Are You Rebranding or Refocusing?

A couple of people have talked with me recently about “rebranding” their companies — a manufacturer and a retailer.

For the record, I am not a fan of “rebranding.” I like branding, and I like starting over, but they are very different from rebranding. To me, rebranding is an inhospitable middle ground where it’s easy to waste a lot of resources without getting much done. I think it’s usually a mistake.

And maybe because I grew up on a farm and watched a lot of westerns, my first understanding of the word “branding” had to do with applying a red-hot iron to cattle flesh. As a result, I’ve always thought of branding — of cattle or companies — as something that’s permanent.

Sure, you could “rebrand” a bull until he’s a charcoal briquette, but it’s unlikely you’ve done the bull or the brand any favors. The old “brand” is still there — either in the flesh or in the memories of customers. You can’t wipe an old one clean by adding another.

Besides, branding is what you do so you can tell the cows — or the companies — apart from each other. The better you know the cows, the less you need to look at the scarring on their flanks (or the tags in their ears) to identify them.

And the better you know a business, the less you need to see of their “branding,” too. This is especially true of companies that have been around a while and that have branding that’s embedded in our psyches. No amount of rebranding is likely to impact my attitude toward Toyota or Hyundai, Coca-Cola or Fresca, Oreo or Hydrox.

Rather than rebranding, most companies would be far better served by redoubling their efforts to live up to their original brand aspirations. The fact that a company is considering rebranding is often a sign that they’ve gone off the rails somewhere, disappointed their audience and fallen behind the competition.

Facebook is rebranding. Google isn’t.

I told my dealer friend that rather than rebrand, he should reopen his shop with a new name and new look. It might seem more drastic and more expensive than rebranding, but I bet it winds up being cheaper and more effective in the long run. Better to start over without all the old baggage.

I suggested that the manufacturer get back to basics and do a better job of the things he claimed to be doing in the first place. Refocus, don’t rebrand. It might take a while to show the change and see the impact in his bottom line, but it’s doable.

The need to rebrand comes from one of two things: either the initial branding was misguided, or things have changed so much that the initial branding is no longer relevant. Those kinds of things aren’t necessarily fatal to a business, but they’re rarely cured by rebranding.

Are there rebranding success stories? Yes, and two big ones come to mind. March of Dimes was a charity created in the 1930s and dedicated to abolishing polio. Once polio was cured in the 1950s, the folks at March of Dimes realized they were all out of jobs if they didn’t rebrand (though I’m certain they didn’t call it that at the time). They had become irrelevant.

Luckily, they were well-funded, smart and had considerable government support. They redirected their mission to something equally terrible but far more nebulous — birth defects. The organization does wonderful work, and because we’ll always be battling birth defects, March of Dimes will always have relevance.

Another great example of rebranding is Harley-Davidson. The legendary American motorcycle manufacturer decided it needed a new audience in the 1980s. The “biker” community of the time was grungy, carried negative connotations and wasn’t exactly rolling in disposable income. By rebranding (which included completely reconfiguring their stores and culture), they turned things around and started to put doctors, lawyers and professionals on bikes as they made motorcycles “respectable.” It was genius.

There must be other examples, but none come to mind. Two in nearly 70 years is not a lot, and few tackle industry companies have the resources of March of Dimes or Harley-Davidson.

What are you doing to stay relevant? I hope it’s not rebranding.