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How to Get Through the Branding Doldrums

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About to rebrand your firm? Excellent. Let me tell you how it’s going to go.

Most branding/rebranding engagements start with a strong tailwind. You’re eager to begin. The discovery phase uncovers interesting possibilities for exploration. Market research provides strong anchors in market reality. Your team is meeting its deadlines. 

But when the new positioning is unveiled, the trouble begins. Internal discussions begin to go in circles. Consensus seems out of reach. Approvals take longer than planned and deadlines are missed. All that beautiful momentum is gone.

You’re in the branding doldrums.

They’re a normal, even healthy part of the branding process—if you have the right mindset and guidance.

Understand what’s happening

Early-stage discomfort is natural to almost every creative endeavor, including applied creativity such as branding.

When I interviewed The New Yorker cartoonist Danny Shanahan years ago, he told me his work week was always the same. Mondays and Tuesdays he sat at the drafting table, hardly putting anything down. By Wednesday he’d have a few ideas. He was rolling by Thursday and by Friday he had several cartoons to submit to his art director. But the beginning of the week was almost always painful. “If people saw me, they’d think I was doing nothing. But if I didn’t go through that, I wouldn’t end the week productively.”

Developing ideas is hard enough. Articulating those ideas without falling back on old language and concepts, as so often happens in the branding process, is even tougher. Not to mention the emotional attachment that even senior execs have to the old brand, compounding the difficulty. 

The doldrums aren’t a symptom of a doomed project. They’re a sign that you’re doing some cognitive heavy-lifting. Relax and stay focused on the work. 

Trust the process

Your “work” is to follow your consultant’s branding process.

Most likely, you’ve decided to hire an experienced, skilled brand consultancy that follows a well-defined and time-tested process. In fact, you chose that firm for its methodology—and for its portfolio, which is simply the proof that its process works.

So have faith in your decision and in your consultant’s process, particularly when it leads in new directions.

If you haven’t chosen a consultant, find one with the people skills crucial to shepherding your rebranding project through the internal politics. You’ll want a firm that is both empathetic and assertive—with the intuition to understand your firm and your team, and with the confidence in its process and findings.

Construct your internal project team carefully, too. Rebranding forces firms to decide on very deep, existential questions that can slow otherwise fast-moving decision-makers in their tracks. “Branding takes buy-in from a lot of constituents on very subjective, politically-charged issues,” says Andrea Trachtenberg, former CMO at Neuberger Berman and Altegris. Include a respected, politically savvy senior executive on your team with the insight and consensus-building skills to grease the skids.

Iterate and test

We’ve found that the best way out of the branding doldrums is to quickly produce several versions of key branding elements and messaging—positioning statement, taglines, a short-form marketing piece or webpage—and test them with audiences. This exercise not only can reassure your team that your new brand positioning is on track, but it also can provide additional market feedback that in our experience adds small but critical refinements. 

For example, one investment manager discovered during testing that its positioning of “great on the downside” was heard by audiences as “not so great on the upside”—an unintentional meaning that was completely missed by this experienced and skilled rebranding team, even though the positioning had survived several rounds of review.

With awareness, patience, persistence, and an experienced consultant by your side, your rebranding initiative will go well. To shift from sailing to a sport where I have some experience, for most clients branding is like long-distance road racing. You may feel pain during the run, but you’re very glad you did it when it’s over.

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