Will the Rebrand Be Cosmetic or Holistic?

Our feature in BrandingMag discusses the cosmetic nature of rebrands and how not making it holistic is a missed opportunity. Read here or below.

An easy prediction for this year – we’ll see hundreds of organizations undertake a rebrand or “refresh” with the hopes of re-invigorating both internal and external audiences. An even easier prediction – the preponderance of these capital-intensive undertakings will end up being missed opportunities.

These organizations will all introduce a new visual identity, perhaps even a new name. They will all have a new tagline (or re-affirmation of an old one) meant to capture the thinking behind their brand evolution. It will likely result in new swag and email signatures internally, and slick materials to match, externally. But while they will all reset the look of their branding, few will reset the way that people feel about them.

“Organizations are getting better at considering both internal and external audiences, acknowledging that changing culture internally is fundamental to changing the conversation externally.”

Rebranding provides a rare and intentional point in time for a re-evaluation of internal and external relationships – let’s call it a ‘very expensive moment of deliberate reflection’. But while all rebranding allows for cosmetic change, few produce something more substantive, real, and honest. Without taking this occasion for leadership to draw out, articulate, and commit wholly to a more intentional existence (beyond merely turning products into profit) a rebranding investment will ultimately have a far simpler (and limiting) intent, which will be to take something that wasn’t working and change it to something – anything – else that might.

Admittedly, this is another in a long line of conversations about purpose, the “why” or core belief with which all elements of an organization can align. But every organization that has tried to change stripes has likely experienced what a “purpose-less” rebranding effort results in. At best there is a brief period of excitement (all the new shirts and email signatures), preceding a return to the stale culture and arbitrariness of before. And, at worst, a rebrand has employees saying, “it would have been better if they had just given us all a bonus”.

Organizations are getting better at considering both internal and external audiences, acknowledging that changing culture internally is fundamental to changing the conversation externally. But absent a deliberate exercise of leadership – not simply communications – extracting and articulating a clear and emotional intention of the organization (hint: profit is a result, not an intention), an organization is missing the opportunity to see a re-brand for what it really is – not the end of a process, but the beginning of one.

Unveiling a new logo should not be pulling the sheet off of something that likely came about after hours of deliberations of which an organization’s rank and file were not a part. Rather, it should be pulling the sheet back on a symbol of the direction leadership is setting for the company. A future that will only be realized when internal stakeholders commit. The direction absolutely must be motivational.

One way to ensure that is to make rebranding emotional, not practical. “Growth” is not emotional and “innovation” is too practical a notion for humans to fundamentally connect to. These are results of alignment of all facets in the three basic dimensions of an organization – Culture, Customer Experience, and Communication – with a core, emotional belief. A reason for existing and clarification of what the world would lose if that organization didn’t exist. Because, if the world would lose nothing, then we’re talking about a commodity and not a brand. Something that offers the world inside and outside an organization’s four walls something to buy, but nothing to buy into.

How does one capture the motivation that is driving a “simple” rebranding effort, and put it to work as a true, fundamental transformation?


Leadership should start with purpose, not deliverables

There are three basic steps to a holistic transformation of an organization:

  1. Establish a direction in emotional terms;
  2. Transmit that direction to internal and external audiences;
  3. Activate individuals in that direction at every level of the organization.

If one starts with “we need to change our identity”, the opportunity is already slipping away. Begin instead with “what direction are we setting for this organization?” and deliverables like logos, websites, collateral, and email templates become expressions of that deliverable, not an arbitrary design exercise. This allows for the use of artifacts to stir the individual hope for the course that is being set.

Transmit as meaningful, not new

Bigger than the risk that a rebranding will not be liked upon introduction, is the risk that it will feel forced, either because it feels top-down as dogma and/or it is too bereft of intention to care at all. So, even if the imagery lands well, the effort won’t.

A big part of establishing rebranding as a beginning of a transformation, not the conclusion of a design exercise, is to transmit it as such. State unequivocally that “this is a direction leadership feels very strongly about and to which it is committed”. But also recognize that transformation cannot be realized by leadership alone, it requires buy-in from all stakeholders. New branding elements should be associated internally with committed change, not new signage.

Activate fully and over time

Direction should consider input from an organization, but it absolutely must be set by leadership. Transmission should involve stakeholders and catalysts throughout the organization – internally and externally. And activation must involve everyone.

Purpose definition and transmission are finite undertakings; methodical processes with beginning, middle, and end.
But activation is ongoing and democratic.

As with any core belief meant to reframe a relationship, the idea must be heard, understood, and applied over time to have impact. That application needs reminders at first. New employees need to be oriented to purpose before they are oriented to tasks. This naturally grounds the work in the context of why it matters.

Believability is available to every organization. In human terms, we are believable when both the way we portray ourselves, along with how others experience us, is consistent with who we truly are. The same goes for being a “believable” brand. Brands are believable when their internal company actions and decisions are consistent with who they say they are as a company. It creates a company culture that is defined in emotional – not practical – terms and gives a company its very “being”. Advertising communicates that emotional value and external audiences enter a customer/brand relationship – not a customer/product relationship – that is backed up with the customer experience.

A believable company makes a promise that it knows it can keep. And consumers validate that promise over and over again with every touchpoint.