Once upon a time, companies could create a brand and let it sit on the shelf for a lifetime without changing much. But in today’s marketplace—characterized by a global economy, a fractured and ever-changing media landscape, and hyper-aware consumers—all brands, big and small, must constantly be on their toes.
“A brand is a living, organic thing that evolves every single day,” says John Nunziato, founder and creative director of White Plains-based branding firm Little Big Brands. That means companies must approach branding from a flexible perspective, realizing that what worked when you were in startup mode may not be sufficient to keep your company growing and gaining market share as you mature.
“And when the competition is leaving you in the dust or you are getting negative feedback from clients,” it might be time to dust off your image and embrace the idea of a new brand strategy, says Sherry Bruck, creative director of Harquin Creative Group, a branding and marketing agency based in White Plains.
So when it comes to branding, what should your company be doing when? Every brand is unique, so there is no magic, one-size-fits-all solution that will keep every business fresh throughout each stage of its life cycle. But there are definite strategies to embrace as your business grows and (hopefully) expands.
Branding From the Get-Go
Thanks to social media, companies can start building their brand before they’ve even built their product or service, says Chris Dessi, CEO of Silverback Social, a social media marketing agency in White Plains. How can you brand something that doesn’t exist? It’s not as counterintuitive as it sounds.
“As long as you understand your target demographic and your product or service’s end goal, you can start the conversation about your brand via social media before you launch,” Dessi explains. If you’re developing a beauty-care product, for instance, you can use social media channels to provide value-added content such as how to take care of your skin, and how and when to use the forthcoming product. “That automatically sets your brand up as a source of knowledge,” Dessi says.
Dessi also encourages new brands to leverage social media as a listening platform, a way to get a pulse on the industry your brand will be competing in. “Eavesdrop on relevant Twitter conversations; see what similar brands people are engaging with on Pinterest; check Instagram to spot trends for your target demographic,” he says.
That eavesdropping can also help companies perfect one of the most important branding exercises for early-stage businesses: defining the brand. “People think branding is a logo or a slogan, but it is more a holistic aspect of how you are going to run the business,” says Rocco Cipriano, founder and president of InSight Marketing in Harrison. For instance, a bank seeking to convey its trusted, caring, and responsive reputation will use very different branding tactics than, say, a design firm that wants to show off its hip, trendy, and unique personality.
Defining a brand also includes carving out your target audience, so you can determine how best to appeal to them. A fitness trainer who positions herself as a “fit over 40” expert, for instance, will have an easier time determining how the business should look, sound, and talk to its clients than a generic trainer, according to Bruck. “If you have a defined target, your branding can hit customers’ hot buttons easily, and you can be more relevant and meaningful to them,” she explains.
Even the choice of a company or product name must be made with branding purposes in mind, Cipriano adds. Evocative names, descriptive names, or even made-up names (Verizon anyone?) all have different branding cachet, according to Cipriano. “You want to pick a brand name that is unique and has a personality, but also one that makes sense and reflects the values of the owners, founders, or principals,” he says.
All of this goes into early-stage branding decisions like how to design your logo and what color palette and imagery to use in marketing materials, website design, and advertising, Cipriano adds.
Evolving as You Emerge
As a business gets beyond the startup phase and begins to refine its original message, its branding needs to change from informational (getting the word out) to competitive (making your company stand out from rivals), explains Kathy Winsted, associate professor of Marketing at the Lubin School of Business at Pace University. “Initially, your branding goals are to let a broad spectrum of people know who you are. Then, you move into a loyalty play—trying to retain and keep customers, show that you care about your customers, and explain how and why you are better than your competitors,” she explains. “It’s a completely different kind of message.”
It’s a switch that trips up many businesses. All too often, Winsted says, companies find that components of their brand no longer jibe with their aspirations, their expectations—or the times.
Companies at this stage also need to make sure their brand isn’t holding them back, Cipriano notes. “Maybe you’ve named your firm ‘ABC Accounting’ and now you want to expand and get into wealth management, and the name is limiting,” he explains. “Situations like that are an opportunity to revisit your branding and make sure it reflects the company you want to be.”
Bruck recommends conducting a periodic branding checkup to be sure you are constantly innovating. “It’s important to take the time to think about how you can be ahead of the curve and be a leader instead of always playing catch-up with other brands,” she explains. Firms often shy away from this for fear of a painful, drawn-out process. But large-scale changes don’t have to be the outcome of each branding audit; rather, frequent small tweaks can keep brands from getting stale and help companies avoid a major branding overhaul.
Bruck points to an audit she did for Country Bank, which has a location in Scarsdale. After setting up the original branding campaign in 2007, Bruck and Carolyn Murphy, the bank’s marketing director, met recently to gauge what was still working—and what was not. The results? “We are not changing the branding at all. We are simply upgrading the website to new, contemporary standards so the site is reactive for tablets and mobile devices, and updating some dated images,” Bruck explains.
Other brands may need to go a bit further, changing pieces of the brand to better reflect the company’s current status. Take Bel-Aqua Pool Supply, Inc. The family-run business, located in New Rochelle, was founded more than 50 years ago and has since grown to be one of the largest B-to-B pool-supply and parts distributors in the Northeast. Its original logo used bubble lettering and had something of a psychedelic 1960s feel, according to Cipriano, who worked with Bel-Aqua to update it. “People make instantaneous decisions when looking at brand images, so Bel-Aqua’s logo made the company look out of date,” Cipriano says.
Changing to a contemporary, streamlined font and graphic helped Bel-Aqua to “appear more modern, and appeal to new customers while still preserving what the company is all about,” Cipriano says.
Time for a Rebrand?
Sometimes, however, tweaks are not enough, and a whole rebrand—new name, logo, look, website, advertising, etc.—is in order. But whether a company is shedding a past that is disconnected with its future goals, changing an image that has somehow become tarnished, or reacting to customer demands for change, rebranding is never something to take lightly, advises Pace’s Winsted.
“Rebranding is always risky,” she says. “You can alienate customers with something as simple as a new label.”
However, a little discord in your brand might not be such a bad thing, according to Nunziato of Little Big Brands. “You want to have buzz about your brand. If you are hearing nothing, then you know there is a problem,” he says. But buzz for buzz’s sake is not the goal. “You need to look at the rebranding options and think, ‘Are we speaking to the right people? Are they getting our message? Does our look reflect that message?’ You need to make sure all of those items are in sync,” he explains.
Before undertaking such a huge business change, both Nunziato and Winsted recommend conducting focus groups with existing customers. That way, a company can test new strategies or a new name, image, or logo to make sure it flies with loyal patrons. In addition, Winsted notes, customers can be a good source for ideas and inspiration.
That’s exactly what WESTMED Medical Group found when it underwent a brand overhaul in 2009. The company, now one of Westchester’s largest medical practices, was originally founded in 1996 as Westchester Medical Group. But because there were several other medical institutions with “Westchester” and “medical” in their names, confusion reigned. In addition, the firm wanted a name that better reflected its status as “a growing organization and a significant brand in Westchester,” says Anthony Viceroy, WESTMED’s executive vice president and CFO.
To make sure it picked a new name and image that patients would relate to, WESTMED’s marketing team conducted extensive “street interviews” with people coming in and out of its medical offices and at popular Westchester stores like Barnes & Noble, Stop & Shop, and Kohl’s. Additional consulting with an external marketing firm also bore out the preference for the WESTMED name over other options. The firm also sought input from its employees, who all supported the name and the new logo, shown above.
The rebranding has worked well for WESTMED, especially given the rapid growth the company has experienced since 2009. “The WESTMED brand is what unifies our many different physicians and employees under one umbrella. It’s the mission of why we are here, what we stand for, and what we do,” Viceroy says.