Rebranding a business: What C-level execs must get right

Company rebranding is a particularly challenging exercise for CEOs and CMOs. Find out why, and what they can learn in the process.

Image: iStock/IJdema

Your brand is the face of your business. Customers rely on it, and you don't want to tinker with it unless it's absolutely necessary. Nevertheless, there are times when you have to, especially when the footprint of your market changes, or when competition and products force change.

Changing a brand is an uncomfortable exercise for most CEOs and CMOs because they understand the high costs of changing a brand -- and the high risks of not getting it right.

On the operational side alone, everything from signage to product packaging to stationery and business cards needs to be changed. There are also legal costs such as trademark registration that must be considered.

If the change you're making is more than just "brand deep," it might even require cultural and product changes within your company, and the necessary investments and stakeholder support to pull off the transition.

All of this renders brand changing anything but a short-term exercise. Modifying your brand involves considerable contemplation, many meetings with stakeholders, and the engagement of outside consultants and focus groups of customers to determine not only what your brand must convey, but what will be expected from your company in the future and how it might be different from what you are offering today. This information pours into a funnel from which the idea of the new brand emerges. End to to end, it is an unsettling exercise for most corporate officers, because you never really know how your revised brand is going to "play" until you actually move it out to market.

A use case

An excellent use case is the transition that many community banks and credit unions have been through over the past 10 years. These institutions historically made their way by impressing upon their customers that they could offer custom services and personalized banking that their larger competitors wouldn't.

As markets and demographics changed, these community-oriented financial institutions also recognized that they had to think "larger" about the markets that they served. Consequently, many applied for broader charters so they could serve consumers in expanded geographical areas.

The expansion of markets also meant in most cases that brands had to be changed, even if it was only renaming "XYX County Bank" to the "Greater Community Bank" to show customers that the bank was now in more than one county.

While a brand change made sense for new customers, it often left existing customers, who had been endeared to these banks because of their local presence, confused. Cognizant of the need to retain their existing customer bases while they expanded to new markets, these banks had to make other branding moves to demonstrate that, however they were incarnating themselves, they hadn't forgotten their commitment to community -- even if that meant something such as continuing to offer free coffee in the lobby.

It is this balance between new customers and the existing customer base that executives must get right when they rebrand.

What CEOs and CMOs learn in the rebranding process

  • Never take their existing customers for granted, even while they strive to add new ones;
  • Never forget what the company is, even if it is moving to what it wants to be next;
  • Never rush a decision to make a brand change, and obtain as much information as needed for what should be a very deliberate decision; and
  • Never forget that their brand is one of their most important assets.

If you're a C-level executive who has been through a rebranding exercise, what tips would you offer peers who are going through this process? Share your experiences in the discussion.

By Mary Shacklett

Mary E. Shacklett is president of Transworld Data, a technology research and market development firm. Prior to founding the company, Mary was Senior Vice President of Marketing and Technology at TCCU, Inc., a financial services firm; Vice President o...