Skip to main content

When is a rebranding not a rebranding? When it’s a redesign or a repositioning.

If that seems somewhat unclear, it’s because many people are unclear regarding what differentiates a rebranding from those less intensive efforts. Numerous companies and trade publications refer to a redesigned logo or an attempt to expand to a different audience, for instance, as rebranding. Brand marketing experts, however, insist that a rebrand is much more.

“Any time you’re in need of, or aspire to tell, a new story to the world, that’s a rebrand,” says Jason Cieslak, President, Pacific Rim for brand strategy firm Siegel+Gale. “When you’re communicating what’s changed, what’s different about what you’re doing in the world, and why people should care.”

Jim Heininger, Principal of agency Rebranding Experts, has a more formal definition: “We believe rebranding is the deliberate and systematic process of creating an inspired, forward-facing organization ready to grasp opportunity through the alignment and dynamic portrayal of your unique differentiators to customers. Rebranding means updating or repositioning your core customer promise, the essence of what makes you different.”

The Why and When of Rebranding

Rebranding Experts offers a simple matrix to distinguish a rebrand from a redesign or a repositioning:

  • A redesign focuses on refreshing visual elements such as the logo, typography, and brand imagery. Updating the tagline might be an element as well. With a visual redesign, the refreshed logo or packaging might be an end in and of itself—for instance, Buick simplified its somewhat fussy red, blue, and silver logo to a sleeker black-and-white logo in large part to signify what it calls “an electric future.”
  • A repositioning typically (though not always) incorporates the above, along with reimagining the customer experience and what Heininger dubs “the brand essence.” He considers the 2021 move by Victoria’s Secret to appeal to a wider swath of women as a repositioning. Part of its strategy was to feature women of all sizes in its advertisements and to downplay its Angels walking runways in scanty lingerie. (Interestingly, the company seems to be walking back from that repositioning and toward a re-repositioning.)
  • A rebrand usually encompasses all the above, and then some. The company’s mission and vision, its culture, and often even its name are reconsidered and redefined, if not outright overhauled. While a redesign is design oriented by nature and a repositioning is marketing focused, a rebranding is an organization-wide strategy.

Given all that it entails, the decision to rebrand is not one to make lightly. “It’s not like putting a Band-Aid on,” says Roger van den Bergh, a founding partner of brand identity design firm Onoma. “It’s a very structural process. It requires time and discipline.”

Sometimes legalities mandate a rebranding—another organization might already have copyrighted similar names or visual elements, say. Or if a company is planning to go up for sale, “they can use corporate identity as a tool to improve its perception as an attractive proposition,” van den Bergh says.

Other times mergers, acquisitions, or spin-offs necessitate creating a new brand from the remains of the previous one. For instance, after the US team of global coaching corporation BPI Group completed a buyout, Rebranding Experts “worked with their leadership team over months to distill their core brand promise: that good coaching helps ignite bolder futures,” Heininger recalls. From there they came up with the name Bravanti, a fusion of brave and avanti, “to go courageously forward,” he says. “It struck this emotional note with them that this is how they want to be perceived, and it stood for something that was never expressed within that industry.” A new visual identity, featuring colors as bright and bold as the futures the company promised, accompanied the rebranding, as did the expansion of its services.

A related reason for a rebrand: “When a company decides it’s going in a new direction,” Cieslak says. “Maybe you’re creating a new breakthrough product that changes how the world perceives you.” He adds that rebranding can also be “a powerful tool for recruitment and employee retention and attraction. Brand is not just for customers.” Think of the U.S. Army’s “Be all you can be” messaging, which it recently redefined as part of its 2023 rebranding. According to its revamped website, you can now “serve your way” and “be part of the Army’s well-rounded force while pursuing your unique career and life goals,” accentuating flexibility and the “what’s in it for you” selling proposition.

And of course, businesses turn to rebranding when they need to increase revenue and believe that the audience’s perception of the brand is the reason sales have stalled. For a rebranding to succeed, however, it’s not enough to simply “believe” that brand perception is the reason. There must be data to back up that belief.

Research Begets Strategy

“It’s imperative before you do anything that management and marketing agree as to why they need a new corporate identity,” van den Bergh notes. This is why research—intensive and extensive, internal and external—is the foundation of a successful rebrand. “One of the initial steps is to understand what your brand stands for and what is the end result your customer will experience,” Heininger says.

Too often, what a company thinks its brand represents and what its target market thinks the brand represents are two distinct things. In fact, sometimes even the C-suite and the rest of the staff have differing perceptions. Alternatively, the organization and the audience might have the same perception of the brand—but it’s not one that appeals to the audience or fills a gap in the marketplace.

Only after analyzing the market landscape and competitors, conducting audience segmentation, undertaking customer research, and surveying employees can a business gain a clear, data-based picture of what it stands for, what others think it stands for, and what it should stand for going forward.

Once an organization begins strategizing, however, it must look beyond the face value of the data. When it comes to the new positioning and messaging, “it’s not just the facts and the product benefits but also the emotional connection,” Heininger says. “That allows you to redefine your customer promise, make it more relatable and relevant for customers going forward.”

For instance, during the research stage of the YMCA’s 2010 rebranding, Siegel+Gale found that roughly two-thirds of people surveyed felt the quality of life in their community had declined during the previous year, and only 51 percent were optimistic it would improve. The YMCA took this to indicate that it needed to make clear its offerings extended far beyond swimming and gymnastics. Subsequently, it not only unveiled a new logo and shortened name (according to its marketing materials, “since everyone already calls us ‘the Y,’ let’s do the same”) but also reframed its offerings. “We are simplifying how we describe the programs we offer so that it is immediately apparent that everything we do is designed to nurture the potential of children and teens, improve health and well-being, and support our neighbors and the larger community,” the Y stated in a press release. Today on the Y’s website, children’s classes and camps fall under “youth development,” in which they “help young people to grow into healthy, thriving adults.” In addition to providing fitness classes, “the Y also collaborates with community leaders to bring healthy living within reach of all people.” The rebrand resulted in a sixfold leap in web searches and a significant increase in donations, among other benefits.

With its rebranding, the Y made sure to retain the elements its audience appreciated—it didn’t cancel swimming and gymnastics, after all. “You need to work from the strong brand equities you have,” Heininger notes. “Let go of the weaker elements. Work from the core and determine how to make it work for the future without alienating all the customer loyalty you had previously.”

While the Y always represented accessible programs to benefit the community, the research indicated how the organization could hone its mission and, just as importantly, better communicate that purpose. Research guided the strategy behind the rebrand, which in turn informed the brand positioning and messaging, all the way down to the elements of the visual redesign, which van den Bergh calls “the icing on the cake—simply translating the strategy.” Or, as Cieslak puts it, “Design is hard to miss, which is what makes it a strategic tool. But it’s just a signal; the story is something different.”

Cultural Shifts

It’s not enough for the CEO and the president of marketing to sign off on the strategy. “It should be very clear from the management perspective and the employee perspective that everyone is on the right page and there’s a cohesive approach to this exercise,” says van den Bergh. Expect a fair amount of debate before the strategy is approved and communicated—this part of the process is a major reason a rebranding typically takes 9 to 18 months.

And once the strategy has been approved, “the next challenge will emerge: the implementation,” van den Bergh continues. “That’s usually the phase where it goes well or it derails.”

Arguably the biggest cause of rebranding derailments is failing to ensure that the organization’s culture changes in keeping with the new brand promise, positioning, and offerings. “The best brands in the world are built from the inside out,” Cieslak insists. “A big mistake companies make is they don’t focus on the inside of the organization.”

Microsoft’s cultural shift under Satya Nadella, who became CEO in 2014 and chairman in 2021, is considered a textbook example of a corporation that successfully changed its culture to serve its rebranding. To reposition itself as a customer-oriented rather than technology-oriented organization, Microsoft sought out customer feedback earlier and at multiple points throughout the product development process; introduced weeklong “hackathons” that brought together employees and interns throughout the organization to innovate together on concepts of their own choosing; and to facilitate greater agility, emphasized internal networks over divisional silos. According to global executive search firm ChapmanCG, “reward and performance were also linked more to business impact versus activity, looking at what employees were achieving and how they work with others.”

And while many organizations focus on communicating the elements of their rebrand to customers, prospects, and the media, they fall short in ensuring that members of the team understand it. One all-teams meeting and a handout are not enough. For one thing, it’s impossible to communicate the rationale, causes of, and expected effects of a rebrand this quickly and easily. For another, if employees are simply presented with the rebrand as a done deal and sent on their way, they’re unlikely to feel fully committed to it. It’s important to invite and respond to their feedback throughout the process, beginning with the research stage. They’re the ones ultimately responsible for communicating, via words and actions, the rebrand to its audience, so a rebrand cannot succeed without their understanding and buy-in.

Fortune Rewards the Bold

Organizations too often expect their rebrands to receive a universally rapturous reception. “Executives think it’s a big deal and the world’s going to change and the world is waiting for this, and it’s not,” Cieslak says.

At the same time, “so many C-suite executives are afraid to be bold and be something different,” Cieslak adds. Numerous companies get cold feet and rein in their rebrands, until the result is little more than a shadow of the original strategy, with the visual redesign the only apparent element.

Siegel+Gale’s rebranding of CVS Caremark to CVS Health shows the importance of going big and following through. As part of its commitment to provide health and wellness services beyond filling prescriptions, in 2014 CVS stopped selling tobacco products in its more than 7,400 stores across the United States. CVS estimated this would cost the company $2 billion in annual revenue, which translated to about 1.4 percent of its previous year’s revenue of more than $139.3 billion. Instead, the positive press and social media buzz the decision generated, along with the expansion of its walk-in medical clinics, smoking-cessation programs, and other offerings, resulted in a 5.5 percent increase in same-store sales year over year, more than making up for the lost tobacco sales. It also demonstrated that the accompanying visual redesign, including the introduction of the “health heart” logo, truly represented something core to the improved CVS. “It was a strategic move to shift their business,” Cieslak says. “It also made other healthcare-delivery people rethink their businesses and their value propositions.”

“Companies aren’t aspiration oriented enough when it comes to rebranding,” Heininger says. “You want to lean into it and create a brand that’s going to support your growth for decades to come.”

Or, as Cieslak puts it, “Why spend the money and time inherent in a rebrand just to put out a whimper?”

This article originally appeared in FULL CIRCLE as syndicated content and is subject to copyright protections. All rights reserved. Image(s) used under license from Shutterstock.