Rebranding 101: Why & how to update your existing brand

Published by Nela Dunato on in Branding, Business, Marketing

Whenever designers create a brand for an organization, we want it to be long-lasting. What’s the point of doing it if you’re going to scrap it in a year or two?

The challenge here is that in order to create a long-lasting brand, the information designers and brand strategists are working with has to be accurate and future-proof. Unfortunately, new businesses often base the information they give designers on lots of assumptions, which may or may not prove to be correct in a couple of years time. Businesses grow and evolve, and a brand may get outdated even if you did everything “right” the first time.

Rebranding 101: Why & how to update your existing brand

The moment you’re starting a business from scratch may not be the best time to invest a lot of money in branding.

This goes contrary to what most people I talk to tend to think. This chart that I often share in my workshops shows where I see the proper place for branding—after the business has already had success in serving initial clients, and before getting into an active marketing campaign.

Branding in a business cycle

I explain this in more detail in my book “The Human Centered Brand”, in the chapter “When is the right time to create your brand?”

That’s a catch 22 with branding: you need some kind of a brand to make a good impression on prospective clients, but you can’t create the best brand possible unless you have some experience working with clients. Many businesses who started off with a brand of some kind, need a rebrand around the 3-year mark. Why 3 years? Because that’s on average how long it takes for a new business to stabilize.

During the first few years, being in business is all about experimenting—with offers, sales techniques, your internal processes, your communications… Even if you’ve done this work before for an employer, doing it all by yourself is much different, so there’s a learning curve for all new business owners.

After a couple of years of proverbial throwing spaghetti at the wall, things settle.

You get confident in your process and your offers, and you learn who your best clients are, and what’s the biggest value that your work provides for them. And not least of all, you learn a lot about yourself. You learn about your boundaries and your core values on a deeper level.

When you learn all of these things and look at your existing brand, you may notice some discrepancies. Here are some examples of what this may look like:

  • Your brand is too sterile and corporate-looking, and is not highlighting the actual human beings—you and your team—who bring their expertise and passion to their work.
  • Your face is plastered all over your website and social media, but now you employ a whole team of professionals, so a personal brand isn’t appropriate anymore.
  • Your old logo and website look like a budget brand, while you’re trying to sell high-ticket services to a discerning clientele.
  • The color palette and photos on your website are totally off because they were picked without giving enough thought to what values, qualities, and atmosphere they’re supposed to communicate.
  • Most parts of your brand look great, but there’s a specific channel that’s very outdated and needs a refresh (typically that’s the website).

An ill-fitting brand can drag an otherwise healthy business down, and prevent it from reaching the level of success it’s capable of.

How much needs to change? That depends.

Before you throw your old brand out the window, it’s worth examining how much of it can be saved. There’s value in continuity. There’s also value in turning a new page and showing your clients that you’re constantly evolving and becoming better. Balancing the two is key.

When rebranding a business, we want to keep and highlight all the positive elements of the existing brand, and implement desirable elements that are currently missing.

You can’t mix and match elements as you wish, though. The entire brand needs to work together harmoniously. If you try to fit in an element that doesn’t work with the rest, it’s going to be obviously out of place, and possibly even confuse your audience.

In my Human Centered Brand Strategy framework, the essential elements of a brand follow a meaningful order, as displayed on this Human Centered Brand Discovery Pyramid:

The Human Centered Brand Discovery Pyramid: Core Values, Unique Value Proposition, Brand Voice, Ideal Client, and Visual Brand Identity

When we’re creating a brand strategy using this framework, we’re always starting from the foundation: the core values. As we move forward through the upper levels, every new level is informed by all the previous ones. I explain how this process works in my article Struggling with your brand strategy? Start here. (And of course, my entire book.)

This process works with rebranding, too.

If one level of your brand strategy changes, other levels above it change as well.

If you realize your unique value proposition has changed, this ripples out through the rest of the brand strategy.

Human Centered Rebranding Process

The lower on the pyramid the change occurs, the more of your brand will need to adapt to it.

If the assumptions you made when you were starting your business were correct, and you find that most of the elements of your brand strategy have stayed the same, then your brand will last longer, and the changes you’ll need to make over time will be less drastic.

If you started off with one set of assumptions and have since entirely changed your entire business model, target audience, and communications strategy, then a full brand overhaul is needed to get everything on the same page.

Depending on which level the change in your brand occurs, the process will look a little different.

1. Rebranding from the level of Essence

The essence of your brand are your core values—either those that you’ve come up with on your own, or those you co-created with your team. (If this is the first time you hear about this concept, read my introduction to core values first, and then come back to this article.)

When the founder starts a business as a way to realize their human potential, their personal core values are the main driver behind the actions the business takes.

When a team of people gathers around common core values, they are more likely to form harmonious work relationships than if their core values were at odds.

Some companies start out with a firm grasp of their core values, and others realize what they are only years later. It’s never too late to identify your core values. Once you do that though, you may realize the real work has only just begun.

Your business and your brand might look completely different seen through the prism of your new core values.

At the level of essence, your core values form your principles. They also affect your mission and vision, if you feel the need to formulate those. (Not every business does, and that’s fine.)

Sometimes rediscovering long-forgotten values may lead you to completely change your entire business around, and start fresh. Other times it may just be a matter of being more clear and outspoken, but the business itself is fine because it was already operating according to those values behind the scenes.

Once you identified the change on this level, ask yourself how this change affects the other levels:

  1. Do these core values affect what makes our business different from our competitors?
  2. Does this affect the topics we write/talk about, and how we express our thoughts?
  3. Which potential buyers are most likely to resonate with these core values?
  4. How can these core values be represented through visual media? Do we need to make them obvious in the logo, photography, and illustrations?

2. Rebranding from the level of Positioning

Positioning is all about where your brand fits into the marketplace—how it compares to businesses in the same category. Here’s an example of airline positioning using two dimensions: price and quality.

Positioning map example: European airlines
Positioning map graphic is adapted from this chart. This information may be outdated.

We can see that the chart has outliers at the edges, and brands that are nestled in between. The outliers that we care about are the cheapest (RyanAir) and highest perceived quality (Emirates), because they have a compelling unique value proposition.

If you want to do this kind of exercise for your own business, you get to choose which dimensions you want to include on your chart—price doesn’t have to be one of them. But these dimensions have to matter to you, and they have to matter to your buyers. Ideally, one of these dimensions will position your brand as an outlier, which makes your unique value proposition clear. I’ve written more on how to identify your unique value proposition (UVP) here.

Back when you started your business, maybe you didn’t have a clear UVP, or you had one that turned out to be not-so-unique. Maybe your UVP wasn’t sustainable—often new businesses try to break into the industry by offering the lowest prices, but soon they realize that if they keep the prices so low, they’ll go bust. When you’re unable to hide behind the lowest price, you need a more compelling reason for folks to choose your business over others.

Rebranding from this level can have a tremendous impact on your business.

In a crowded market, this is the most difficult aspect of a brand to get right. That’s what makes it so important. If you have a compelling UVP, your marketing and sales become exponentially easier. The service basically sells itself, you just need to place it in front of the right people.

Once you identified the change on this level, ask yourself how this change affects the other levels:

  1. Does this affect the topics we write/talk about, and how we express our thoughts?
  2. Does the new positioning mean we need to reach out to a different target audience?
  3. Does this new UVP require a different visual presentation that portrays it better?

3. Rebranding from the level of Communication

Some businesses don’t have a problem with being different, but they have a problem communicating it. Most of the time they’re not communicating enough—not posting informative articles that would draw attention to your unique offers, being quiet on social media, and not producing any engaging content.

Communication is a crucial part of running a business. Without it, your offers will not reach your audience.

This is a common challenge for solo business owners who simply can’t find the time to produce content in addition to their full-time client work.

Not producing content leads to another common problem: not having a clear brand voice. You develop a brand voice by practicing your communication skills. Your voice gets stronger and more unique the more experience you have. It’s a long process.

If your business publishes content regularly, and you are aware of the important role that communication has in your success, you may already have an idea of your brand voice. But over time, this voice might have slightly changed. Maybe you discovered that you have a humorous side you weren’t aware of, and now you want to include more of that not just in your blog articles, but in your sales page copy and marketing brochures as well.

Something that came up as a result of an experiment can now become an intentional part of your brand voice.

The key here is to write down observations about how your communication style has developed over time, and find the opportunities to infuse this new energy into your writing, videos, graphics, “stories”, etc.

Once you identified the change on this level, ask yourself how this change affects the other levels:

  1. Would our existing clients resonate with this change in brand voice? If not all of them would, what part of our business’s audience should we focus on attracting in the future?
  2. Does our current visual style match this new communication direction, or does it require some updates so they’re more harmonious?

4. Rebranding from the level of Audience

Sometimes a business owner enters the market convinced they want to serve a specific audience, but what ends up happening is that an entirely different audience responds to their offers better than the intended audience. Or if it’s not a different audience, it might be a more niche audience.

This is not a sign of failure. All of us go into business with certain assumptions (because we lack actual data), and then we refine those assumptions based on what ends up happening. As long as someone is buying your services, you’re doing good!

If you notice that out of all the clients you serve, you’re getting better results with a certain subset of clients, identify the common traits of those clients and redefine your ideal client avatar so that it fits this client profile.

No matter how much we empathize with our clients, we can’t read their minds. It’s not a bad thing to switch from a certain clientele to a different one. You can’t serve everyone. The health of a service-based business depends on your ability to say no to a client that is not the right fit.

Has your business been saying yes to clients who are not the right fit in the past?

If so, what kind of problems did this cause for your business?

  • Do you attract lots of people who waste hours of your time looking for free advice, but don’t buy anything?
  • Do you get sucked into clients’ organizational messes, and have a hard time getting every stakeholder on the same page?
  • Do you routinely lower your rates because you’re afraid a prospective client won’t hire you if you charge what you think is fair?
  • Do you feel like you have to be on guard around your clients all the time, pretending you’re more serious and reserved than you really are, so as not to look unprofessional?
  • Do you feel like some of your clients don’t really understand the value of what you do, and your explanations feel like a “hard sell”?
  • Are some of your clients unwilling to do their part of the work, so you can’t achieve the same results as those of your highly engaged clients?

These issues point to one main reason: you work with the wrong crowd. Find out what the right crowd is, and put your offer in front of them.

The result of working with the wrong people is more work, more stress, and less money. The moment you begin to say no to everyone who is not the right client for you, your work becomes easier and more profitable.

Once you identified the change on this level, ask yourself how this change affects the other levels:

Does our current visual style fulfill the expectations of our new target audience, or do we need to upgrade it so that it’s clearly visible we’re the right business for them?

5. Rebranding on the level of Visual Identity

This is the easiest form of rebranding because literally any agency or freelancer that does brand identity design can help you out, whereas not everyone who does brand identity design can help you define the other parts of your brand strategy.

This doesn’t mean that the work designers do is superficial—as I explained in my article “Is your logo sending the right message?”, the main competency of a graphic designer is to translate strategic and verbal information into visual. We use the visual language to communicate the elements of brand strategy in an appropriate manner by using color, typography, symbols, composition, photography, and other elements.

Is it better to update an existing brand identity, or start from scratch?

The majority of clients I work with are open to a complete rebrand, which means that we typically scrap all the existing elements of a visual identity and start from a blank slate.

Sometimes a client will be attached to a particular color or a symbol, so we try to incorporate something similar in the next iteration.

If you’ve noticed that certain visual elements work really well for your brand, it’s a good idea to keep them. This will help your existing audience make the connection and adapt to the new brand identity.

The elements can still change slightly—for example the symbol can be redrawn to look cleaner on small sizes, and the exact shade of your dominant brand color can be tweaked a bit, but most people won’t notice these differences unless they compare the old and the new version side by side. (Like that time when Ericsson slightly changed the angle of the three stripes to make the icon look better on screens.)

Unfortunately, you probably won’t be able to use any of your old marketing materials going forward. It’s better to get everything designed in the same style in one go when a rebrand is concerned. Waiting until you run out of old business cards or brochures is not a good idea—it will look unprofessional, and like you haven’t fully committed to the new brand.

Sometimes there’s nothing wrong with your current brand identity, and you just need some fresh graphics.

If your logo, typography, and color palette are great, but you feel like your website and marketing materials look dull and something is missing from them, here’s an idea: get better photos done. For most service businesses, that alone will do the trick.

If you want something truly unique, you can commission an artist to create custom illustrations for your business.

Bring these new assets to your designer—or better yet, include them in the process—and let them create the new website, brochure, presentation, social media graphics, etc. The difference will be staggering, and the rest of your brand identity won’t have to change at all.

If you want to see an example of a rebrand with lots of before-and-after and work-in-progress images, check out my blog posts:

Ready for your rebrand?

I hope this article has given you an idea of where to start making the changes, and how to check whether the rest of your brand strategy elements are sound, or need adjustment as well.

I’ve found that rebranding energizes and motivates business owners to reach out to new people with confidence, and get better business results.

It’s quite an amazing feeling when you know that your brand speaks for you, and attracts the right clients to you even while you sleep.

If you’d like to work with a designer and brand strategist who can help you make this shift, check out my branding services. If it sounds like the right thing for you, reach out to me so we can transform your brand in 2020.

The Human Centered Brand by Nela Dunato: A Practical Guide to Being Yourself in Business

Brand strategy “for dummies”—no matter how much (or how little) marketing experience you have

In my book The Human Centered Brand, I guide you through the steps of crafting an attractive, authentic brand that creates a deep resonance with your right people and the kind of clients you’d most enjoy working with. It contains practical tips and exercises that will help you promote your business with ease and clarity.

Learn more about the book, and download the sample chapter.


Some blog articles contain affiliate links to products on Amazon. I’ll get paid a few cents if you buy something using my link, and there’s no extra charge to you.

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