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The New Rules of Corporate Branding

Alan Brew

All successful companies change. 
They grow and evolve, often far beyond the business origins that made them successful in the first place. Corporate rebranding programs are undertaken to communicate change and start a new dialog about the company and where it’s going. As such they require clarity, consistency and conviction.

  • Bell Atlantic became Verizon because it wanted to shed its regulated past as a regional Bell operating company and claim a place in the new future of content provision and broadband communications.
  • The YMCA has long since moved beyond its original purpose of a Bible study group for young Christian men. It officially became just “the Y” recently to “de-restrict” the meaning of its name and to emphasize the wider impact of its programs on youth, healthy living and communities.
  • Now Ernst & Young is attempting to break from the Big Four audit pack as EY with a new CEO at the helm.

These are powerful business stories of evolution. They have been told well. But sometimes, they don’t go so well.

The missteps of Allegis and Consignia have been well chronicled. A more recent is example of a rebranding launch misfiring is that of Hibu in the UK. Hibu is the new name for Yell Group, publisher of the Yellow Pages directory among other things. It is trying to make the leap into the digital age as an online marketplace for small businesses. The CEO, Mike Pocock, was asked by reporters what Hibu meant. “It’s a word,” he said. “If you go back 15 to 20 years, Google and Yahoo didn’t mean anything. It’s how you support the brands.”

The reporters saw their story. “Yell admits rebrand is meaningless” was one of the typical headlines in Britain’s national news media. It was an avoidable misstep that detracted from the important business story and placed a question mark over the whole program: Has the rebranding plan been thoroughly thought through?

Rebranding an established company is the same as naming a startup. Google and Yahoo! were startups when they were named. They had the luxury of relative obscurity in which to make mistakes and prove their business model. Over time, Google and Yahoo! became naturally synonymous with business category they created.

Corporate rebranding is an entirely different game played by different rules. It takes place in the full glare of media exposure. There is much at stake for a lot of people and, given the nature of news media, rebranding ‘disasters’ are more newsworthy than rebranding successes.

Rules to follow when rebranding:

1. Expect controversy: corporate rebranding affects many people. It’s about change and most people don’t like change. Be well prepared with your story and communicate proactively.

2. Focus on the business story: a corporate rebranding program is the communications framework through which your business story can be told in a memorable way. Names and logos are components, not the story.

3. Stay in front of the story: successful corporate branding is as much about PR strategy as it is about brand strategy. The two must be integrated to ensure a focused, consistent narrative that defines the context in which the story unfolds.

4. Start from the inside out: prepare the ground internally before launching externally. Employees need to connect what they see and hear externally with their own understanding of the intent and objectives. Communicate imaginatively and frequently.

5. Explain the name: if the rebranding involves a name change, be clear and straight forward about the name and why it was chosen. Explain the objectives, the complications and help people to understand how to think of it. People will get used to new names over time (plain dumb names not withstanding).

6. The CEO must lead: corporate rebranding is a leadership tool. The CEO should be visible and explain the vision behind the story.

7. Social media is important. Check the URLs for ‘company’sucks.com and .org. Be active on Twitter. Use blogs.

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