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How to use rebranding as a tool for business transformation

How to use rebranding as a tool for business transformation

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Transformation is a business reality. With all sorts of operational and environmental changes coming in thick and fast at companies, most businesses need to be in a constant state of transformation. Business schools are offering courses on it; consultants are pitching it; business journals are full of what to do and what not to do. We’re swamped with the rhetoric of change. ‘Transformation porn’ if you will.

But here’s the worst-kept secret of business transformation exercises. While a few are successful, most end up in abject failure or with middling, broadly disappointing results.

One of the key pitfalls is a lack of a compelling transformation narrative. In the words of Ben Horowitz, one of the most influential VCs of our time, “A compelling story puts the company into motion”. Without a narrative, any transformation project runs the risk of becoming a confusing jumble of, sometimes contradictory, initiatives. Whereas a carefully articulated narrative can capture the imagination of people within and outside the organisation and make the whole greater than the sum of the parts.

This is, however, not a plug for the importance of brands in bringing transformations to life. Here’s the thing, I believe brands may be a part of the problem. Or at least how we define them might be. Static, narrowly defined brands, inflexible on the altar of consistency, may well be holding transformation narratives back.

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If organisations are in constant flux, shouldn’t brands be set up to accommodate these shifts? What if brands could be set up as adaptive, evolving entities that can stay true to the history of the organisation but also point to its future direction? This would reduce the need for point-in-time repositioning exercises, which tend to take brands further away from their core.

Most aspects of business now factor in a response to uncertainty as an integral part of strategy. Yet brands are still constructed in certain and resolute terms which perhaps fit better on a slide or a strategy model without much resemblance to real-world conversations that they need to be a part of.

Today, managing brands effectively needs ‘First Principles-Branding’ - ensuring brands reflect a direction of travel rather than a specific current state. Think of it as a compass over maps.

Having worked with multiple unicorns we’ve had the opportunity to perfect the concept of ‘First Principles Branding’, and have effectively applied them to large established businesses with powerful results. Below are some of the key tenets:  

1.    A focus on your role in the world, beyond the product category

Think of the brands that are resonating with audiences today. Chances are they are always in motion, adding new offers, products, services, and delightful experiences. Force-fitting a category lens on your brand could limit your worldview and growth opportunities. Cut-through brands like Liquid Death go as far as to start with a role and then attach a product to it (entertainment-machine and canned drinking water respectively). Thinking of your brand as the impact you want to have in the life of your customer allows for broader brand definitions and more room for growth and manoeuvring.

2.    A Common Enemy 

There is a lot of talk on brand purpose and its effectiveness in marketing circles. Experts are split down the middle. Often there is a misperception that purpose links to lofty altruism. A common enemy can be based on what’s lacking in the current user experience and defining it can sharpen what the brand stands for and build a shared bond. For example, Indigo Airlines in India has defined flight delays as the common enemy and is focused on getting customers to their destinations on time. They have co-opted customers to be a part of that mission by asking for their help in cleaning up all litter before the flight lands creating a shared mission and a common enemy.

3.    The Founding Legend 

Customers seek authenticity from the brands they engage with; they can smell corporate speak and non-committal claims from a mile away. The best authenticity check is the brand’s consistency with its founding legend. How would the founder(s) of the business react to the current brand narrative? If it is inconsistent with the founding legend, then chances are that the brand will come across as inauthentic. Even big businesses start small. Tapping into the founding legend is a great opportunity to feel personal again. Scale and authenticity do not have to be dichotomous.

4.    Coherence over consistency

Distinctive brand assets are a crucial aspect of brand building. However, in an increasingly screen-first world, an overreliance on consistency can make brands come across as one-dimensional. Coherence is more important. Sticking to clear principles of the brand’s visual identity, while varying the manifestations helps brands stay engaging and relevant. Think of how HSBC has become more experimental with the use of its key brand asset the Hex. A clear recognition of the need to engage with audiences in more innovative ways.

These tenets of ‘First Principles Branding’ have been applied by small and large businesses to great effect. It is crucial however that these are not the sole purview of the marketing department. To have a far-reaching impact on the organisation’s transformation, key departments across the business must be represented while arriving at these principles. The impact is usually a strong face to the organisation’s transformation efforts and an appreciation of the impact of creativity and optimism, within the business. And that’s one transformation we can all get behind.

This article was written by Ambrish Chaudhry, head of strategy, Design Bridge and Partners, Southeast Asia

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