderless. Colleagues and agencies grow cynical with each change of strategic direction.

Repositioning and rebranding should be seen as the nuclear option: a last resort to be effected only if the entire organisation recognises its utter necessity. The alternative is not to “stick” with your existing brand (this is not settling), but to double down–to improve your current direction rather than changing course.

When in doubt, commission a brand audit before issuing a full project brief. Ask an experienced professional to review your existing knowledge base, brand strategy and identity system and to provide an independent, informed perspective on what’s working and what could be improved. In the event that a full-scale rebrand is required, the audit should make a compelling case for change and prepare the organisation for what’s involved. And if a more modest tweak is called for, you’ll have saved yourself from a huge pain in the arse.

Cover image: Fran_kie