Is it time to rebrand my startup?

by Claire Polansky

Rebranding might not always be an answer to saving your startup, but sometimes to rebrand is THE answer.

After binge-watching Jessica Biel’s “The Sinner” in one weekend, it occurred to me that we have a lot to learn from Jessica Biel’s  “rebranding.” She went from bland arm candy with unmemorable one-liners in blockbusters to captivating us with her strong, psychologically complicated character on USA Network. In fact, she got her first Golden Globe nomination for her powerful performance. For the first time, she is recognized for more than a pretty face. She is an artist.

Some days later, I read that Priceline Group just changed their corporate name to Booking Holdings Inc.

So this got me thinking. Why do companies rebrand themselves and how do they recognize the signs that it is time?

Sometimes you need to “repackage” your image in order to reach your objectives or to revitalize a stale brand. Other times you need to amend your reputation or throw in the towel. And if you are a longer-standing brand, you might need to update your image to reflect the current trends. The reasons are endless. You simply need to recognize the signs that it’s time to change.

But how do you know when it is your time?

6 Signs that it is time to rebrand yourself.

1. You outgrew your initial business model or product

Let’s take Priceline Group as an example. Priceline revealed that they were rebranding themselves as Booking Holdings Inc in order to reflect their full scope of services. The new ticker will read BKNG beginning February 27 for you stock market buffs. CEO Glen Fogel explained to Forbes,

“We started 20 years ago with Priceline.com and one type of product called Name Your Own Price, a fairly niche product, and from that, we’re now the global leader doing many different things. So we want to make sure the parent name is aligned with all the things with we do, and it’s not just Priceline. In fact, our biggest subsidiary is Booking.com by far.”

2. You need to repair or change your image

Sometimes your brand falls into the wrong hands, so you gotta make a change.

One of the first things I learned in Oakland was to absolutely not get on the train wearing solid red or blue, especially if it had an athletic emblem on it. Let me tell you, the deadpan stares and hooded men following you from one train to the next at night because you wore the wrong color is not fun.

This is a prime example of branding gone wrong.

Many athletic brands are associated with gangs. Adidas, Reebok, Puma, Converse, FILA, Nike, etc. You name it. Many of them became inadvertently associated with gangs due to their colors, private acronyms, or cultural association.

It’s such an important issue that American Rapper Kendrick Lamar partnered with Reebok back in 2015 in order to tackle gang rivalry by “promoting unity” with his personalized sneakers. They updated the “Ventilator” as an all-white sneaker with the word “red” written in color on one heal and “blue” on the other. The words “neutral” are written in white over a blue tongue and a red tongue in order to drive the message home and the insoles match with Lamar’s signature.

Of course, 2 years later, he abandoned Reebok for Nike. Together, they designed a pair of red-suede Cortez’s and his signature touches like Chinese characters, the words “Don’t trip,” TDE on the laces, K&L on the heel, and damn printed on the tongue. While Cortez’s have a long-standing association with Mexican gangs, it appears that Lamar simply has brand loyalty to the Nike Cortez tennis shoe.

So before you go and kick off your old image, you might want to assess customer loyalty first alongside demographic research on a new target market.

3. You want to attract a new target market

Burberry is another prime example of branding gone wrong. UK’s “Chav” culture (anti-social youth) adopted the beige checked clothing as their signature thug wear, despite Burberry’s initial intent. In fact, many bars in the UK started banning anyone wearing their merchandise.

In 2006, they underwent a transformation and miraculously rebranded themselves as a luxury fashion brand.

How did they do it?

  1. They replaced core management.
  2. They recalled their trademark designs, which they had issued errantly.
  3. They got the actress Emma Watson and supermodel Kate Moss onboard to endorse their products.
  4. They updated their look to incorporate modern trends.
  5. They embraced new media (e.g., websites, social media, etc) and could perhaps be identified as the founding members of buzz marketing.
  6. They created “The Maverick,” a marketing video that seemingly incorporated the old image of rebelry with the targeted upper-class image with the tagline: “To change the system, you have to stop complying with it.”

The next thing they knew, they went from a hooligan brand to a brand for the rich and famous — from celebrities to royalty to your everyday preppies.

All it took was getting the right people on board and making a few small changes.

The campaign was so successful that the story has become a staple for marketing and fashion programs across the globe.

4. Your mission or vision has changed

If you don’t know Uber, you probably live under a rock a somewhere. This company has revolutionized transportation tech by putting transportation needs into the hands of the people.

Need a ride to the other end of the city? No problem. Just click on the round little circular icon on your smartphone and catch a ride with an Uber driver for a minimal fee rather than emptying your bank account on a cab.

But Uber was not always for common people. It was Travis Kalanick’s and Garrett Camp’s answer to having difficulty hailing a cab in the middle of the night. But they were not after yellow cabs. They were high rollers after all. They wanted sleek black cars and other luxury automobiles that helped them “roll around San Francisco like ballers.” This service was an elite service for elitists who could pay the 50% more for Uber vs. a regular car service or $30 more than the cost of a yellow cab.

But the concept caught on fast.

Before you knew it, regular people signed up to drive their own cars as Uber drivers and the masses downloaded the app in order to save money on transportation–or to decrease traffic congestion.

The company went from a local service to a global brand almost overnight. So they needed to make changes to reflect their demographics.

So the company set out to revamp their logo alongside their core pillars.  They considered everything from bits and atoms to mood boards across the globe to represent their multifaceted brand.

In the end, they decided to offer 65 country-specific color and pattern palettes and 5 global designs. This includes a slightly different geometric icon for drivers vs. riders.

In Kalanick’s words, “The early app was an attempt at something luxury.That’s where [they] came from, but it’s not where [they] are today.”

Their rebranding efforts reflect this.

5. You launch a new product

I am sure that you created a long-term business trajectory when you kicked off your startup. But that does not mean that you can foresee changes ahead in your crystal ball.

Your customers may need something different. Technology may progress. Or you simply want to expand your services or products.

Say you started out as an all-female technology startup featuring products for women, but expanded your repertoire to include men.

Chances are, your branding does not reflect your changes. This can confuse or alienate your customer base, so you’ll likely need to jump in there to make some crucial changes.

Like Priceline, you may need to change your name. Or you may need to alter your logo like Uber. Or maybe you’ll need to overhaul your entire mission.

Whatever it may be. You need to ensure that your branding efforts align to your mission, products, and services. If it doesn’t, back to the drawing board you go.

6. When you change leadership

The Huffington Post went from a leftist online news source to a populist new media magazine renamed HuffPost practically overnight. What changed?

The magazine’s cofounder and namesake, Arianna Huffington handed over her reins to New York Times’ rising star Lydia Polgreen so she could pursue bigger and better things like running a health and wellness magazine. Subsequently, Polgreen got out her iron rod and made her mark on everything from the name and logo to new hires and an expanded target audience.

Polgreen announced that the name change reflects what the readers were calling them anyway. But it was more than just a name. To her, HuffPost needed an update from the 2004 alternative to the conservative Drudge Report that reflects the vision of new leadership led by herself and CEO Jared Grusd.

In short, she wanted to alter the perception of journalists and regain trust.  She thus extended her reach of journalists across the US and abroad in pursuit of “original journalism.” Likewise, she redesigned the home page with shareable “splash cards” that could swiftly move across your favorite social media channels with meme-like posts that could possibly go viral.

In other words, Polgreen combined traditional reporting with pop culture media, which she herself explained was inspired by “old-school, big-city tabloids” that extends beyond class and ideologies.

Now, we can question if this choice leaves the magazine in an identity crisis.

Is HuffPost a blog or a reputable news source? Is she alienating the original liberal audience by seeking to add the right wing demographics to her repertoire? Will the desire for viral content forsake quality reporting? Or is it something in between, a mere reflection of the changing times that embraces new media in journalism and citizen journalists?

That’s great and everything if you want to make your mark as a new leader and roll with the changes in society or tech.

But you must ensure that your vision and mission align with your product or service as well as your audience — or you have no audience.

Bottom line: You need to find the balance between remaining true to your core values while being open to change in a rapidly evolving market.

Have a cool startup? Think you got what it takes to join a creative community?

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Author: Claire Polansky

I am a Jill-of-all-trades marcom specialist and high tech autodidact. I stay upstream with the rapidly moving high tech scene by excessively reading anything and everything. When I am not reading or writing, you can find me with my dogs on the beach basking in the Mediterranean sun.

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