The Corporate Mid-life Crisis: Re-branding your beeves

Written on January 11, 2014

My uncle once described a mid-life crisis to me in this way: he said that there comes a time in a man’s life when he fears that there is more trail behind him than there is in front of him – and he wonders if he’s been cowboy enough. I always liked that way of understanding it.

Well, pardner, I’m here to tell you that there comes a point on the success curve of almost every company, where the executive team determines that some outward-facing expression of the brand (collateral materials, messaging, logo, etc.) does not reflect what the company is about. There’s all this trail behind them, and they begin to think they need to cowboy up. Unlike the midlife crisis of the adult, male Homo sapiens, this one is usually warranted

The corporate brand mid-life crisis can happen for many reasons. The Why is irrelevant. How is the crux: how do you re-brand your company, and maintain your existing brand equity, while preparing for the long trail ahead?

First let’s get the terms straight. Brand versus branding. We cowboys owe the cattle industry for this term brand – i.e. the identifiable mark or tag that indicates the owner of a “beef.” Over the years the term became associated with the visible markings of a product or company: logo, trademarks, etc. Late in the 20th century, the notion of brand expanded to encompass all of the many touch points a company has with its internal and external stakeholders (more on this later).

Given our current understanding of brand, one thing is certain: brand happens. A company that’s been around for even a short time already has a brand. Brand accretes like a pearl. It is the layered aggregation of stories, experiences, imagery, and behaviors that have come to be identified with the company. Think of Ritz Carlton hotels. We associate the service behaviors of their staff directly with the Ritz Carlton brand. We may not even be able to recall the Ritz Carlton logo (a lion’s head, dexter, superposed over a duke or count’s coronet, for the curious). But by Jim, we know how the brand behaves. Brand happens; the company receives it – often passively. And that brings us to branding.

Branding comprises the strategic, combined activities the company or product undertakes to manifest what it believes itself to be. Where many companies wear their brand passively, a company engaged in disciplined branding pays active attention to every aspect of how it touches its stakeholders. Branding still incorporates identifiable marks: logos, logotypes, colors, imagery, graphic devices, signs, ads, etc. But, branding is also identifiable behaviors. For example, while branding is certainly the recognizable red and white chicken-in-a-C mark for Chick Fil A, it is also the response of “My pleasure,” every time a customer says, “thank you.” And it’s the pickle placed in the middle of the chicken sandwich. And it’s the foil pouch in which the sandwich is served.

Inside out. Active branding demands an inside-out approach. If you don’t know who you are or what you promise your stakeholders, you can’t live your brand. There are a lot of ways to get your head around this promise or value proposition. Most branding agencies have some sort of workshop they take you through. For example, when we undertake a re-branding, we begin by facilitating an extensive debriefing or discovery process that helps identify the brand’s key aspects. Think corporate psychotherapy. Seriously. In fact, there are times we go so far as to identify the Jungian archetype of a brand. Brand discovery can be as simple as a half-day workshop, and as extensive as a two-to-six-month process of interviewing stakeholders and conducting multiple workshops and external research. Bottom line: some form of introspective discovery process has to happen in strategic branding (or re-branding).

Wearing a new brand. If you go through the discipline of strategic rebranding you have to know how to live your new brand. It’s like buying a car: you may know how to drive it, but can you change the clock when daylight savings time rolls around? What you need, Hoss, is a tool box and owner’s manual.

The Toolbox: You’ve got to mark those beeves. So, there’s a logotype (typeset name of your company), a mark (what a lot of people call a logo – e.g. Nike’s “swish”), typefaces or fonts that will be associated with your brand, a primary and possibly secondary color palette, various graphic devices, a photography style, etc. Using these tools can be challenging, so you often find them packaged in a document imaginatively named Brand Standards. Oh yeah, you’ve seen this before, compadre. This is that other book that comes with the owner’s manual – the one that tells you how much air to put in your tires and how many horses you have under your hood. Out in the brandlands, this is the document that tells you that the logo is always PMS color XYZ and is always positioned such-and-such inches from the bottom right of the page; the corporate fonts are blankity-blank and blinkety-blunk; and the color palette consists of, BillyBob Red, JoeBob Yellow, and Frank.

But what about the rest of your brand? Here’s where the owner’s manual comes in play.

The Brand Book. When we go through the discipline of rebranding, we deliver a handbook to our clients – The Brand Book. This owner’s manual describes what the brand is and what it isn’t. It helps the owner of the brand understand how the brand is positioned in its competitive set, how it speaks, looks, feels and what sort of photography represents it. It personifies the brand. It rounds it out and gives it dimension.

A great brand will have a way of speaking, a tone of voice (Think Nike. Or Target). Often, the discipline of branding requires that you personalize your brand – who would your brand be if it were a person? Male? Female? How old? What kind of car does your brand drive? By personalizing your brand, you have a sense of how it communicates. Does it communicate intellectually? Or is it down-to-earth? Is it humorous like Inspirational like Cheerios? Hard-working-male-macho like Ford F-150? This brand voice comes alive in the Brand Book.

The Story. At Cayenne, we call ourselves strategic storytellers because, at the end of the day, that’s all any company or product is really trying to do – tell a story. But ask yourself this: can you boil down what makes your company special into that pithy little bit of language that you can spew between the 1st and 2nd floor of the Shanghai World Finance Center? Better yet, have you ever been to one of those unnerving speed-networking functions where you stand up and in about 15 seconds tell what your company does? Here’s where having your story down pat makes a difference. Where does the story come alive? Yup, The Brand Book.

Now, we’re not talking about a big old thick marketing tome that sits on the CMO’s desk, chock full of marketingspeak, and sagging under the weight of its own self-importance. A Brand Book is a document that can be digested internally by everybody in the company right down to the guy who changes the coffee filters, and anybody else who must engage in an activity that ought to communicate the brand. Got an interior designer coming in to redo the office? They get a brand book. Hiring an advertising agency? They get a brand book. Want to skin the company Yugo? Give that graphics company a Brand Book.

So, if you’re undergoing a corporate midlife crisis, welcome to the wide open range of rebranding. Your beeves are gonna look much better out there sporting your new brand. The workshops and Brand Book are the Cayenne way of doing it. But, there are lots of other ways out there that are just as effective, Little Joe. The main thing you need to know is this: out here on today’s trail, however you go about it, you’d best have a keen understanding of what your brand is really about, cowboy. Otherwise, you don’t have a prayer of taking those beeves to market.