Confessions of a Branding CEO Who Became a Client
Our Rebranding Story: The Pain Points of a Rebrand
For 20 years, I led hundreds of clients through the rebranding process and saw their sleepless nights, their insecurities, and their long conversations with their business partners and clients. I saw their dread as the decision time crept closer, their fears that they were going crazy, and their worry that they were maiming or killing their baby—their brand that they’d build up for years or even decades. I knew all the steps of the process, coached clients through it, and warned them about what they’d think and feel. I told them that everything they were experiencing was completely normal, many times while they were in tears.
But last year, after two decades on the other side of the table leading friends, clients, and companies through this minefield of fear and uncertainty, I had the opportunity to experience the rebranding process myself. Suddenly, I was the one living with the sleepless nights and the nervous business partners. I was the one wondering if I was crazy and worrying that I wouldn’t finish the process in one piece. I was the one who was afraid that I might make the wrong decision and destroy the company I’ve put so much of my life into.
Of course, I had the advantage of knowing every step of the process in advance—which is actually not much of an advantage when you think about it. A surgeon can know every step of a knee replacement or appendectomy but won’t understand the pain until going through it personally.
I also came out on the other side of the rebrand, astonished and grateful for what our team was able to accomplish through the process. I know that going through a rebranding is an incredibly painful experience. And I know that life is better, and clearer, on the other side.
What Leaders are Secretly Terrified of When They Rebrand
The main reason a rebranding campaign is so painful is because of the fear that you will inevitably experience. Even if you’re brave, and even if you aren’t usually afraid of taking risks. It’s only rational to fear change, and to fear the unknown, no matter how fearless you are. What may feel less normal, and what may go to the core of your personality and how you view yourself, are the other emotions you’ll experience over the course of rebranding. However, all of these feelings are also entirely normal.
During our rebranding, I experienced:
- A Grief. Every change, good or bad, also brings gains and losses. As people, we need to grieve our losses, even if we’re letting go in order to gain something greater. Trust me, you are likely to go through all five stages of the grieving process: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression and, finally, Acceptance. I knew these five stages inside and out and had even coached our team and clients through them over the years, but the feeling was still, at times, overwhelming for me.
- B Stuck in Grief. This is related to grief but different. It’s the feeling that you’re not only grieving but also making no forward progress through your grief. You’re stuck—which is, again, perfectly normal. However, it’s critical to recognize that you’re stuck and to figure out why, or else you’ll keep coming back to the same place. Most people become stuck in grief because they try to skip steps and don’t allow themselves to go through each stage of the process. Or, they don’t have anyone to hold them accountable and help them move through the stages. If you don’t do the work to move through the stages and feel each step, you’ll find yourself revisiting the stages post-branding, which will cause the organization to suffer. For example, I have many times seen clients who could not recognize the bargaining phase and then, later, found it impossible to let go of certain brand elements or parts of their culture. This, in turn, created a schizophrenic work environment and breeded employee and customer frustrations.
- C Fear of They. Rebranding is an inherently weird process. For me, I was rethinking, and re-envisioning a company that I’d built up over 20 years. I couldn’t help worrying about what people would think and how they would respond. What would they say? This anxiety was both about people in general and about specific groups—those closest to me and to the project. How would our top clients react? Would they understand the reasoning behind the decision? What about my team members? Would we ever get used to it? Digging deep into this fear, boiling it down, and understanding who they really are in the first place can help you overcome this anxiety.
- D Nostalgia. This was a surprisingly intense emotion for me, as I walked down memory lane. What’s in a name? Even when you’re rebranding for all the right reasons, because your company has evolved and grown, you’re getting to the true, authentic core of what you do, and you’re responding to the world around you, you’re still going to feel the sense of time passing. It’s important to remember that a well thought out rebranding doesn’t ever eliminate the past. Instead, it finds a place in the new brand voice and story to honor it, incorporating the great parts of the history and the decisions that got you to this point while shedding the things that have held the company back.
- E Loss of Identity. This feeling is especially painful if you invested a lot in your current brand and it served you well for a long time. In this case, the feeling that you’re giving up part of your identity is even more acute. You have a lot tied to your current identity, so even if you’re excited about the change, you’re still likely to grieve this loss and worry about whether or not people will still recognize you after the change.
- F Fear of Expressing Your True Self. While it doesn’t seem to make sense on the surface, the fear of expressing and investing in ourselves is very real and very common. There’s a genuine fear of going all-in and, then, expressing that decision to others. The closer your new brand gets to your authentic self and your core values, the greater this fear of rejection will become. If you don’t try as hard as you can, and don’t put your real self on the line, rejection and failure are far less painful.
So, Why Should We Even Consider Rebranding if it’s So Painful?
While all of these feelings and many more (frustration, sadness, surprise, anticipation, dread, and despair, to name a few) are real and perfectly normal—they are also usually over-magnified. When faced with a big decision, we tend to inflate the What Ifs and amplify what could go wrong or what we could lose. Legitimate fears and issues do need to be addressed as you go through the process, but the fear is always greater than the reality you’re facing. Or, to put it another way, the potential upside is always bigger than the fear.
What I experienced, and what I’ve seen with clients over the last 20 years, is that rebranding gives you an amazing opportunity to dive deep into who you are and what you do. The fact is, when your business is doing well, growing and evolving quickly, it becomes more likely that you will need to rebrand or, at least, refresh your image. Your success has outpaced your ability to communicate your changing story to others.
However, the people who matter most, your team members and your best clients, already know your authentic identity. Think about your Top Ten clients. Don’t they already know who you are and the things that you do best? Isn’t that why they’ve become such reliable clients in the first place? In one sense, a rebranding is just a chance for you to close the gap between your story and the authentic you. It’s also an opportunity to get more clients like those Top Ten.
Of course, knowing all this doesn’t automatically alleviate your fears. Here are a few practical ways you can make this journey less painful:
1) Seek trusted feedback & insight.
Go to those best clients and top team members to get their feedback and ask for encouragement—earlier rather than later—to relieve the social anxiety and fear of rejection you may be experiencing. Talk only to the people who matter. It doesn’t matter what your neighbor, your mailman, or the barista you see every morning thinks about your brand (hint: unless one of these people is a top client, they probably don’t think about your brand at all and won’t feel comfortable giving feedback!) However, it does matter, immensely, how your leadership team and your best clients feel about the new brand identity.
2) Remember that weigh-in equals buy-in.
While the ultimate decision will be on your shoulders, it’s important to give your team members the chance to give you their input. Not only will they be able to point out blind spots or issues that you haven’t considered, but their weigh-in will eventually turn into their buy-in (this fact becomes even more important in Point #3 below). In my experience, the input from my team also resulted in discovering new client opportunities that more than paid for the entire rebranding process. I have seen many times that when companies rebrand, they get:
- Renewed excitement and clarity of vision.
- Referrals from clients and employees who now better understand their product or service.
- Operational advances and ideas for better efficiency.
- Vendors realigning prices with new opportunities.
- Market stimulation through new prospects and past clients who are willing to try again.
- New star employees who are happier with the new brands clearly-articulated vision and become A-players and add new momentum.
Again, don’t involve everybody, as that will quickly become unmanageable and result in even more anxiety and indecision. However, input from a highly invested, highly qualified core team is invaluable.
3) Don’t forget internal messaging.
The right internal messaging is perhaps the most important aspect of the rebranding process. The best rebranding effort will fall flat if you focus all your efforts on external messaging and don’t also pay attention to your internal messaging. Your team members are the ones who have to live with the change every day, so you don’t want the announcement to feel jarring to them. Even though your entire team will not be involved in the process, you should let them know that it’s coming as soon as you’re able. Once you’ve decided on the new name and the new visual identity, be sure to invest enough time explaining your thought process behind the decision, how it will affect them going forward, and what they can expect. Your team is also your brand’s biggest ambassador, and every touch point moves clients and potential clients either closer or further away from being a brand champion. So, it’s essential to have buy-in from your team.
4) Start early. Roll out deliberately.
It’s important to be both deliberate and decisive when you launch. Remember, it’s more than a name. Another reason you want to begin the process early is because it’s not only about answering the question: “Do we like the new name or not?” It’s also about changing your visual identity, rethinking how you communicate with clients, updating your messaging, repositioning your brand, and even restructuring your business processes, product or services offerings, and corporate culture. While this change of outer identity is a better reflection of who you are, internally, you still need to give those closest to the decision enough time to adjust. Consider starting with a simple landing page that announces the change. A week later, ask everyone to change their email signatures and order new business cards. A couple weeks after that, change your signage, and so on. While you do want a date when you’re officially launched, you won’t regret taking your time and communicating the roll out clearly. At launch date, be sure to be decisive and clear in order to avoid confusion. Don’t drag the old brand elements along limping, screaming, and kicking because you just can’t bear to part with them or, worse, because you haven’t been intentional. Cut the cord; make it stick.
Some of the fears of rebranding are very real. You will have to give some things up, and some short-term opportunities may fall by the wayside. By virtue of saying “this is who I am” you’re also drawing a line in the sand and saying “this is who I’m not.” And that’s always a scary move that entails letting go of certain things. You will have to focus, rather than dabbling. You will have to treat the rebranding process seriously and handle it carefully.
However, you’re also moving closer to your purpose. You’re choosing to create and establish a vision for your company, determine what you love to do—and then making sure that your brand matches that vision and evokes that passion. Ultimately, a real rebranding is just a search for the truth and, while it takes a brave person, it’s also liberating.