Re-branding is a dirty word, try a brand evolution

For many businesses, the idea of a re-brand is costly, time-consuming, daunting and completely necessary. Jonathan Samuel and Scott Dunn from The Brand Management Company write about why a slow and steady ‘brand evolution’ might be the ideal approach to staying relevant and competitive in the current market.

They say that success is 90 percent preparation and 10 percent perspiration. But how could brands have successfully prepared for the seismic shifts we’ve experienced over the past months? How we shop, travel, interact and consume has dramatically changed and brands are trying their best to navigate through these murky waters.

Change is inevitable, but so many changes happening over such a short period of time has many brands questioning their relevance. For some, the changes could be the catalyst to consider a re-brand.

Although change is inevitable, are re-brands?

For many, just the thought of a re-brand conjures up images of pitches, big budgets, management buy-in, research, design, artwork, production, brand keys, pyramids and lots of headaches. A bluechip client of ours put it this way: “Re-brands scare me. They take ages and cost a bomb.”

So are they a good investment? Can a re-brand save a sinking ship, reconnect with lost customers, connect with new ones and keep brands competitive?

Of course they can, and often do, but re-branding is an inherently risky affair. It’s a high stakes exercise, especially when your brand has a rich history.

Revolutionary changes can work brilliantly or spectacularly fail. You may remember the Tropicana juice re-brand debacle back in 2009. A complete identity overhaul and new packaging flopped because their loyal customer base simply couldn’t find it in store! After a couple of months in market with sales dropping 20 percent they reverted to what they had before. Oops!

The risk equation of re-branding is equally stacked on both sides. If we do nothing, we suffer, if we change everything we may also suffer.

Yes, people like to revolutionise, change, reshape and do big, bold new things with their companies, products and services, but is a once a decade, revolutionary re-brand the answer?

Probably not. As consumers (or simply just people) our personal evolution never stops. Our transformation is slow and steady. Small continuous steps that happen in harmony with culture, market dynamics, our life stage and a myriad of other factors.

Could brands not evolve in a similar way? Could we keep our brands competitive and our consumers emotionally invested through small steps rather than huge leaps and long pauses? Re-brands, in the traditional sense, are sometimes redundant before they even hit the market.

Re-branding is old school.

Brand evolution is the new revolution.

What does brand evolution mean? It means that to be successful brands should be in a perpetual stage of managed evolution.

In our mind brand evolution boils down to two things:

1. Preparation

Brand evolution doesn’t just happen on its own – we need to prepare. Preparation involves the creation of appropriate brand foundations. Branding is the fuel to the marketing machine and identity of a business, so it’s vital to get it right.

The foundations should identify the fixed and flexible components of a brand. The potency of your positioning, for instance, is dependent on the competition. It makes sense therefore to keep it flexible. Similarly, your unique selling points are only unique until someone copies them. Think in terms of your enduring essence. That should be fixed and how you express it flexible.

Consider your entire brand eco-system. Each and every brand touchpoint needs consideration. Many small evolutions can amount to significant positive outcomes.

Create a visual and verbal identity that is also composed of fixed and variable elements. Build recognisable, functional and famous assets but ensure you have a flexible platform that can change with the times.

2. Ongoing application

Brand evolution is not a one-off exercise. It needs to be applied continuously and methodically. You need to establish the tools to evaluate your brand’s relevance and distinctiveness in the markets they serve.

You need to ensure that you know how to react to changing market dynamics. How can you revisit your brand foundations and tweak the flexible elements to respond to these changes?

Brand evolution is not a one person job. You need to nurture a culture of evolution within your organisation that is understood, embraced and acted upon. People need to know what they can do and have the authority to do so.

You need a documented process. It needs to be authored, owned and deployed.

Small steps can take you a long way

A brilliant example of brand evolution is VW. Not only have they slowly evolved their master brand over time, but they have applied similar principles to their cars. In March 1974 the first VW Golf rolled off the production line and 46 years later the Golf is still going strong. Since 1974 an average of one Golf is sold globally every 41 seconds!

Even today, the main design elements of the original Golf remain – the side profile with its upright, solid C pillar, the distinctive wheel arches and the horizontal front with the slim grille and downwardly protruding headlights for example. But although today’s Golf retains the essence of the original, it’s improved in nearly every way. Through micro evolutions it remains as relevant as ever. It’s important to note that these are product evolutions coming from a solid brand foundation.

Within the process of evolution it’s imperative to understand what elements of a brand we keep, lose or acquire. What assets work and why? What assets don’t work and why? Assets we may consider ‘old’ may be considered ‘iconic’ by a throng of loyal customers. Lose them at your peril!

The recent rebrand of V energy recognised the power of distinctive assets. Research provided insight into what mattered to consumers and why. It paved the way for an evolved design system that respected both the functional and famous elements of the brand. It gave them permission to push the boundaries on those elements that mattered less.

The result was, on the surface, a contemporary visual design improvement on the original brand. An accepted evolution. Beneath the surface, however, was a functional, flexible design system that has revolutionised the potential for new product development, campaigns and promotions. As an added bonus the system has made it significantly easier and more cost effective for multiple agencies and brand managers to work with.

Who’s the expert?

Another benefit of following an evolutionary approach is that you will develop a high level of competence internally. Staff will be working on the brand consistently. Learning, improving and up-skilling.

When it comes to re-branding how many people really have much experience? It’s not something most of us get to do that often, if ever. If we outsource who can we trust? Expertise is increasingly fragmented; lot’s of people purport to be experts but very few actually are. With such significant consequences, the right talent can make or break you.

Like re-branding, brand evolution is an investment we hope pays dividends. Evolution however, mitigates some of the bigger risks of making revolutionary changes and takes some of the ‘hope’ out of the success equation.

Evolution must be company wide. It needs to embrace portfolios and long-term aspirations, not fix short-term problems. Evolutions are about staying competitive and retaining an edge. Our emotional bond with brands are built over time. We need to nurture them. We need to evolve with our customers.

Smarter brands should forget the re-brand and embrace a more evolutionary approach to transforming themselves.

Keep moving. Don’t jump, just simply keep jogging at the speed of culture.

Jonathan Samuel is a partner at The Brand Management Company.

Scott Dunn is a partner at The Brand Management Company.

Photo by Johannes Plenio on Unsplash.