Communicating the new you

A rose by any other name would smell as sweet. But a corporation that botches its rebranding might become a real stinker.

A rose by any other name would smell as sweet. But a corporation that botches its rebranding might become a real stinker.

So say brand consultants who, more and more, are advising clients how to effectively reintroduce their shiny new images after an identity switch necessitated by a merger, de-merger, acquisition, divestiture or other change in the marketplace.

Typically, a company that’s been trusted for generations to purvey, say, apples inks a few big-bucks deals and adds kumquats, vodka and scooters to its portfolio. Thus does a venerable household name morph into ‘Uni-Something,’ or a bewildering new acronym, or a set of syllables never before smooshed together. And a familiar logo turns into something as unrecognizable as Joan Rivers’ post-facelift visage.

Whatever the details, a strategically crafted reintroduction is the crucial first step in combating what Jeannette Hanna says is the roughly 50% failure rate currently afflicting all mergers and acquisitions.

As VP of brand strategy at Toronto’s Spencer Francey Peters, Hanna has worked on rebrandings for such high-profile clients as Canada Post, Toronto Hydro (which amalgamated six utilities), TransCanada PipeLines (which merged with Nova) and, currently, the Royal Ontario Museum.

How do you pull off a successful reintroduction? Here are some best practices from Hanna and other experts.

‘Ta da!’ isn’t enough

‘Everybody focuses on the visible aspects of a rebranding or repositioning – the logo, the name, the ad campaign, maybe grand openings of new stores if it’s a retail operation,’ says Peter Heywood, VP of brand strategy at Toronto-headquartered Watt global brand consultancy.

‘Those are fun and everybody gets excited by them. But they’re just symbols. The really important aspect of relaunching a brand is being crystal clear, both internally and externally, about the benefits to your key audiences.’

Heywood cites Telus Corporation’s 2000 acquisition of Clearnet Communications as a good example of identifying a real plus in an acquisition and then communicating that to the stakeholders.

‘It takes a very open-minded corporate culture and executive team to preserve the brand asset value of what they’ve bought, rather than simply imposing [the buyer's] identity upon it,’ he notes. ‘Clearly, when Telus bought Clearnet, they said, ‘Hey, here’s a company that, in an oversaturated commodity field, has managed to create an appealing personality. We’re not going to throw that out.’ And then they got that message out’ – first to their employees, board members and investors – and then to their customers and the news media.

Tell a good story

This stage begins with figuring out ‘what is the core property the brand already owns in the minds of consumers and then what you want it to be in the future,’ explains Monica Ruffo. ‘You need to translate the core essence of your brand truths into something that’s absolutely relevant, contemporary and sustainable. It sounds simple but it’s really complicated.’

Based in Montreal, Ruffo is VP and GM of Nucleus, a division Cossette Communication-Marketing set up in May, initially in Montreal, Quebec City and Toronto, ‘because more and more, our clients are asking us for high-level brand strategy, convergent communications strategy and big-issue corporate strategy.’ Nucleus clients so far include Elections Canada, Molson Breweries and Bell Canada, but Ruffo says the results of those rebranding campaigns are not yet visible.

Ed Freibauer, managing director of Toronto’s FutureBrand, agrees that the first critical element of any rebranding is ‘understanding what the current narrative [about the brand] is, as well as the business strategy to date. Then you clarify how that’s going to change and distill it into a new narrative explaining why the changes are a good thing.

‘For example, a brand may have stood for a really cost-oriented organization where systemization and efficiency was the mantra – but now its essence is going to be dynamic and innovative,’ explains Freibauer, whose recent rebranding clients include RBC (formerly the Royal Bank of Canada), Amsterdam Brewery and, currently, the Canadian Football League.

Distilling a complex rebranding into an instantly comprehensible message was key to her company’s work with the Bank of Montreal, which culminated with the presentation last month of its new ‘BMO’ persona, says Monica Kessler, EVP of Toronto’s Ove Communications & Design. What’s the message? ‘It’s that we’re not just changing the name or putting up new signs, we’re transforming the way the bank offers services.’

The rebranding campaign, which took about two-and-a-half years and repositioned the bank’s 32 different lines of business under one consistent brand, was prompted, says Kessler, by the fact that the Bank of Montreal ‘had dropped significantly in consumers’ minds in terms of ranking…despite a major expansion into wealth-management products.

‘But people didn’t immediately recognize that they could get all these things – from mutual funds to complex financial planning – from this bank. So we had to get across the perception that [what was being offered] was above banking and better than banking.’ Kessler says this perception was accomplished by creating an ‘identity system’ that introduced the name ‘BMO Financial Group’ but ‘linked it back to the Bank of Montreal.’

Rick Jacobs’ take on rebranding is that ‘the change to your core brand promise is what communicating a rebranding should be all about.’ A principal at Denver, Colo.-based Monigle Associates, he has worked with such Canadian clients as UniSource (paper) and Newmont (mining).

‘Look at that promise as the centre of a ring of concentric circles,’ Jacobs explains. ‘Then the next circle is an alignment of all your core identity elements – your message strategy, your visual identity, your name, your brand architecture. The next circle is aligning all the moments of truth or touchpoints to ensure that everything – from your print system, collateral, advertising, facility environments to signage – is working in concert to reinforce the centre.’

Leverage your non-human

touchpoints

When six companies amalgamated to become one entity called Toronto Hydro in 1999 – in order to most effectively capitalize on the deregulation of utilities – Hanna says her team saw the challenge as being ‘the need to build a sense of common allegiance out of six very strong individual cultures.’

They realized that one of the first ways the rebranding would actually touch customers was when they received their bills. ‘So we worked with a plain-language expert to help simplify them.’ Redesigning the bills to reinforce the new brand identity included prominent placement of the new logo – a star whose six rays represent the six original utilities.

When it came to TransCanada’s merger with Nova, Hanna says the newly-merged 400 companies, divisions and business units were quickly and efficiently kick-started in their new commingling by the creation of a sophisticated Web site. ‘It not only set out information about how it was all going to fit together, it also provided an automated turnkey system so any division could plug itself in and order all the marketing materials, templates, business cards and other collateral they needed online. This kept confusion to a minimum and made the transition really efficient and rapid.’

Decide what to keep, what to toss

‘It’s often tempting to throw the baby out with the bathwater, just toss everything and say we’ll start afresh,’ says Nucleus’s Ruffo. ‘But you probably won’t gain much that way because people will just end up being confused and they don’t like what they don’t understand.

‘Brand perception changes very slowly, at least on the upward curve. On the downward curve, though, you can go from being a top brand to being perceived as worthless quite quickly, as we saw with Enron. So if you want consumers to change how they feel about a brand, you have to keep the core elements that mean something to them and then add to them or tweak them or evolve them.’

That’s why, for example, Ove recommended that the Bank of Montreal keep its trademark blue when it became BMO, says Kessler. ‘From purely a visual identity perspective, we retained a strong amount of blue in all the retail environments so, even though we want people to know there’s a lot of new things happening, they’ll still be walking into a familiar-looking bank.’

In the case of the recent repositioning of the Hudson’s Bay Company, it was essential to convey ‘the covenant from the company’s long and rich history,’ as well as an endorsement of the customer-facing brands (Zeller’s, The Bay, hbc.com and Home Outfitters) that are now under its umbrella, says Ian Tudhope, co-chief executive of Toronto’s Interbrand Tudhope, which engineered the transition.

‘It all depends on how big a distance you want to put between where you’ve been and where’re you’re going,’ adds Hanna. ‘There are times when it makes sense to change almost everything, including the name.’

One of those times, says Watt’s Heywood, is when an identifiably Canadian name is a liability in the international arena. ‘Being called Toronto Dominion or the Bank of Montreal just doesn’t cut it in Chicago or Los Angeles or Atlanta, so a genericized name is probably a better choice.’

Try a spoonful of sugar

Launching a value-add proposition as part of an identity switch can do more than just sweeten the new deal. Done right, it can actually ‘walk the talk,’ demonstrating a brand’s new positioning in concrete rather than philosophical terms.

Kessler says that’s exactly what BMO is doing with its new Mosaik Mastercard. The first-ever ‘modular’ credit card, it offers customers a whopping 900 options for designing and, when necessary, redesigning the terms of their own credit agreements with the bank. ‘It’s a staggering value proposition that’s all about what a customer needs, not what a bank decides to offer,’ she explains, ‘and that perfectly communicates the new BMO.’

Get your internal ducks

in a row first

Perhaps the biggest challenge facing companies after a merger or acquisition is to make sure the internal changes are in order before marching up to the podium to announce the new you. If it’s not handled properly, you can be unveiling a big mess instead of a shiny new company, and the biggest mistake, says Spencer Francey Peters’ Hanna, is a lack of internal communication.

‘Organizations often underestimate how challenging major change is going to be for staff and how difficult it is to work in an environment where they don’t know what’s going to happen.’ Hanna recommends using regular meetings, voice mail, e-mail and video presentations, plus building in feedback mechanisms, to inform employees at all levels. ‘You want to tell them: ‘This is what we know now, these are things we won’t know for awhile, but you will hear about it every step of the way.”

Why are internal communications so important? Monigle’s Jacobs says it’s because, ‘Often companies will create a cool advertising campaign and forget all about its employees. But it’s absolutely critical that they understand what the brand now stands for and how their actions must reinforce it. If employees internalize that and become passionate about it, they become ambassadors who will bridge the gap between your brand promise and what is actually delivered.’

In Heywood’s opinion, a glaring example of what can happen if internal issues aren’t straightened out first is evident in Air Canada’s abrupt absorption of Canadian Airlines several years ago.

‘They obviously went too fast and it was just a nightmare in terms of customer service,’ he says. ‘Air Canada ended up doing untold damage to its brand by simply rolling everything together. What they should have done was keep the two operations separate until such time as they could actually deliver the seamless experience that the merger promised.’

In other words, if a company starts by suddenly announcing a new brand identity and then tries to create the intrinsic changes necessary to effectuate the switch, it may turn out to be a case of much ado about nothing.