There are times when a company needs to go undergo a rebranding—whether to keep up with market trends, communicate a new direction, or jettison an outdated image. Sometimes a small business may have grown to encompass more than it did during its startup days and needs to convey that to its customers. No matter the reason, the rebranding process must be done properly so as to leave no confusion in the minds of your customers.
BLACK ENTERPRISE spoke with Steve Blue, president and CEO of Miller Ingenuity, a $25 million railway component solutions provider based in Winona, Minnesota. Blue helped his 60-year old company successfully implement a corporate rebranding effort. Here’s what he says are the seven keys for small businesses looking to successfully rebrand themselves:
Understand what a brand really is. According to Blue, companies typically say ‘here’s what we want to be when we grow up and then here’s what we’re going to call it.’ “And then they throw the brand out there and the company isn’t really what the brand says it is and the customer gets disappointed,” he contends. “They tend to have the process backward. What they ought to be doing, what we did is we discovered first who we are, what we are, what do we do best, and then develop a brand around that.”
Maintain control of the rebranding process. You want a strategy that recognizes not only the brand’s origins but also its ultimate destination in the current and future marketplace. Even if you engage the services of a branding expert, the entire company should be involved in the process. “We touched every level of the organization,” Blue recalls. “We were asking people in the factory, what it is that they do, how they do it, and so forth.”
Understand that a brand has two owners: the marketer owns 50%; the customer owns 100%. “If your customer has equity in your brand, that’s the perfect situation, isn’t it?” Blue poses. “We went out and we interviewed dozens of our customers to discover what is it they thought our brand was, if we can use that word with them, what is it that they thought our promise was.” This enabled the team to understand what their customers’ experiences were and how they perceived the company.
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Your logo, tagline, typography, and design should tell a single-minded story. “When my people are out representing Miller Ingenuity for any kind of a function—I don’t care if it’s a golf outing, or it’s a philanthropy event, or a business meeting, or a convention—they wear the company colors. They wear the shirts and the logos,” says Blue. “Small business owners don’t have much money so they have to make sure every dollar counts. When they have their brand, they have to make sure they have laser lights focused to make sure that they protect it and promote it, and every opportunity they get to raise the flag and get visibility at it.”
Never forget that a brand should always remain fluid. Changing a brand can be risky (Blue cites “New Coke” as an example). However, if you do not violate a brand’s established equities and values, you can still add flexibility into a brand without losing relevance. It also helps to speak with customers about it. “Our old brand was Miller Felpax, and we were getting ready to lose that name. We didn’t think it had any meaning,” recalls Blue. “But our customers said, ‘Wait a minute, wait a minute, we’ve known you guys as Miller for years and years and years and years,’ so that’s one parcel we didn’t change because our customers didn’t want us to.”
Never stop supporting and promoting your brand. You have two major categories of consumers, says Blue. The ones that know all about your product or think they know and those that don’t know a thing about your product. “You’re playing at both parties, but what we found out was that we can produce and do things that our customers don’t know about. We were making the mistake of assuming that they already knew and part of our rebranding effort was to cause them to think in the marketplace about Miller Ingenuity.”
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Be a brand champion. This is something that must involve the entire company as well as the customer. “They all had a hand in it and they all had equity in it and so when we came out on the other side, almost everybody in my company is now a brand champion because they were part of the process,” says Blue. “We have of course one guy who is the chief brand champion. He’s the guru, carries the mantel, and is very careful to make sure that it’s promoted and protected and so forth. It’s a little easier if you rebrand and everyone was in on the rebranding.”