About a year after its 2016 launch, Pencil realized its name was bad for business. Co-founder Sydney Liu would talk about the online storytelling platform to enthusiastic listeners at events--but would-be users, thwarted by a second-rate domain name (usepencil.com) and a barrage of unrelated search results, couldn't find its website.
So, in 2017, the company, based in Menlo Park, California, decided to redo its logo, site design, and color scheme before ultimately relaunching as Commaful. The overhaul worked almost immediately. "Within a week, we were number one on Google for our name," Liu says, and organic sign-ups began to increase.
Rebrands are fairly common for startups and small businesses that don't spend the time (or money) in the early stages to get their messaging, logos, or even monikers just right, says Douglas Spencer, president and chief brand strategist at marketing consultancy Spencer Brenneman. Besides discoverability issues, "they can run into legal challenges," he says, or "find themselves with a logo that just looks amateur."
But change is expensive: Most small companies (with less than $30 million in annual revenue) can expect to invest $90,000 to $180,000 on a rebrand, according to marketing agency Ignyte.
Fortunately, there are ways to cut down on costs--and make sure your investment pays off.
1. Do your homework.
Serial entrepreneur Dan Demsky once had to throw away thousands of dollars of packaging because of trademark infringement issues, so when it came time to brand his latest venture (men's travel-apparel site Unbound Merino), he started with the basics. "Memorability and ease of spelling," Demsky says, plus "having the domain name." He also hired a good trademark attorney.
You'll pay $2,000 to $2,500 for a comprehensive trademark search and around $1,000 for the application, says Marc Misthal, a lawyer with intellectual property firm Gottlieb, Rackman & Reisman. Expect added costs, including extension fees, if the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office rejects your application.
2. Solicit, but limit, feedback.
Opinions are a dime a dozen, so while you'll want to run your brand plans past some employees and clients, you'll also need to drown out the noise. When content marketing software company PathFactory--formerly known as LookBookHQ--started considering a change to its name and logo in 2017, it limited the internal brand committee to five people.
"Keeping the decision-making committee as small as possible really helped, because everyone will have their own idea of what [the brand] should be," Cassandra Jowett, PathFactory's senior director of marketing, says. "Changing your company's name is not necessarily a democratic decision. Not everyone should get a vote."
Conduct customer research, but avoid simply asking people whether they like a potential new name, logo, or color scheme, says Emily Brackett, founder of Branding Compass, a web-based branding app for small businesses. Instead, focus on the value prop you would like your name, logo, or design aesthetic to convey.
"You could say, 'We really want to come across as caring and compassionate,' " Brackett suggests. "Does this logo look caring and compassionate, or does this [other] logo look caring and compassionate?"
3. Have a rollout plan.
PathFactory officially announced its new name and logo at the 2018 SiriusDecisions Summit, a major event for the B2B marketing industry. "We tied it together with a product announcement to explain the need for a change in our image," Jowett says. "The two together got a good reception"--and a lot of much-needed media coverage.
Prior to the official announcement, the company sent swag bags to select customers, and for months after the rebrand, PathFactory left messaging about the change on all its digital channels. Even then, "not everyone realized it was the same company," Jowett admits.
Smaller-scale rebrands won't require so many bells and whistles. But you should still communicate why you're making a certain change, Brackett says. Messaging can come in the form of a press release, blog post, or email to your customers.
"You want to control the narrative," agrees Bo Bothe, CEO of BrandExtract, a brand strategy consultancy. "If you just throw it out there to the wolves, they're going to tear it apart."
4. Avoid second-guessing.
Once you've unveiled your redesign, expect some resistance to your changes. So don't rush to backtrack if you receive immediate negative feedback. Chances are, the blowback will blow over. (See Slack's early-2019 logo redesign, below. The barrage of bad press ultimately dissipated.) Commaful had several users threaten to leave once it unveiled the new name and logo, though they ultimately stuck with the platform, Liu says.
"Keep in mind, the product is what matters," Bothe says. "If the product is badass, the logo will become less relevant. As long as you're not offending anybody, you're probably fine."
If It Ain't Broke...
When Nicolas Vandenberghe relaunched his software startup as Chili Piper in 2016, his wife and co-founder, Alina Vandenberghe, quickly designed a new logo and stuck it on the website. "It was meant to be temporary," Nicolas recalls, but customers took to the little red pepper so much, it survived the company's formal brand refresh last year.
Chili Piper hired a design agency to draft alternatives, but ultimately the New York City-based company realized "if we change the logo, our customers will go crazy," Nicolas explains. "They love the logo."
There are many reasons startups or small businesses rebrand, including copyright infringement issues and the lack of a competitive differentiator, says Brackett of Branding Compass. But founders should take a cue from Chili Piper and make sure they're not trying to fix something that's working.
For fledgling and cash-strapped businesses in particular, "there are so many people who haven't fully learned about your brand," Brackett says. "Don't change it because you're bored."
Rocky Rebrands: Nazism and way too much not-safe-for-work imagery.
The communications company rolled out a new logo this year that reminded many critics of a hate symbol. (It was notably dubbed a "penis swastika.") But Slack stuck by its newly deconstructed hashtag, and the furor eventually faded.
Another big startup, another potentially NSFW design. In 2014, the internet valiantly tried to pin down what type of genitalia the rental marketplace's new "Bélo" most closely resembled. Airbnb (obviously) stuck by its choice.
The retailer's effort to modernize its then-20-year-old logo sparked massive social media protests in 2010, which intensified when Gap tried to crowdsource a replacement for the replacement. Its old-school navy square was back a week later.
The photo-sharing app traded its camera icon for a brighter, simpler logo--and caused what The New York Times dubbed "the great Instagram logo freakout of 2016." Yet the updated multicolored icon gra ces phones today.