March 24, 2020

The art & science of brand transformation

We live in an era of unprecedented business pivots and transformation. The pace of competitive change and digital disruption is such that it’s safe to say that if you’re not transforming your business, you’re being transformed by someone else. With the result being that strategic planning processes with 5+ year time horizons are largely irrelevant. Now it sometimes seems like even top-notch Boards are comfortable with strategic planning as a continuous work-in-progress. What’s interesting is that while the business press is pretty much defined by in-depth business transformation stories, the accompanying brand transformation stories tend to get short thrift. Largely relegated to press surrounding new marketing campaigns and logo refreshes. But rarely is the really deep work that goes on behind the scenes of a successful brand transformation reported on. It’s simply not as easy a story to tell. But pulling a brand transformation off, really doing it right – from stem to stern – is a daunting exercise that isn’t for the faint of heart.

When brand transformation projects are successful, it’s because marketing leadership isn’t shy about positioning the project as being about so much more than marketing. This means the C-Suite is involved throughout. Extensive research is conducted to drive strategy and alignment across all touchpoints…way beyond marketing. The brand team isn’t afraid to tackle updating – and syncing up — Vision, Mission and Values at the same time. HR is consulted for the talent branding side of the equation. And nearly as much time is spent thinking about the internal as the external rollout.

All of this work takes meticulous execution and requires inspiration and input from internal teams in order to properly make the company change for external stakeholders apparent. In more conventional, legacy-brand driven industries like healthcare, banking, or insurance, reinventing a brand frequently means projecting a modern, human-centric value system and encouraging consumers and employees alike to rethink industry conventions.

The evolution of a brand is an episodic process that companies need to periodically revaluate when business shifts demand brand shifts. New product and service possibilities and touchpoints, digital disruption, shifting consumer demands, brand values, employee motivation, and other factors constantly evolve, and a brand’s vision, mission, values and external image should periodically shift to acknowledge changes and capitalize on opportunities.

If we trial to boil things up and simplify a bit, here are some tips from our collective experience to get the most successful (and comprehensive) results:

  1. Start with Data, Research and Strategy

If you’re serious about repositioning the entirety of the company (beyond just marketing), then you absolutely must marshal a disparate group of cross-functional stakeholders around a focused brand positioning. Achieving this in an actionable, singular manner requires practicing what we call “The art of sacrifice.” This requires using research and data to surface options, narrow focus and foster alignment. This is a necessarily iterative process, but it absolutely must be informed by data and conversation if you’re to get buy-in by a broad group of leaders. Ideally, while the data collection and synthesis takes weeks, even months, the actual evaluation of options and decision on best path forward takes place in one carefully orchestrated day, with all key stakeholders present. You can’t upsell your way to a focused brand strategy, as this is a sure path to diluting your focus and losing clarity. Rather smart people must discuss the options together, so everyone feels comfortable when they commit to a direction in that they were all part of reviewing the other options and answering the collective question of “What else was considered?”

  1. Collaborate with Leaders Beyond Marketing

A top-to-bottom rebrand is not just another marketing scheme. It’s a comprehensive alteration meant to significantly lean away from the old image and pave the way for the new. In order to properly deliver on a total brand transformation, marketing, HR, creative, product development, and other leaders within the company must not just be on board with the new changes but feel like they were actually part of the process to arrive at the ultimate solution.

The best way to think about this is if brand transformation becomes primarily a naming or marketing exercise, then it’s doomed. A simple ad campaign or new name and logo will not separate your company from the industry’s competitors. Your strategic brand vision will, however. Instead of focusing solely on marketing tactics, focus on the core brand experience – your underlying narrative — for consumers. Invite collaboration from partners as you develop your positioning, and image and make it authentic. A strong, innovative and deeply rooted brand ethos will create a longer-lasting emotional connection with consumers.

  1. Expect the Unexpected

As Mike Tyson famously said, “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.” With high stakes and endless moving parts, there’s a good chance something wildly unexpected will rear its ugly head in the last mile dash towards activating the transformed brand. Whether you discover that your carefully researched name has trademark issues you weren’t aware of, or a critical Board member gets cold feet on a strategic decision, there are likely to be some last minute, third-rail events that will result in more all-nighters than you’ll care to admit.

  1. Internal Alignment and Roll-Out is as Important as the Big Launch Day

Your employees are the face of the company and their willingness to evolve with your brand is vital to the process of a transformation. Building the right talent brand will attract the employees capable of pushing a brand reinvention to ultimate success, and it starts with defining a vision, mission and values that serve as the core foundation

Neighborhood Health Partners, for example, sought to fully transform their brand from positioning, to naming to visual brand identity to the entirety of the brand experience across all touchpoints. This was driven by a fundamental shift in their business strategy. Along with the name change to AllWays Health Partners, the tagline of “You in Every Way” was developed to support a higher, more differentiated promise. Beyond projecting AllWays Health Partners’ unconventional (for the industry) commitment to creating consumer-centric policies, it served as a rallying cry for internal teams and motivated them to stand behind their company’s mission. The company’s vision, mission and values were also retooled to support this promise, focusing on recognizing and celebrating the “Invisible superheroes” who make up the AllWays workforce and are so critical to delivering on a higher-order brand promise.

  1. Quality of Creative Execution Matters…A Lot

In all the process, procedure and consensus building required to transform the entirety of a brand experience, it’s easy to forget the importance of the creative quality and distinctiveness of each and every one of the executional puzzle pieces. Gaining consensus is a lot easier when you cut a lot of deals and make a lot of compromises. But it’s really important to keep “fighting the good fight” and champion great creative execution throughout. Because ultimately your transformed brand’s authenticity and appeal – especially in this social media age – will hinge on those most ephemeral qualities and symbols of re-evaluation that can only come from meticulous craftsmanship. It’s only through this fastidious attention to detail that your brand becomes more than just a marketing exercise, and the heart and soul of a brand really starts to align around where consumers are headed.

Brand reinvention is no walk in the park. But it’s truly one of the most exhilarating and satisfying experiences that a top notch marketer and their leadership and teams can undertake.