Navigating a Rebrand: Nine Common Mistakes to Avoid
Transform Your Organization with Confidence: Learn the Nine Ways to Avoid Common Rebranding Mistakes and Ensure a Successful Transformation.
Rebrand. Brand refresh. Brand update. Whatever you call it, a rebrand is fraught with possible pitfalls. What seems like a simple evolution of a brand (hint: it’s never simple) can easily shift from a smooth sailing adventure into a crash upon the rebrand rocks. Fair warning, many more metaphors to follow.
Social impact leaders need to be aware of the possible potholes in the road en route to a successful rebrand. Let's break down how you can best navigate the journey to ensure that your investment of time and effort in a rebrand will supercharge a positive impact for years to come.
What is a Brand or Rebrand?
Before we jump in, let’s be sure we define what a rebrand includes. A brand is more than a logo, wordmark, or icon. A brand is the full visual expression of your brand. It includes your logo, color palette, photography, icons/illustrations, swag, and more.
A brand also includes communications. All communications. That’s your website copy, your newsletter copy and images, the language and tone in your printed materials, your email — even the way you answer your emails. It’s what you say and how you say it. Ultimately, your brand reputation is built (or damaged) by the actions you take in the real world.
A rebrand can be an evolution of an existing brand. It can also be an entirely reimagined brand expression that includes major changes to all of the elements mentioned above. The goal of a rebrand is to convey your brand’s position in your cause area in a distinct, memorable way. It should represent you as a modern organization and hint at the desired future state you’re working towards.
With that in mind, let’s dig into this and explore some common ways that your rebrand can go wrong and, more importantly, how to make sure it doesn’t.
Mistake #1: Rebrand By Committee
When it comes to design and branding, everyone has an opinion. You do. Your staff does. The partner in your social enterprise who claims they have no design sense does. Your board does. Your marketing and communications team definitely does. And they all should. But having a dozen people give their personal opinions on a brand is a surefire way to end up with a muddled, messy process and an equally muddled and messy result.
If you try to get a little piece of what everyone wants, you’ll end up with something that pleases no one and doesn’t truly serve your brand.
Think of it like this: Let’s say you asked everyone on your staff and every board member to bring in a puzzle piece that represents your brand. And then you forced the pieces together. You’d certainly get a very colorful result — but not anything coherent. You certainly wouldn’t get something that represents anything other than the preferences and opinions of the people who brought in the puzzle pieces. Branding by committee can end up like that.
You Need a Single Point Person
To torture the puzzle metaphor to completion, you need someone to bring in the puzzle that everyone is going to work on.
Your team needs to appoint a single point person who is responsible for shepherding the branding process through from start to finish. This person needs to have some core capabilities and be given a few powers:
Organizational skills: A full rebrand is a complex process. The point person will need to solicit feedback from all stakeholders, be able to gather and consolidate that feedback, and keep the project moving through multiple iterations.
Negotiating abilities: They need to be able to listen to feedback from their internal team and work with everyone to achieve a united result.
Bandwidth: They need to carve out time on their busy schedule for the rebrand. It’s going to require several dedicated hours every week for several months. If the rebranding effort is thought of as a side project, that’s a recipe for failure.
Ability to consolidate feedback: A good point person can field input from a variety of stakeholders and synthesize it into coherent actionable feedback. Getting a slew of opinions where people disagree and give contradictory or non-actionable feedback can bring a rebranding project to a grinding halt.
Decision-making authority: The point person must be empowered to make final choices. Nothing wrecks or slows a rebranding project like having to run to the ED/CEO, board, or other important stakeholders to get approval for every aspect of the rebrand. Solicit input, of course, but this person should have the authority to make final decisions without being overridden. If your ED/CEO is your point person, this goes double.
Mistake #2: Trying to Visually Represent Everything Your Organization Does in the Logo
A common misconception of a brand is that it should visually represents everything you do. But this idea breaks down quickly under examination. The World Wildlife Fund’s logo is an icon of a panda with the initials WWF beneath it. Do they just protect pandas? Do they just protect animals? No and no. In fact, they define themselves as a conservation organization.
The WWF has poured meaning into their brand since 1961 and updated it at least four times. It now represents five areas of focus: People, Places, Species, Climate Crisis, and Sustainability. That panda sure stands in for a lot!
State seals are really good examples of branding that tries to cram too much into one image. Take The Great Seal of the State of California for example:
There’s a lot going on here. Boats, a bay or river, a grizzly bear, a Greek goddess, a gold miner, wheat, grapes, hills, mountains, fields, a building, stars, the Greek word “Eureka”, and other subtle details. It seems to express many things that were important to the participants in the California state Constitutional Convention of 1849, when it was officially adopted. Talk about design by committee! Who can remember or interpret all of the details?
On the other hand, the Bear Flag, the official flag of the state of California, is quite simple, more iconic, and easy to remember. Chances are, anyone familiar with it, would recognize it without the words California Republic across it.
The Bear Flag easily carries the meaning that the Great seal does without the need to jam as many details as possible into it.Yet, both the Great Seal and the Bear Flag could be considered the ‘brand’ for California.Which feels more distinct to you?
A good brand should be distinct and memorable. It can (but does not need to) hint at or point to what you do. You should strive for a brand, or a rebrand, that helps your organization stand out in the attention economy. It should be “swaggable” — something people want to wear or flaunt, because it’s meaningful for both its visual appeal and cause representation.
Mistake #3: Playing it Safe
We encourage nonprofits, foundations, and social enterprises to be bold in your branding. A great way to ruin a rebrand is to strive for a brand that “fits in” to your cause. If you’re doing climate justice or sustainability work and you have green as your primary color coupled with some leafy shapes and rays of sunshine, you’re going to get lost in a sea of sameness.
Our most distinct climate focused brands have little to no green in them, including: the EarhRights Frontlines of Climate Justice campaign, Let’s Green California, and (almost ironically) MYNT.
If you look like everyone else in your cause area, you’re missing an opportunity to give potential supporters, funders, and advocates a reason to choose your organization over others in your space. Be courageous and rebrand your organization in a way that makes it stand out.
Mistake #4: Inviting Feedback From External Stakeholders
Be cautious about ‘crowdsourcing’ rebrand feedback from your board, extended staff, partner/community organizations, supporters, friends and family, etc. This feedback can be valuable, but only if it’s properly integrated and interpreted.
Ensure that when you get feedback from anyone outside of the core rebrand team (the team who has been part of the process from the beginning), that you interpret their feedback as another data point rather than a popularity contest.
Your allies often have honorable intentions. But they are lacking strategic context and looking at your rebrand from their perspective. This influences their feedback. A fresh perspective can be valuable, but you shouldn’t necessarily seek their approval or input.
A better way to collect feedback from external stakeholders is to employ the power of surveys. Our rebrand of Cabrillo College made extensive use of surveys among students — but only when the time was right to do so. If you have the time and budget, it can be effective for creating buy-in and some beneficial insight, but proceed with care knowing that having more people involved means even more input to consider and consolidate.
Pro tip: If you do use surveys, be sure to avoid the trap of choosing whatever the most popular direction is. Instead, be sure to include open-ended questions that allow for more nuance and allow respondents to include the thinking behind their choice.
We do often recommend getting feedback from staff who interact with your supporters and the people you serve can be invaluable. They are likely good interpreters for your supporters, and should know if any particular symbology is problematic. Creating a brand element that’s offensive or divisive to your supporters, the people you serve, or your community can turn them from supporters into adversaries.
Mistake #5: Rebranding without a Rollout Strategy
Imagine if a typical consumer brand soft-launched their latest product. No commercials. No announcement. No launch event. No notice to their partners and retailers. It would be an epic fail. The same goes for your rebrand. A sure way to lower the value of your rebrand is to launch it with a whimper.
Complete the entire brand expression before you release the rebrand into the wild. For a successful launch of your rebrand, you want to make a big splash — and you only get one shot at it. Have everything you need ready to go for an awareness campaign around the rebrand. This includes, but is not limited to:
Branded social posts
Branded email templates
A fully redesigned website. Dropping a new logo on your existing site isn’t a rebrand.
Branded extension including branded print or digital collateral such as brochures, presentation and/or sales decks, business cards, event signage, swag, email templates, newsletter templates, and more. Every place where people connect with your brand needs to be considered.
A themed launch event that is more than just an announcement of the rebrand
We have had clients repaint and redo the signage on their buildings and re-wrap their vehicles. You’ve got to be all in on your rebrand.
Have a Rollout Strategy
Rebranding without a plan to launch the brand and build equity in the new brand is a good way to get supporters, funders, and advocates to abandon ship. They have the power to vote with their checkbooks, credit cards, and PayPal accounts. If you don’t ‘sell’ the rebrand to them, they are going to feel like you’re taking them for granted. Feelings will get hurt. There are lots of other organizations out there for people to support. Give them reasons to get behind yours.
We suggest a rollout event, or series of events. Brand rollouts are something we often help our clients organize. Get people excited about your rebrand. In the digital world, this can encourage them to share the rebrand, creating opportunities for you to gain supporters and expand awareness. In fact, we often approach a rebrand as an awareness campaign.
It’s tough to generate much excitement about a rebrand alone. Pair your rebrand announcement with an accomplishment or other announcement to create a powerful 1-2 punch.
Mistake #6: Giving Stakeholders Too Many Options
Choice paralysis and analysis paralysis are real. We typically offer 3-4 options when we’re in the exploration phase of a rebrand. Taking a dozen ideas to your staff or board is a good way to create inaction.
The point person should bring a limited number of options to internal stakeholders. They should understand the strategic thinking behind the design and messaging elements and be able to get these ideas across to everyone. When we walk our clients through brand and messaging presentations, we are clear about the choices that we made. You need to inform your team as well.
You want stakeholders to be making strategic decisions. Does a font express the brand? Does a color create distinction in the space without violating your organization’s aesthetics? Having your team make decisions based on what they like and don’t like can be a frustrating exercise in subjectivity and can create paralysis that’s difficult to overcome.
Mistake #7: Mashing Multiple Concepts Together
You can quickly and easily break a rebranding project by ‘Frankenstein-ing’ disparate brand elements together. In the early phases of a rebrand, it can be appealing to put ideas from different brand explorations together. Like the font in one brand presentation, the colors in another, and the photo treatments in a third? It may work to combine them. But it may not.
We’ll avoid more mixed puzzle or train wreck metaphors here, but designers think deeply about how each combination of elements work together. Jamming them together can create visual dissonance. Beware of creating a Frankenstein brand. It’s a monster that’s difficult to recover from.
The solution is to discuss what you like about the different elements and ask the design team to find ways to bring the aspects of these elements together in a cohesive manner.
Mistake #8: Rushing the Process
Not spending enough time on a rebrand and brand extension is a sure way to render your rebrand powerless. A rebrand is a rare (it should be rare) opportunity to reset with your supporters and stakeholders. Don’t push it through to meet an arbitrary deadline.
Know that a thoughtful complete visual identity and messaging effort takes time. Give yourself and your team opportunities to ruminate on ideas and collaborate on each element of the rebrand. Most organizations get where they are organically. A rebrand is a golden moment where you can step back and really think through who you are as an organization, who you want to be going forward, and what is the best way to get there. It’s a chance to renew relationships and commitments to your cause and organization.
Mistake #9: Getting “Creative” With Your Rebrand After Launch
Using off-brand fonts, colors, or visual expressions that don’t follow your new brand guidelines (you do have brand guidelines, right?) are a great way to weaken your new brand expression. A key element of a coherent, distinct brand is brand consistency. The end goal is that for any given piece of content you put out, your audience will know it’s you without having to look at the logo.
If you want to ensure your brand is interesting, extendable, and timeless, revisit our thoughts on going bold. Be courageous when you rebrand. That’s a good way to get noticed for all the right reasons.
We include a detailed brand guide with every branding project. It includes what to do, and what not to do. It covers messaging, fonts, colors, photo treatments, illustration styles, and much more. When you rebrand, you need one. If you can have someone on your team assigned to maintaining brand integrity, that can prevent a lot of brand fouls in their tracks.
It is said that, “You only get one chance to make a first impression.” This is undeniably true. But you get many, many chances to make a good impression. If your brand is a reflection of your organization, and you should make every effort to make sure that when you rebrand, you’re doing everything possible to have it reflect well on your mission and your impact.
As you can see from our (not exhaustive) list above, there are many ways to slam a wrecking ball into a rebrand. There are also steps that a thoughtful social impact leader can take along the road to a successful one. The choice is yours, but we suggest that ending your rebrand process “feeling like you’re on Cloud Nine” is the way to go.
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