Gather customer and employee feedback. There is no reason to rebrand if there is no reason to rebrand! Find out what customers think of the company, why they buy from you, what problem you solve for them, what value/benefits they receive, what they wish was better, why did they choose you over a competitor? How did they feel about your company before they became customers, etc. Then ask employees: What do you think customers expect of us? What would you like to be our reputation? What value do you think customers get from us? Do you think we live up to that now? What are our strengths? What are our weaknesses? Why are you passionate about working here? You want to gather both customer and employee feedback because rebranding is just as much about your market image as how your biggest brand assets, your people, feel about the mission and message. I have always loved that my client work results in market success, as well as reenergizing employees.
As part of our series about “Brand Makeovers” I had the pleasure to interview Maria Ross.
Maria Ross, the founder of brand consultancy Red Slice, believes cash flow, creativity and compassion are not mutually exclusive. Maria has authored multiple books, including The Empathy Edge: Harnessing the Value of Compassion as an Engine for Success, which released this past fall. Maria understands the power of empathy on the brand and personal levels: In 2008, shortly after launching her business, she suffered a ruptured brain aneurysm that almost killed her and inspired her memoir, Rebooting My Brain. She has spoken to audiences ranging from The New York Times to BlogHer and has written for numerous media outlets, including Entrepreneur.com.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit more. Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
I’ve been in communications, branding, and marketing my entire career. I’ve achieved success on both the client and agency sides for companies such as Accenture, Discovery Networks, and many Silicon Valley tech companies, so in 2008, I took my experience and launched my own brand consultancy, Red Slice. I work with fast-growth companies and entrepreneurs to create an irresistible brand story, attract the right customer and clients, and accelerate sales and impact. The work we do is the solid foundation they need to amplify success and I have seen over and over again the power of an efficient and honest cross-functional brand strategy process. I was a marketing executive myself, so I understand that CEO’s and marketing leaders don’t have time for a 6-month navel-gazing exercise to find the right brand strategy. My work now combines many of my core skills;telling a compelling, creative, and clear story, facilitating unruly groups for maximum alignment, instigating and provoking (in a good way) to find the breakthrough, and focusing on bottom-line growth.
Can you share a story about the funniest marketing or branding mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
It’s funny, ost of us consultants are our own worst clients! I had put together this effective brand strategy creation process that focused on making clients get clear about specifically what they do and which pain they solve. The challenge is to avoid defining too narrow of a niche but being very clear and focused so as not to be all things to all people. When a brand tries to be all things to all people, they end up being nothing to no one. And yet, when I first hung out my shingle, I advertised that I could “do it all!” when it came to marketing, from the strategic to the tactical. And of course, I struggled. No one quite understood where I played so my ideal clients were confused! I regrouped and narrowed down to the work I did best: strategic brand storytelling. Now I work with clients for six weeks, and then provide all the next steps and referrals they need to move forward. My referrals are far better suited to do specific tactical work. It was a game-changer and enabled me to raise my rates as well.
Be crystal clear about where you play and the problem you solve. It can be scary, and you may think you’re “losing out on all those other projects” but you’re really not. When your audience understands exactly what you do, when you take a stand and say, “I solve this pain point for you,” they are not confused and can immediately assess if you are right for them or not. The tendency is to go broad with the brand because we think we can attract more business. The reality is that just leaves people confused. And a confused prospect becomes someone else’s customer.
Are you able to identify a “tipping point” in your career when you started to see success? Did you start doing anything different? Is there a takeaway or lesson that others can learn from that?
The tipping point for me was following the advice I give to clients. As mentioned above, I was giving people a roadmap to success and yet not following it myself. I was “too busy” to worry about my own business.
It’s important to balance chasing sales with taking time to look at your own business from the customer’s point of view. Otherwise you get stuck in Ivory Tower thinking and lose touch with your customers. Revisit your messaging and brand strategy at least once per year. Markets, customer needs, and competition change.your own strengths and learning change. You get to know your customers’ needs better. It’s imperative to revisit how you are positioning yourself and ensure you are speaking your target’s language. Take the time to get feedback from them — often. Why did they choose you? What pain do you solve best? How do they use your products and services? The answers will surprise you. I’m constantly shaking my head when clients say they can’t make the time to do this because they are “focused on revenue.” You have to. It’s vital to revenue growth!
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
I just launched my third book, The Empathy Edge: Harnessing the Value of Compassion as an Engine for Success: A Playbook for Brands, Leaders, and Teams and could not be more excited by the response. Empathy has been coming up with my clients in the last few years: They want their brands to “be seen” as empathetic. But what does that mean? How do you put that into action and walk the talk? Empathy is great, but does it impact the bottom line, or is it just fluff? I spent three years researching the data, interviewing experts, and compiling case studies to prove that genuine empathy is not just good for society, it’s great for business. How can a leader, team, or brand make it genuine? How can they flip the script on what success means? There is ample data on how leaders and brands have found success without being solely driven by greed. Conferences and companies now hire me for keynotes and workshops to show a better, more human, way to operate at work and with customers and (bonus) increase revenue, too. My mantra is “Cash flow, creativity, and compassion are not mutually exclusive,” and I show people why, and how to achieve success themselves. Companies and customers both benefit: More innovation, improved morale, better customer and brand experiences, more loyalty, higher profits — the list goes on and on.
What advice would you give to other marketers to thrive and avoid burnout?
Never lose touch with your customers. Dig beyond features and functions and find out how your products or services make their lives better. This will thrill you and keep you going. Even if your company doesn’t invest in any formal, consistent customer feedback (it should, but that’s a different problem), find ways to talk one-on-one with customers. Why did they choose your offering? What can they do now that they couldn’t before? What was life like for them before? Despite his mercurial leadership style, this was Steve Jobs’ greatest strength for Apple, profiled in the book. He was actually extremely empathetic and in touch with users and what they were trying to achieve, how they wanted to see themselves. When a burned-out marketer hears that her product or service has saved customers hours at work so they can now leave early and spend more time with their families, or how they grew their business 50% and got a promotion, or how they can accomplish a previously dangerous task much more safely, or how they literally could not do their jobs without it, you will be inspired. Knowing that what you do matters to the quality of someone’s life (B2C or B2B) inspires you with a larger purpose during those difficult times.
Ok, let’s now jump to the core part of our interview. In a nutshell, how would you define the difference between brand marketing (branding) and product marketing (advertising)? Can you explain?
Advertising and product marketing are actually two different things. But if we’re talking about advertising, that is but one promotional tactic in the marketing toolkit, which includes events, online ads, social media, videos, etc.
Brand is your core, your essence. It’s everything the company is, what it stands for, who it serves, and what value it provides. Brand strategy actually informs more than just marketing — it informs hiring, partnership decisions, and policies or procedures. When your brand strategy informs every possible customer and employee touchpoint, you’re walking your talk and that’s when you can have an “authentic” brand. You live your brand from the inside out.
Brand marketing is more about the overall story you tell, and what you are known for. Product marketing is more specific to the product itself, but it should tie into the overall brand story. Brand strategy is like the umbrella and everything else fits under it. Consider Honda. Their overall brand story is about safety, reliability and value. Their product marketing strategy and advertising go a layer down and talk specifically about a certain car model’s features and benefits. But it never conflicts with the core brand story.
Too often, companies think that “social media,” “PR” and “viral videos” are a brand strategy. They are not. They are tactics — and your brand strategy informs what you will do and say in each of those tactics. Otherwise, you’re just performing what I call “random acts of marketing.” Nothing makes sense, nothing works together. People don’t get a consistent story to understand where to slot your brand in their minds.
Can you explain to our readers why it is important to invest resources and energy into building a brand, in addition to the general marketing and advertising efforts?
Let’s be clear: a brand is an impression, what people think of you and what you do. You have a brand whether you “invest” in one or not, it just may not be the one you want if you’re not paying attention! All of the decisions made create your brand impression.
First of all, most markets are saturated, and we are bombarded with more daily information than previous generations consumed in a lifetime. Standing out is imperative in modern marketing. It’s not enough to have the best quality. People have to know you have the best quality, and they have to believe it, too. A friend of mine calls this being “quietly awesome” and it’s nice but leads to zero visibility and growth.
Standing out doesn’t mean you have to be edgy or extreme if that is not what your brand is about or what will resonate with your target audience. “Going viral” is not a marketing strategy.
There is a marketing and sales journey that many companies don’t appreciate. It goes from Awareness (Do I know you even exist?) up through Consideration (Do I have a need for this?) to Evaluation (Are you the right choice among others?) to finally Purchase. Some journeys take a few minutes or weeks; some, like enterprise software, can take months or years. You have to “woo” your audience. Many general marketing and advertising efforts are set up to do too much within one ad, email, offer and it’s like proposing on a first date. Whoa, slow down! People need to get to know, like, and trust your brand before they buy. That’s why social media, video, podcasts and other content marketing work so well., Offer me value, prove your expertise, and over time, when I’m ready, you will be the top-of-mind expert when I’m ready to buy. Referrals and social proof help accelerate the velocity, but what can you do as a marketer to move people through the journey?
Brand marketing is about awareness and is the air cover needed to ensure your ground game (specific tactics, direct marketing, etc) works more effectively. Once i know you and understand what you’re about, if you are for me, I’m more willing to open your email, pay attention to your offer, or accept the sales rep’s call.
Let’s now talk about rebranding. What are a few reasons why a company would consider rebranding?
First, let’s be clear on what rebranding means. Remember, brand is more than just colors and logos. Brand is the core and essence of the business and is conveyed in three essential ways.
- Visually: How the business looks: logo, colors, fonts, design, imagery.
- Verbally: How the business sounds: company name, messaging, website copy, voice.
- Experientially: How the business acts: policies, customer service, hiring.
When a company rebrands, they can tackle any one aspect of these. Usually the most powerful is “verbally” because that in turn can inform the other two. In fact, this verbal aspect, the messaging, is where my branding projects start. Because otherwise, how do you know what story you want to tell visually and experientially?
Companies rebrand for a variety of reasons: They are targeting a different audience, they offer a new value proposition, the competitive landscape has changed, their customers’ needs have changed, or they simply need to update a now outdated and irrelevant look or message and reenergize their customer base — and employees.
Understanding why you want to rebrand will impact your decisions about which of these aspects you need to tackle first. Uber, for example, needed to rebrand because of its horrible reputation of its former CEO, treatment of drivers, and passenger privacy. Clearly that calls for experiential rebranding on culture and how they do business. But they also wanted a fresh start with the public, so they tackled visual and verbal, too.
Brands can and should evolve. A design refresh or messaging update — even a name change — can be a great way to generate excitement and increase visibility but be careful. Don’t change every other six months. While you might be sick of your current brand, you may not have given your audience enough time to absorb and remember your brand story. Additionally, frequent rebrands make your company seem confused.
And remember: Rebranding in any form can be an expensive proposition so make sure you are doing so for the right reasons. A new logo or edgy messaging will never solve fundamental business issues such as poor merchandising, a toxic culture, out-of-touch products or services and bad pricing strategies, so look hard at the health of your company before you rebrand, and make sure it’s coming from a place of strength. Effective branding must start from the inside out.
Are there downsides of rebranding? Are there companies that you would advise against doing a “Brand Makeover”? Why?
Two big downsides; first, rebranding arbitrarily, without a keen understanding of your customers or without a clear brand strategy, and second, rebranding as a way to improve company health when the problem is more about operations, culture, or market relevance.
On the first, why do your customers buy from you and what are their emotional attachments to your brand look, feel, and messaging? Tropicana tried to change their packaging years ago and they lost sales as a result. People couldn’t recognize the product in the cold case, but they also had a strong emotional childhood connection to the brand packaging. They ended up wasting millions of dollars and going back. The buying decisions is not always rational, but if often emotional, even with B2B.
On the second reason, you can never “rebrand” your company back to health when the underlying problem is that it is fundamentally out of touch with the market or losing relevance to the competition GAP learned this the very hard way when they tried to change their logo a few years ago. There was practically a revolt. Firstly, it was a really poorly executed visual. It did not convey anything about what the company was all about — because they didn’t know what they were about or where they fit anymore. This happens when you don’t build your brand strategy first before communicating it visually. It becomes arbitrary and meaningless.
Ok, here is the main question of our discussion. Can you share 5 strategies that a company can do to upgrade and re-energize their brand and image”? Please tell us a story or an example for each.
There aren’t five cookie-cutter strategies that will work for every company and market. My job would be easier if there were!
But the best first step: Gather customer and employee feedback. There is no reason to rebrand if there is no reason to rebrand! Find out what customers think of the company, why they buy from you, what problem you solve for them, what value/benefits they receive, what they wish was better, why did they choose you over a competitor? How did they feel about your company before they became customers, etc. Then ask employees: What do you think customers expect of us? What would you like to be our reputation? What value do you think customers get from us? Do you think we live up to that now? What are our strengths? What are our weaknesses? Why are you passionate about working here?
You want to gather both customer and employee feedback because rebranding is just as much about your market image as how your biggest brand assets, your people, feel about the mission and message. I have always loved that my client work results in market success, as well as reenergizing employees.
Secondly, step back and facilitate a cross-functional discussion to openly discuss all of this input and come to aligned decisions on what you do, who you do it for, and what value you provide/want to be known for. Discuss your company’s personality and voice (what is genuine, not completely delusional!). You can then decide if these new insights require a new visual identity new messaging or new policies — or all three!
From there, you can determine what you need to “rebrand” and if you need to at all.
In your opinion, what is an example of a company that has done a fantastic job doing a “Brand Makeover”. What specifically impresses you? What can one do to replicate that?
I think Dunkin’ has done a remarkable job of rebranding to compete with Starbucks and other upstart hipster coffee shops. They’ve been around forever, enjoying a great reputation for their coffee. But they were often viewed as the slightly sketchy place where only cops got their coffee at 2 am. Now they have rebranded with new visuals, messaging, offerings, and mobile apps to compete with rivals. They are kind of appreciated as a “retro” brand, too, because they capitalize on their longevity — and the lines are often out the door.
I’m impressed by the precision and intentional pace at which they did this rebrand. They did this thoughtfully and in stages, which we can all learn from. First they observed the market and saw what customers wanted from the experience. They learned from the competition. Second, they started with a name change first (dropping the “Donuts”) so they could expand their offerings. Then, they rolled out their “store of the future” experience slowly. This tested new store designs, drinks such as nitro-infused cold brew, digital-ordering kiosks and their mobile app. Yet they kept their iconic and recognizable colors, as they knew they had brand equity built up in them.
This is no accident. When you take the time to thoughtfully consider what your customers need and your new brand strategy and story before you jump into a quick, sloppy rebrand, you’re more likely to place winning bets that work.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
As mentioned, my mission is to spread the word that empathy is not just good for society, it’s great for business. So I’ve been sparking an Empathy Revolution! We must flip the script on what corporate success means. The existing thinking is that we have to be competitive, nasty, immoral, take-no-prisoners in order to succeed financially — and the data and examples outlined in my book The Empathy Edge show that is the furthest thing from the truth. Employees suffer and burn out. Customers end up furious. Companies generate bad press and lose revenue. None of it is good.
We as humans created the current culture of corporate success. It’s not a law of physics. So we can change it! Our world is suffering from a giant lack of empathy these days, which leads to racism, misogyny, xenophobia. But we can do something about it by starting in the place where we spend the bulk of our time: at work. We can have more responsible companies, happier employees, and delightful customer experiences. We just have to start with one action, policy, or habit and watch the ripple effect. We can’t just act horribly for 9 hours a day and then expect we’ll be empathetic and compassionate when we clock out. When we are better people in our work lives, it transforms our personal lives and ultimately, our actions in the world at large.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Do what you feel in your heart to be right, for you’ll be criticized anyway. You’ll be damned if you do and damned if you don’t.” — Eleanor Roosevelt
While this can lead to perverse justification for all kinds of horrible acts, I love this quote because it’s all about not worrying about what others think if you feel you are on the right path. Many times, in my work life and my business, I’ve been told not to say or do something that I felt was either morally the right thing, or was that the honest, genuine truth. I was told early on not to ever mention my side hobby of acting in the context of my business website, that clients may see me as “not serious”. Yet, being a storyteller is my business! I also was unsure about being so open about my brain injury years ago. But I weaved it into my business and wrote a memoir to share my story called Rebooting My Brain. This experience has won me clients who say, “I want someone with her moxie and grit!” Now, I stand out from the 9 billion other brand strategists out there! You will get more work and interest when you bring your personal passions and story to the table. And if you really, truly, in your gut want to write that book, start that business, take that disruptive market step, or serve that customer DO IT. Just be smart about it and seek wise counsel. If we all only did the things that no one criticized, we’d never get out of bed in the morning. And then we’d be criticized for that!
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Thank you so much for these excellent insights! We wish you continued success in your work.