Don’t throw your brand baby out with the bathwater!

Why you need a brand review before you even start thinking about rebranding (and how to do one)

Brand review contents page

I often find myself being invited to assess a brand identity; the meeting we have might go something like this: The client knows they have a problem and sometimes they’re able to articulate, at least in part, why that is. But, having already gone through an extensive branding process, maybe as recently as within the previous three years, they’re cautious about what should happen next.

There’s understandable anxiety around throwing good money after supposedly bad. After all, something hasn’t worked out with the not-so-long-ago completed branding. There’s also an awareness that they might not want to scrap everything and start again – throwing away what’s valuable (their brand baby) out with the bath water.

Under scrutiny

And it’s not as if I haven’t been at the sharp end of this myself…

As well as being the brand consultant brought in to assess a supposedly faltering brand identity, I’ve also found myself on the receiving end. I was recently told that a rebrand we’d completed no more than six months earlier, following months of research and discovery, and an extensive design process, was being scrutinised by an agency owner invited in by the company group.

Confident that this was a definite case where the client would have done better to steady their nerves and give the rebrand more time and support, I thought the experience presented an opportunity to write about the subject of how you can achieve a level of certainty about determining what the problem actually is, and the solution that’s called for.

The question is, do you actually need that full-scale rebrand or something altogether more nuanced?

Give it time

First of all, it’s important to remember that the sort of changes a successful rebrand can yield don’t happen overnight. Chopping and changing things only causes confusion and damages your brand equity. Branding is never a case of ‘done and forgotten’ because you shouldn’t leave your brand to fend for itself out in the wild.

A brand not only takes time to bed in, it also requires you to actively check in on it. Checking-in might include a number of elements such as examining whether the intentions set at the outset are being realised and assessing how the rebrand is landing with audiences. It’s an important exercise because all sorts of outside influences, from the wider economic and cultural, to the sector-specific, will be having an impact on the fortunes of your brand.

But of course, when doubts remain and the checking-in exercise yields more questions than answers, it’s probably time for a brand review. ­

What is a brand review?

A brand review is a comprehensive, 360° audit of the state of your brand. It asks a whole range of questions, from those that are external-facing (Has the world shifted? Do you need to evolve with the changing cultural landscape?), to those that concentrate on looking at what’s going on inside your organisation (Have you developed a new service? Has your business strategy or positioning, i.e. where you stand in the market, changed?).

A brand review will help you find out if there really is a problem and will articulate any issues precisely. This means that you’ll discover if a full rebrand is on the cards or whether something more nuanced is called for – a minor adaptation perhaps, or maybe just more time for your brand to become known in its new guise. And, if there is a fundamental problem, it’ll help you determine the direction your rebrand should take you in.

So, if you’re being plagued by doubts about how your brand is doing, particularly if it’s not that long since you last rebranded, or if you’re worried that you seem to head for the drawing board at the first sign of trouble, read on to find out how taking stock and conducting a brand review worked out for one of our clients.

Getting to the heart of the matter

Recent months saw us working with a charity client that had fundamentally changed their way of working, from focusing solely on end-user beneficiaries, to expanding their focus to take in both end-users and service commissioners and partners. Their existing brand identity wasn’t able to accommodate or resonate with these two distinct audience groups.

In addition, the client was experiencing issues with brand application – brand rules were being broken and they didn’t know why. We were tasked with finding out how the changes that were necessary (i.e. evolving existing branding so it was meaningful to both its distinct audiences) could be introduced as smoothly as possible, ensuring the sort of consistency that would build the brand awareness they were after.

This is how we went about it:

Conducting a brand review

As is generally the case, our brand review covered five distinct areas, starting with the all-important…

Scoping session – an in-depth analysis of the client’s hypothesis regarding issues with the brand identity, including individual conversations with members of the client’s team.

Consultation process – this included surveys and interviews with the client’s target audiences (the latter, to hear, in their own words, how they felt about the brand, its comms and identity – this was conducted in a non-leading way).

Review of the category – a thorough examination of the category the client operates in and the wider environment. This included looking at how competitor brands present themselves and identifying any new entrants and competitor brands that have recently refreshed their brand identities.

Auditing the marcomms – this covered all aspects of website, print, social and large format media. We also thoroughly reviewed the brand guidelines and templates with a focus on why brand rules might be being broken.

Making recommendations – we presented the evidence gathered and proposed the way forward.

Next steps – our client’s experience

Our findings unearthed additional evidence to back up the client’s initial prognosis while revealing further opportunities to get their branding to land right, once and for all, without having to embark on a full rebrand.

Their target audience had felt the existing branding and messaging lacked warmth and depth, and there was uncertainty about what the brand stood for.

The client needed to get clear on what they stood for and cared about.

We ran a series of discovery workshops to draw out their mission, vision and purpose, and define their personality and essence – a conceptual hook that any new creative could hang off.

The brand identity felt too playful and flippant.

Retaining the logo and the established, recognisable bones of the brand system, particularly the primary colour palette, while approaching other visual elements such as illustration and photography in a new, more emotive way that was easily replicable.

The inconsistent brand experience was revealed to be a result of limited brand guidelines which meant that the charity’s regional offices were being given insufficient direction.

Build greater detail into the brand guidelines (eg how to write the brand name in body copy), extending this to include direction on commissioning and selecting photography, and the development of sub-brand architecture.

The client took the above recommendations on board and went much further, building a team of marketing and brand managers tasked with managing the brand identity and protecting brand equity.

You don’t always need a revolution

It’s not always necessary to make a radical change. In our charity client’s case, it was a matter of the brand identity evolving so that it could accommodate the way the charity itself had evolved. As well as this, the brand system needed to be documented in a more thorough and user-centric way.

Rebranding would have been a case of throwing ‘the brand baby out with the bathwater’. The brand review findings presented the client with the ideal opportunity to step back from their brand and gain a deeper insight into how it was being perceived by their audiences. They were then able to make an informed choice on how to proceed.

Benefitting from a change of perspective

One of the most significant things which the client took from our brand review was that there is such a thing as being ‘too close’ to the brand.

Of course, it’s great when people say things like, ‘we live and breathe the brand’ but it does mean that they’re more likely to get bored with it and therefore want to change it. Stepping back and seeing the brand from the point of view of their audience, enables a reboot. For the people they want to reach, familiarity with a brand creates not only trust but preference. It’s cognitively easier to choose something you’re already aware of and have built an association with.

This is a phenomenon that was identified in the 1960s by social psychologist Robert Zajonc as the ‘Mere Exposure Effect’. More recently, via the work of Byron Sharp and Jenni Romaniuk of the Ehrenberg-Bass Institute of Marketing Science, it’s referred to as the concept of ‘mental availability’ – something which is reduced when you continually meddle with your brand.

Getting the right people to ask the right questions

Discomfort or dissatisfaction with how a brand identity is performing should prompt questions. The important thing is to keep calm and examine what’s behind any motivation for change. Is it being driven by external or internal factors, or a combination of both?

Once you understand that, you have a better chance at arriving at a solution that doesn’t undo existing brand equity. Being mindful of who you get in to assist in this, also helps. Agency owners come with an inbuilt interest in advocating for ‘radical change’, i.e. a full rebrand. An independent consultant is more likely to direct you towards what you actually need. Paraphrasing the saying, ‘less can be more’ – a subtle change might just be the powerful solution you’re looking for.

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