The concept of "brand" is so amorphous that it can be stretched to fit nearly everything a company does. Indeed, I've heard executives talk about brand as if it were a panacea for any problem a company might have.

If we're going to have an intelligent discussion about brand, we must therefore start with some definitions. The following are my personal definitions, which are based on two decades of marketing experience:

  • Brand image: the emotions that customers feel when they think about a company and its offerings.
  • Brand elements: physical elements (name, logo, tag) intended to trigger those emotions.
  • Brand equity: the estimated financial value of the brand image and brand elements projected in terms of future profit.
  • Branding: the creation of brand elements and connecting them to brand image in the hope of improving brand equity.
  • Brand overhaul (a.k.a. rebranding): changing the brand elements in the hope of improving brand equity.

Of these items, brand image is by far the most important, because if customers feel bad when they think about your company, they won't buy its offerings. Similarly, if customers feel good when they think about your company, they'll buy more frequently.

Brand image is the result of the customer's prior experience with your products and services. The only thing brand elements can do is reflect or echo that experience. If the experience is bad, brand elementswill remind customers of that bad experience.

In other words, if you want a strong brand image and want to grow brand equity, you must put most of your effort into creating a great customer experience. Branding (creating brand elements) and rebranding (overhauling them) isn't that important.

Unfortunately, many marketers (especially in big companies but in many small ones as well) get this backward and think they can change a brand image problem by monkeying with the brand elements, which is the equivalent of dressing a pig in a Gucci gown.

However, there are four situations that call for a brand overhaul:

1. Unexpected negative trigger

An event completely outside of your control can change your brand element triggers so that customers associate them with something different and horrible. The most famous example is probably Ayds, a heavily advertised diet candy whose sales plummeted during the AIDS crisis in the '80s. The company tried to rebrand the product as Diet Ayds and Aydslim, but the negative association remained and the product was withdrawn from the market. In retrospect, the Ayds brand element should have been abandoned completely.

2. Highly publicized scandal

If your company screws up so badly and so visibly that your customers will forever associate its brand elements with a scandal, an overhaul of your brand elements may be the only way to survive. For example, when the Arthur Andersen accounting firm folded as the result of its malfeasance in auditing Enron, the company's outsourcing and consulting arm extracted itself from the onus of the Andersen brand image by renaming itself Accenture.

3. Product or service mismatch

If your company is expanding into a new product category, and your brand elements are tied to your previous or current offerings, you may want to change your brand elements to match your new (or combined) offerings. Two examples that come to mind are Boston Market (formerly Boston Chicken) and Bed, Bath & Beyond (former Bed 'n Bath). Boston Market stumbled after the brand overhaul, but probably not because of the rebrand. Bed, Bath & Beyond, however, has done quite well for itself.

4. Outdated look and feel

Brand elements, like architecture, music, and fashion, are culturally rooted in the decade in which they're created. While every era eventually becomes retro cool, designs that have an '80s, '90s, or early '00s vibe can look funky and clunky. While your customers probably don't care all that much, you might consider an overhaul or refresh of your brand elements. Another, less costly alternative, though, is simply to wait it out. Eventually, even the dreaded dot-com brand elements will look retro cool.

With those exceptions, most brand overhauls are just ways that marketing groups keep themselves busy. A good example of this is the absurd attempt to rebrand Google as Alphabet, or Tesla Motors to rebrand itself as Tesla. Both were pointless exercises.

The great sage and pundit Samuel Johnson famously said that "Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel." If he were alive today and commenting on business rather than politics, he might write that "Rebranding is the last refuge of a lazy marketer."