A Rebrand Strategy That Won’t Leave You Reeling

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There are two kinds of banks: those who get to rebrand and those who don’t. For those who get to initiate a new brand, it’s one of the most exhilarating (and scary) projects you’ll undertake. The entire future of an institution is your responsibility and there are only two options as to how it will turn out: great or terrible. There is no middle ground.

If things go well, you might be looking at a promotion (or another bank looking to snatch you up to help them rebrand). If things go poorly? Well. You might be getting the boot.

There’s a bigger problem, though: It’s almost impossible to immediately determine which way it will go.

Rebranding has an almost supernatural reputation. We talk about capturing the essence of an organization or the spirit of the brand. It’s intimidating. It sounds like you need a medium or a spirit guide, or at least, an Ouija board.

For most, any rebrand is their first.

We want to help you through all the prognostication and soul searching, but we’ll skip the Ouija board and hopefully demystify the process.

That doesn’t mean we can remove the fear. The best analogy I can give for your first rebrand is a bit like skydiving. If you go on a legit excursion, the instructors will spend far more time on the ground training you than actually plummeting from the sky. All of that instruction doesn’t keep you from being scared when you poke your head through the door and see 13,000 feet of nothing separating you from the ground. Having a qualified expert strapped to your back doesn’t keep your heart from racing. But, at some point, you have to jump. When you have to take that leap, we want to make rebranding a little less nerve-wracking.

START WITH THE WHY

Everyone, including wet-behind-the-ears interns, quotes from the gospel of Simon Sinek. Common knowledge doesn’t make it bad knowledge. And that’s the case with Sinek’s number one commandment: Start with the why. So let’s start there. Why rebrand?

The two most common and pragmatic reasons banks rebrand are geographic expansion and mergers.1

The First Bank of Smith County doesn’t make much sense when you expand into Carrol County.

It gets a bit more complex with mergers and acquisitions. Sometimes banks find that their name conflicts in a newly expanded footprint, or you run into the same geographic issues mentioned above. Other times, banks take advantage of the upheaval to create a stronger name or identity.

If this is your “why,” it’s tempting to react with a simple modification. We are now the First Bank of Smith and Carrol Counties. That’s not getting anyone into the branding hall of fame.

Perhaps everyone finally noticed (and agreed) that your colors are outdated or your logo is just ugly. Then your “why” might be aesthetically based. In this case, the easy part is agreeing to change. The hard part is when someone wants to pay homage to the old brand—worried that the audience won’t recognize you. This is a valid fear, one that should be explored, but too much energy can easily be expended on this effort. Too many banks wind up compromising. This is when First Bank of Smith County becomes FBSC.

Let me be clear. This is a bad idea. Please do not be tempted to go into the middle ground of abbreviations. These attempts to hold on to the past (that your clients probably don’t even care about) normally leave you with no brand name at all. Sure, you can cite UPS, GEICO, or AT&T as examples of successfully abbreviated companies, but I doubt your bank wants to spend the BILLIONS of dollars each of those brands spent over years to attain their status. These examples only prove that one can be successful with an abbreviated name. It doesn’t mean you should.

When you rebrand, you can be anything. In the earlier example, the initials FBSC don’t communicate anything. There are many clever ways to uphold existing brand equity and pay homage without reducing yourself to a set of letters that can’t recall any connection to their roots. Want to test it? Without internet search, can you immediately recall what UPS, GEICO, and AT&T abbreviate. Even if you got them right, do you associate their expanded names with what makes these companies successful?

Often your reasons for rebranding are most important to you and your colleagues and often less relevant to your audience and clients. Your reason for rebranding should help inform your rebrand strategy, but it should not necessarily be your rebranding strategy.

Your true “why” has to be deeper.

No matter the predicating factors, you should be rebranding to make a stronger identity. Brand is the foundation of all marketing efforts that will follow. Brand is the fulcrum that helps you with all the heavy lifting to come. If your name and logo are unique and memorable, earning name ID and top-of-mind awareness will be easier and cheaper. A strong brand message can reduce your advertising cost because word of mouth will be easier to create.

Brand strength is your goal. It’s your why. Now you’re asking “how!?” We’ll get there, but we have to ask “who?” next.

WHO IS THE BRAND FOR?

Everything in branding comes back to audience. The better you understand your Who (your audience) the stronger and more successful your rebrand will be. Think about who your rebrand is for. The good news is that most marketers overcomplicate audience. We’re going to help you simplify it.

Before you dig deeper, you need to pick between two audiences. Are you rebranding for your current clients or potential clients? It’s never an equal split between both. And, spoiler alert, it should lean toward potential clients.

Can you rebrand for new clients without alienating your constituents? Yes.

And the answer is so easy we’re not going to expound very much: Just communicate with them. Unless you drastically changed your core offerings, how you do business, or moved a headquarters, you’re probably not going to lose clients—if you communicate the changes with them.

Now that we know there are two groups, let’s add a bit more detail to help guide your efforts.

  • Ugly/Outdated Brand — Gone are the days of one community bank competing with another. Even if you’re one of two or three banks in town, you’re competing with national sentiment. In other words, if your brand doesn’t look like it could compete with a national brand, it could be diminished in your audience’s perception. Potential clients will judge your ability to fulfill a mortgage by the intelligence and sophistication of your marketing, and that is based on your brand.2
  • Forgettable/Confusing Brand — This is similar to the example above. More than two-thirds of banks share a similar name. This similarity comes from shared mundane terms such as Citizens, Farmers, First, National, etc. There’s a lot of competition for your clients’ headspace; if they don’t remember your brand, you’re not going to convert them.
  • Misleading/Alienating Brand — Do you ever wonder why certain clients only have one product with your bank? It could be because they think of your shop as a business bank/ag bank/retail bank, instead of a full-service financial institution. You don’t want to spend money perpetuating that to a broader audience. Perhaps your name is too rural, urban, traditional, modern, etc., so potential clients assume it is not for them. It’s hard to be surprised when Merchants & Farmers is not raking in the retail DDAs when no one refers to themselves as merchants and you already have all the farmers’ business.

“Why” and “who” combine to make up the foundation of a great brand, but we have a few other questions to consider.

What . . . ?

What are we even doing? What’s on the table? What about the logo? What about the name, tag-line, and market position?

It might sound ridiculous, but I can speak from experience: I’ve seen rebrands fail due to the fact that no one agreed on which component could (or should) change.

When there’s a sacred cow—i.e., “the logo is off-limits, but change everything else”—it’s usually due to internal politics. Other times, it’s lack of communication.

Go back to the why and be brave enough to make a firm decision. Let that inform the rest of the process. When someone is stuck on brand equity of a generic name or says, “we can’t touch the logo,” it might be time to hang up the process. A 60 percent rebrand doesn’t yield 60 percent of the results. In fact, it usually has negative returns.

WHEN ARE WE READY TO ROCK AND ROLL?

After everyone gets on board with the process, a sort of euphoria takes over and “brand-launch fever” starts to spread. The symptoms are shortened timelines, heightened expectations, and general lack of awareness.

One of the worst things you can do is shortchange your rebrand timeline.

Start with your launch date and work backwards. Make certain to give enough time for each aspect of the process. Work with your rebrand firm to understand their timeline. Build in time for reviews (remember, your board is going to want to sign off on this). Look at major events on the calendar. Don’t launch your brand in the middle of other large news events such as major elections, local events, or other distractions.

Also, don’t overlook internal buy-in. Schedule an internal launch well in advance of your external unveil. If your employees aren’t on board, it’ll be that much harder to establish your brand in the communities you serve.

All of these meetings and events can be difficult to schedule. Weeks become months. And the best of timelines go bust in a hurry.

And we haven’t even mentioned the other items tied to this: new website, signage, etc. There are many moving parts and your best friends will be a cautious outlook and a comprehensive calendar.

WHERE DOES MY REBRAND LIVE?

There are a lot of existential, highfalutin, and heady elements to doing a rebrand.

Who is my bank? What’s our authentic self? If my bank were a dog, would it be Doberman, a golden retriever, or an Airedale? Conceptual is good, but being grounded in reality will help guide your rebrand from little baby idea to grown-ass rebrand for the real world. Hold your agency and your internal constituents accountable.

The big questions to help ground your rebrand are around where it will live. Think through how your current clients and potential clients will experience the new brand. Are you going to do a big rollout event and announce it? Are you buying media to do a campaign around the rebrand? If so, what type of media do you typically buy and is it appropriate for a rebrand announcement?

Probably the biggest “where’s it going to live” question is about how the new brand will be represented in branches. Are you going to redesign branches? New signage? New paint? These details will help inform your rebrand strategy and make it most effective for the medium where you’ll primarily communicate it. They will also affect your timeline, so proceed with caution.

A REBRAND REALLY IS FIGHT OR FLIGHT

Rebrands are the coolest, hardest, most dynamic, rewarding challenges a marketing team can undertake. Even the smoothest rebrand will push you and your team to articulate your authentic self, simplify complex ideas, and challenge long-held assumptions about your institution. It’s a big, big undertaking to say the least.

It really can feel like launching yourself from a perfectly safe airplane at 13,000 feet. But the reality of rebranding, like the reality of skydiving, is once you’re in a position to do it, there’s really no turning back. You’re prepared. Now jump and enjoy the excitement.

1Is this true? Probably. We did a quick vote around the Mabus office and most people agreed with me, which they don’t normally do.

2Bank embarrassment most often manifests when clients are out to dinner and split the check. Everyone throws their credit cards on the table, and your poor, loyal client has to defend this ridiculously designed card that looks like it was created with MS Paint in the early ’90s.

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