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BRANDING

Changing Your Brand? Think Carefully

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Branding 101 tells you to develop your brand through repetition, consistency, and fulfillment. But markets change: New competitors arrive, customer expectations change, your company's strategy can change. So you may want to change your branding at some point, and it's likely that eventually you will have to change your brand, too.

How do you know when it is appropriate to change your brand? How do you change it without alienating old customers? Why should you change your branding? Why should you keep it the same?

When to Change Your Brand
Your brand represents a message that you craft, with some value proposition that you make to the customer. Consistency is important for several reasons: You want the audience to memorize the message, you want a consistent reputation, and you want to build longevity and market share.

But when your message fails to connect with your audience, it may be time for a change. Typical disconnects include:

No recognition. This is when your audience doesn't understand your message. Therefore, they don't absorb it. In other words, there is no resonance, so there's no recognition.

Unexpected recognition. The audience may know your brand well, but they associate it with a totally different message. For instance, all your advertising reinforces your customer service promise, but your customers repeatedly say they prefer your superior product selection. What you assume the customer values and what they actually value may not match.

Market shift. You may have based your brand on a particular advantage that eventually diminishes as the market evolves. Perhaps you once were the only store that offered a certain level of delivery and you based your branding on unique customer-centered services. Once your competitors adopt your innovation, your advantage shrinks.

How to Change Your Brand
When it's time to change, you need to do it carefully so that you don't alienate all those customers who originally came to you because they liked the old message.

Be gentle. A radical shift in message is hard to accomplish; take baby steps. Evolving your value proposition from high-quality service to superior products is hard enough, so don't try to dramatically shift your image from Nordstrom to Old Navy.

Be consistent. Your old brand was developed through consistency. Or maybe it wasn't ? and that's why you're leaving it behind. Now that you are trying to get a new message out, be even more consistent. You are basically starting over by teaching the audience a new way of looking at your company, so be patient and persistent.

How Often to Change Your Brand
The answer to the question of how often to change is simple: as seldom as possible, and as often as necessary.

Remember, the first law of branding is consistency. Building a brand and recognition takes time. Every time you change your brand, you are nearly starting over.

Little is good. There are little changes, such as a shift in advertising strategy, which may not affect recognition. Small shifts are normal and even healthy: As your market and your company evolve, so should your message. For example, the image of Betty Crocker has evolved slowly over time, but the brand has remained strong and true to its original values.

Medium is sometimes necessary. There are larger changes, such as revamping your logo and colors, which might confuse your existing customer base but extend your reach to new markets. Carefully weigh the pros and the cons: Will this alienate our existing customers more than it will attract new ones? These changes should be the exception. IBM is a great example of a company that retained its strong, old brand while reformulating the message to reach new markets one at a time.

Big is bad. Then there are big branding changes that come about when you change your company name, management, and proposition. This should almost never be necessary. Unless you specifically want to leave behind an old audience or start from scratch in winning them over, avoid complete abandonment of your old brand.

If you are going to abandon your old brand, then you may as well change your company name and location, too. If that sounds extreme, then try not to do that to your brand. But then again, if your brand or company has a bad reputation, that may be what you need.

When Not to Change Your Brand
While small adjustments are sometimes necessary, you should generally avoid messing with your brand. Yet some companies change brands and logos more often than they renew their leases. Why? And why not?

New management. It seems that management changes often, and when it does, the first impulse is to change everything. Perhaps there is a need to make a public separation from the previous management. Don't use a change in management as a reason to change your brand.

There should be a moratorium prohibiting new management from changing a brand, logo, or marketing strategy without first consulting with the customers and salespeople. Changing a brand should be a customer-oriented decision, not an ego-based whim.

Mergers and acquisitions. Companies often change brands when they are acquired, or when two of them merge. One of the two companies may have to change branding if they are to become aligned. Right? Maybe. Often a company's strongest asset is its brand and recognition, but when that company is acquired, that asset is almost immediately destroyed.

The classic online example is the strong Infoseek brand, which was forcibly assimilated into GO Network, with significant recognition loss. A current example is the merger of AirTouch Cellular, Bell Atlantic Mobile, and PrimeCo, and the adoption of Verizon Wireless as the name of the new company. Shifting from three strong brands to a single unpronounceable name does not seem wise.

An outdated look. Another common reason to shift brands is to escape from a dated, aged look. This seems valid, but some of the strongest brands are strong because they look "dated." That is, even dated can turn into "retro." Boeing has a peculiarly dated logo, but it has become a big part of its image as a long-lived company. Tide's logo has become a symbol of effective branding; it also has a very outdated look.

The best brands never noticeably change, yet never stagnate: They somehow evolve with the times without losing their core identity. How can you develop such a timeless brand? Listen to your customers instead of listening to trends. Base your brand on universal principles of style, service, or quality, rather than flash-in-the-pan hipness.

Evolution should be a slow, natural process that helps you reach more customers. Anything else would be rash.

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