Rebranding is one of the most high-stakes initiatives a company can undertake. But businesses often launch rebrands according to what they think is cool or catchy rather than what their customers want. They stake their brands on their own pet ideas -- a risky bet when your entire company rides on the outcome.
PepsiCo learned this the hard way with its ongoing rebrandings of Sierra Mist. In 2010, the company released a new can design and recipe that used cane sugar and stevia to sweeten the drink instead of high fructose corn syrup. During the next several years, PepsiCo released more redesigns and launched a product called Mist Twst, which eventually replaced the original soda.
Fans were irate earlier this year when they realized that not only had Mist Twst replaced Sierra Mist, but that it was made with the drink's original sweetner, high fructose corn syrup, instead of the more health-conscious stevia blend. Had Pepsi dug into customers’ attitudes toward the new drink, the company might have held off on promoting Mist Twst at the expense of the tried-and-true Sierra Mist.
When there’s a disconnect, then, between how the market perceives a company and how the company perceives itself, the revised image rarely lands as intended. The rebrand should reflect the business’s aspirations and either align with customers' expectations or redefine them.
The customers’ perception is brand reality
Before devising our own rebrand at our railroad components company, Miller Ingenuity, my team discovered that our market perceived us as “the Felpax guys.” That was our old trade name, a holdover from when we made felt lubricators for the railroad industry.
But the business had grown to offer much more than that. We were missing out on countless opportunities because customers wouldn’t come to us for anything outside of what they believed was our core competency. We had built the company we wanted. Now, we had to reintroduce ourselves to the market.
Many companies take the opposite approach and decide to launch aspirational rebrands, which is never a good idea. They present idealized versions of themselves and believe that if they tell customers of their new identities, they’ll live up to their own high standards. But brand identity is more than a catchy slogan or banner on the wall; it’s a promise to the market and shouldn’t be made lightly.
Values form the fabric of a brand. A business that guarantees “warp-speed” delivery must hire employees who prioritize speed over anything else. A company such as Geico, which promises that “15 minutes or less can save you 15 percent or more,” should have a sales team that lives up to the hype. Rebrands are about emphasizing a company’s current selling points -- not the values it hopes to embody someday.
If launched and maintained correctly, a brand becomes as valuable an asset as patents, trademarks and other intellectual property. Rebrands deserve as much consideration and effort as major capital equipment purchases or product development expenditures. After all, nearly half of a brand’s image is tied to what its company claims and how it makes those claims.
An ill-conceived rebrand can embarrass a company and cause it to lose credibility instantly. Kraft suffered such an egg-on-the-face moment when it discovered that the name of its new international snack company sounded similar to a lewd Russian word. When George Mason University's law school tried to rename itself Antonin Scalia School of Law, in honor of the late Supreme Court justice, it realized too late that its new acronym was ASSoL.
Brands can use the following guidelines to avoid similar missteps and ensure that their rebrands resonate:
1. Conduct in-depth customer interviews.
Gather feedback from a broad cross-section of your customer base. Those surveyed should respond to questions about how they perceive the brand, which values they associate with the company and which values they hold dear in their personal lives. Then, ask what they would change or improve about the current brand experience.
Analyze the results, and incorporate the aspirational elements of the company. That’s the foundation for building a brand.
2. Don’t change what is well-loved.
Assemble small focus groups of customers and employees, and gauge their responses to the colors, tone and overall message of the rebrand. Are people excited by the new look? Inspired by the revised slogan? Or, do these elements confuse people and turn them off?
In 2011, Overstock.com changed its brand to O.co. Customers knew Overstock, but they were thrown by the name change. The company threw away years of brand equity in a poorly conceived effort to sound “hip.”
3. Establish strict rules for brand usage.
Once the brand is established, all associated materials must be controlled. From PR messaging to the font in which ads and brochures are printed, each element should be crafted according to the brand guidelines. Every customer encounter should be cohesive and reflect the broader strategy.
That’s how Walt Disney World maintains an aura of magic throughout its park. The actors who dress as beloved Disney figures emerge from the under-park in character and stay that way until they’re behind the scenes again. They don’t make personal small talk while signing autograph books or sit around drinking a soda in public during their breaks. They remain “on brand” at all times.
Rebrands require a deep dive into customer perception and expectations. Without an extensive brand discovery process, companies end up launching bizarre, out-of-touch rebrands. Failed initiatives damage companies’ reputations and make it difficult to regain traction in the market. Companies that want to change their public perception for the better need to know what their audiences want (to change and to keep) and where they want to take their brands.