We live in a time of change, where financial markets, capital investments, and entire industries can shift rapidly. Where startups disrupt old ways of doing things. And where the consumer is in charge, expecting consistent content delivered across devices.

So it’s no surprise that businesses can fall behind or fail to distinguish themselves in such a fluid environment. If you’re looking to reinvent your brand, you want to start the process by asking lots of questions—leaving your assumptions in your wake.

One question your company will need to ask is: Do we truly understand how customers are using our products? Even an innovative company might be surprised at that answer.

SurveyMonkey began their brand update with a survey that revealed a big surprise: people weren’t using their product as a survey tool. Rather, they were using it to unleash creative thinking. Such lightbulb moments led them to a new mission: Power the Curious.

Reimagining a brand isn’t something to be taken lightly. Here are some pointers I’ve gleaned from working on branding projects for Element Three clients.

Understand your starting point

Whether you’re revamping a venerable brand or rebranding after a wave of acquisitions, you need to find your starting point by researching the industry. This should be an objective process of discovering what’s new in the space, where things are now, and where things are headed. You can read my approach to industry research here.

Gather internal perspectives

Another important aspect of a brand overhaul is understanding the perspectives of your employees and key internal stakeholders. A marketing agency can serve as an objective third party in this area by developing an employee survey or conducting interviews with key internal stakeholders.

Employees are in a position to contribute valuable ideas that can help you overcome the status quo. As this Fast Company article says, “bad ideas are the seeds of great ideas.

You might find an internal consensus that your company needs a new name. If that’s the case, keep in mind that naming is a beast of a process in and of itself. Call off the committee and read this post.

Know your audience

Customer research can take a number of different forms: from online surveys to phone interviews to in-person observations of them using your product. Interviews can be a powerful means of gathering information because you can ask follow-up questions to intriguing or unexpected responses. Let’s look at a couple of companies that made the most of insights gained from interacting with their consumers.

Pabst Blue Ribbon might not come to mind when you think of great beer, but you’ve got to hand it to them for their comeback. When their sales bottomed out in 2001, they turned to an Atlanta agency called Fizz for help, according to the HubSpot blog. There wasn’t any money for traditional advertising, so Fizz went straight to the customer to find out why they drank PBR. As it turned out, the PBR fans were “early hipsters” who avoid mainstream brands. So with this information, the agency spurred PBR’s comeback with a strategy of sponsoring events like skating parties and art gallery openings.

Lego experienced an amazing comeback of its own—one that’s been hailed as the greatest turnaround in corporate history, according to The Guardian newspaper. This revival stemmed from really understanding their audience: kids and their families. The Danish company is said to conduct the world’s largest ethnographic study of children, something they refer to as “camping with consumers.” Lego’s Global Insights group travels the world to observe how kids play with Lego and learn why some sets are more popular than others. Here are two takeaways:

Understand your audience segments

Lego learned that boys tend to be more interested in the battle of good versus evil, while girls tend to want figures with greater detail and realism. Such insights helped Lego, whose customer base was largely boys, break into the girls’ market with Lego Friends, a different type of product that appeals to what they learned girls want.

Stick to your strengths

Lego boss Vig Knudstorp inherited theme parks, clothes, jewelry, and video games when he took over in 2001, the Guardian article said. Knudstorp sold assets—like the theme parks—for which Lego had no expertise. And under his leadership Lego has also decided to find partnerships for new projects such as movies, rather than trying to create everything themselves.

Know your adversaries

Another aspect of updating your brand involves clearly understanding how your competitors are positioned, what they’re saying to the marketplace, and where they’re saying it. You likely have strong feelings about certain competitors and how you stack up. But do you realize that the companies you compete with online are often a different group than the ones you compete with offline?

When we conduct a competitive audit at E3, we research how the client compares to key competitors in terms of:

  • Clarity of message: How easy is it to follow and understand what they’re saying?
  • Design and UX: What is the visual identity?
  • Channel efficacy: How effective is the marketing across channels?
  • Reputation: What’s the sentiment among customers, employees, and the industry?
  • Differentiators: What sets them apart?

Synthesize your findings

After all your research is done, it’s time to synthesize your findings. You’ll need to assess what your customers have told you they care about, what your key stakeholders think you should be communicating, and what you’re actually communicating to the marketplace.

You’ll want to consider the main themes that emerged in the research. Ask yourself questions like:

  • Which themes keep coming up?
  • Were there surprising bits of information?
  • How do emerging trends relate to the customer? My company? Competitors?
  • What are the areas of greatest opportunity?
  • Where are the potential threats?
  • How are competitors positioned? What about us?
  • How are we different from everyone else?
  • What’s a positioning we can truly own?

Answering these questions and identifying what’s lacking in your current messaging can help you craft a story that’s unique, authentic, and bold—one that can grab attention across online and offline channels.

Find your bold story

Your story is what sets you apart, what pulls people in. It must be relatable. That means it’s okay to admit your failures and give people a window into the struggles you’ve experienced as a company; such transparency can help you connect with consumers on an emotional level.

Some stories take companies back to their roots. Others like Target find a new position that they can truly own. Target, which was going head-to-head with big-box stores like Wal-Mart, differentiated itself by becoming a fashion-forward brand that maintained its low prices. The style revamp extended beyond the products to the design of the stores.

Wherever your story takes you, it’s crucial to get key internal stakeholders on board with your direction early on. An effective internal launch can serve as a rallying cry that gets employees excited before your new story is broadcast to the world; that’s why it’s important to get the internal launch right, especially in a large company.

Element Three has significant experience in working on branding projects with clients in a variety of industries. Check out the work we did to modernize Indiana’s municipal advocacy organization.

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Derek Smith

Derek Smith’s skills as a reporter serve him well as a senior writer here at Element Three – and if you need a coach for your soccer team, he’s got you covered. He’s worked as a content strategist as well as a copywriter, so he’s always thinking about the why behind every word and every piece of every campaign.