Erik J. Olson, an Entrepreneurs' Organization (EO) member in Southeast Virginia, is the founder and CEO of Array Digital, a digital marketing agency. He also hosts the Journey to $100 Million podcast and Amazon flash briefing, plus Marketers Anonymous, a monthly marketing meetup. As an entrepreneur with first-hand experience in rebranding, we asked Erik about best practices and lessons learned. Here's what he shared: 

Your business name is an integral part of your brand identity, so take every precaution to get it right. I've rebranded companies on two separate occasions--and learned valuable lessons in the process.

The first rebrand involved another company in the same city with a similar name. My programming company, Fresh Information Management Systems, needed a more memorable name, so I chose 80/20--short, cool, abstract and industry-relevant. What could possibly go wrong?

That's when I realized how many ways rebranding can go sideways. Thinking of a rebrand? Here are seven questions to ask to avoid rebranding mistakes.

1. Does another company have the same or a similar name?

Invest the time to research whether other companies are using the name you're considering, or something close to it.

Shortly after committing to the name 80/20, I discovered a popular restaurant, 80/20 Burger Bar, in the same city--which caused its fair share of problems for my business. While most people recognized the burger bar, almost nobody I encountered knew of my company.

To differentiate, I started referring to my company as 80/20 Software Consulting. I liked 80/20 but had to tweak the name due to brand confusion.

Lesson learned: Thoroughly vet any potential company name from every angle.

2. Is a domain variant worthwhile?

In searching for a domain name, 8020.com wasn't available--but "8020.co" was.

The ".co" Top Level Domain (TLD) was trending at the time, so I bought 8020.co, set up a website, and rebranded posthaste.

Unfortunately, people often thought that I had mistakenly left the "m" off of ".co" in my email address. As a result, emails bounced and people had trouble finding my website because they automatically added an "m" to the end.

When I put "8020.co" on a t-shirt, people didn't realize it was a domain name without the "www" prefix.

Lesson learned: It seems that the public isn't ready for anything besides a ".com" TLD, and numerals in a domain name cause further confusion.

3. What's your team's opinion?

A few years later, I merged 80/20 with another local company--the perfect opportunity to correct previous rebranding mistakes. My new co-founder and I brainstormed company names and presented them to the team for feedback.

They didn't like the names we picked, and they pointed out bona fide issues with each suggestion.

We decided on a group brainstorming session. We wrote words and word combinations on sticky notes, put them on a board, and moved or removed them as discussions ensued. We narrowed 100 potential names down to a short list of 10.

We kept coming back to one name: Array.

We had our new name. Or at least, we thought we did.

Lesson learned: Your team has valuable perspective and feedback to offer. Lean into that.

4. Is anyone else using your selected name?

We liked Array, but the name was registered to a small company in an unrelated industry a few hours away. To avoid potential confusion, we searched for a close variant.

As my co-founder and I shared the company name with friends and family, to our surprise, they didn't quite get it. They expected another word after Array--as if it was a hanging chad.

We'd explain, "Array--you know, like Array Digital."

Digital was one of our brainstorming words that wasn't good enough by itself, but we liked them together. Array Digital was the name we chose--and best of all, that business name was not registered in the state of Virginia!

Lesson learned: Commit to your new name, but give it a test drive and remain open to feedback.

5. Who else uses that domain name?

Research revealed that a California company had previously spun off a quasi-brand named Array Digital for websites they built, but had abandoned operations. We assumed that because they were no longer in operation, there shouldn't be a problem. Wrong.

We were disappointed to learn that the company owned--and still owns--the domain names arraydigital.com and arraydigital.co.  

I offered to buy arraydigital.com from them. They declined but offered the ".co" version instead. Due to my previous negative experience with 8020.co, we passed.

We selected thisisarray.com as our domain name, though we still wanted arraydigital.com.

After trademarking the term "Array Digital," our lawyers sent the company in California a cease and desist letter demanding they release our newly acquired intellectual property and the domain. Their lawyer replied that the domain name would cost us $50,000.

So we're sticking with thisisarray.com for the foreseeable future.

Lesson learned: Pick a ".com" domain name and stick with it even if it's not 100% perfect.

6. When should you shut down your old site?

After our two companies merged, I grew impatient with our lingering rebranding process. The longer it took, the longer we behaved less like a unified company and more like two groups occupying the same office.

I accelerated shutting down the old brands so we could focus on the future. Within two months, we shut down and redirected both former websites to thisisarray.com.

My co-founder's previous website had garnered five or six leads per day. Unfortunately, those leads stopped flowing after we shut down the site. In my haste to move forward, I destroyed years of SEO value. My impatience cost us dearly.

Lesson learned: Let former sites linger, leverage the leads, then explain the rebrand to new prospects.

7. How long until people accept your rebranding?

I thought that, once we rebranded and announced it on social media, everyone would get it. Nope.

Three years later, we occasionally get calls from former clients who are confused by our new company name.

Lesson learned: You can post on social media, send letters to former clients, highlight the change on your website, and tell people in person--but the message takes longer to sink in than you anticipate.

Your brand is an intangible asset that is painstakingly crafted over time. Be prudent when you rebrand: It's always a best practice to learn from the mistakes of others to avoid making them yourself.

Published on: Jan 31, 2020
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.