Facing Your Fear of Branding

January 9, 2018 at 4:31 PM

How to Avoid Branding Pitfalls and Arm Yourself For Success

Nothing in life is to be feared. It is only to be understood."  �Marie Curie


I have worked on branding projects for over 37 years. They have run the gamut from sole proprietorships to huge international, publicly held companies.

Each of these projects, whether for an individual or massive company, share a commonality. Fear. Specifically the fear of branding. I've experienced this repeatedly, and it puzzles me.

I look at branding or brand renewal as an opportunity to renew, grow and innovate. To me, it seems exciting rather than scary.

However, as a branding agency, it is our role to create, plan and manage this innovation and change. In that role, we must thoroughly immerse ourselves in any organization we work with but remain objective in order to use research and creativity to build the truest brand possible. It is also our job to do everything in our power to eliminate the fear of branding.

We all fear change. It's new. It's scary. It's the unknown dark, deep abyss. But with change comes discovery. Renewal. Growth. So, why do so many branding projects seem inevitably paired with a healthy dose of fear?

What is fear? We all have fear. I am afraid of heights. And I don't really know why. I have never fallen very far (I did fall from a scaffolding while decorating for my senior prom�but that is because my friends were pulling me around the gym at high speed until the whole thing crashed with me in it). But how do you define fear? Since I like to follow the direction of my brilliant marketing strategist I started writing this blog post by doing a Google search.


I put in "Fear of" into my Google search bar. These were the top four auto-populated sentence completions that appeared:

Fear of holes
Fear of public speaking
Fear of flying
Fear of long words

Fear of long words? I don't get it. Why would anyone be afraid of a long word like, say, hippopotomonstrosesquipedaliophobia? It won't injure you, like falling off a high cliff, or embarrass you like public speaking might if you completely freeze. We can also justify fear of holes. Especially in Chicago, where the potholes can literally swallow your car whole.

Fear is walking into the unknown. The acronym FEAR stands for "False Evidence Assumed Real." The first time I heard that I had to turn it around and around in my mind before I understood it.

Let's break it apart:

  • "False Evidence": Did it happen to you before? Why do you think it will happen to you? What evidence do you have that it will?
  • "Assumed Real" means because you imagine it, it will come true. Think back to your past experiences. How many times when you have truly feared something, has it actually come true? Yet, fear is a healthy motivator too. It can help us to be prepared.

We make sure (especially in Chicago) to keep our eyes open for potholes in every season. We practice, practice, practice, before public speaking. Taking some anxiety meds help too. We take Dramamine or order a good strong drink if we are afraid of flying. We arm ourselves with tools and knowledge.

It is understandable that brand managers fear rebranding or branding projects. After all, there are many classic cases of "brand fails." And people love to point them out. One writer for Inc. Magazine goes as far as to say, "Most of the time, rebranding (changing your logo or tag phrase) is a waste of time and money." I would definitely get into the ring with contributing editor Geoffrey James on that one. I never trust a person with two first names, anyway. It's one of my rules.

NeigerDesign can help you alleviate the fear of branding by helping to prepare you with expert knowledge and useful tools. Using a combination of rigorous brand process with stand-out design creativity helps our clients to align their brand with company strategy and positioning. Just like someone taking Dramamine or ordering a drink when they fear flying, you can arm your organization to avoid fear of branding.

Three key strategies for success in branding before even issuing a request for proposal (RFP) are:

  1. Prepare your board and plan for a regimented process which actually helps to make the complex simple.

  2. Ensure that you have a role in creating, or have access to, "Strategic Planning Documents" so that strategy and branding link up.

  3. Focus on aligning the organization with its core mission as part of the RFP.

Why do so many of our clients fear the rebranding process?

They worry too much about the board of directors.

Yes, your board of directors (BOD) can be scary. When a company or organization doesn't get that much exposure to them or time with them, it puts pressure on the interactions that do happen. However, it is crucial to remember one thing: the BOD is transient. A new brand must last.

Being fearful of how the BOD might react is a backward behavior. Turn things around. Board members serve for a reason and they usually are incredibly valuable. They offer diversified knowledge and feel a strong commitment to the company or organization. Make sure to tap them for their input. If they provide insight from the beginning, and you present their input alongside the brand concepts, the buy-in will be easier.

They think the new brand is all about the right "logo."

A great first step when undertaking a large rebranding project is to be armed with an arsenal of definitions and make sure to spread the gospel to all of your stakeholders in order to keep their expectations in line.

A logo is the point of entry to the brand."  �Milton Glaser

The logo is only just a starting point for a brand. There is not a successful brand out there that magically became well known, understood, remembered, and loved just by designing or redesigning it. It takes a whole lot of brand marketing to become a passion brand (a brand that inspires a high degree of loyalty).

It is helpful to educate every single person on the team, from staff to board members, with this list of branding definitions:

  • Brand:  Meaning associated with an organization or product that goes beyond its actual function.

  • Brand Identity:  The visual and verbal expression of a brand.

  • Brand Qualities:  Thoughts, feelings, associations, and expectations created by a brand identity.

  • Product Qualities:  Functional characteristics of a product, having a significant influence on brand qualities.

  • Branding:  Utilizing every customer-related activity to support the brand identity.

  • Marketing:  Motivating members of a target audience through product design, pricing strategies, distribution channels, advertising, etc. to purchase a product or service.

  • Brand Marketing:  Pushing beyond product benefits to fulfill a strategic core promise. Looking beyond the tangible to the intangible, accommodating buyers' practical needs while resonating with their deeper feelings.

The corporate culture breeds fear.

Here's where great planning, education, and preparation gives you the big payday. It is important to spend time upfront educating and detailing the process so that by the time you actually get to the creative presentations, your client team is primed and ready for innovation. If everything is presented all at once, without any lead-up, it's easy to see how even one person in a meeting could derail your efforts with fear of change, cost, or both. 

They worry they will make the wrong choice.

Marty Neumeier talks about the fear of creativity in his best-selling book The Brand Gap:

Q: How do you know when an idea is innovative? A: When it scares the hell out of you."

So how do we leap over fear in order to allow positive change and creative ideas to emerge? A brand must be an authentic expression of an organization�its unique vision, goals, values, voice and personality.

The design and messages emerge from who it is and anticipate what it will become. The design must be appropriate to the organization, its target market(s), and the sector in which it operates. It needs to be aligned with its heritage and its vision. The best identities emerge from a process which is both investigative and intuitive. And lastly, if it feels a bit scary that is actually a good thing.

Going back to the acronym False Evidence Assumed Real, what is my False Evidence? I fear heights, but nothing ever happened to me to provide evidence that it might happen. People fear being out of control�you can fall off a mountain cliff, fall into a hole, get bitten by a snake, and not be able to pronounce or define very long words. We, as humans, dislike those situations of powerlessness and uncertainty. The best way to avoid them is to use caution and learn how to use tools to help you control each situation. You can be aware of your surroundings as you hike, wear the right shoes, and hike to the level you can handle.

The same holds true for branding. Your tools for rebranding: a controlled process that includes goal setting and clear objectives, stakeholder support and buy-in, communication, expert consultants, a bit of courage to step out and try new things, and patience as you go from step to step in a systematic branding process.


Use a Solid Process

NeigerDesign's process is divided into eight phases. Other agencies may have slightly different approaches, and the process you choose to follow for your own branding project may differ for your own situation, but these are the steps that have worked well for us over the past three decades. 

Phase 1. Research and Methodology

Research is an important part of the process. Depending on the situation, the amount of research needed at the outset of a brand project may vary. When starting your rebrand, be sure to collect together your past research. From surveys sent to clients or employees to market research or usage statistics, it could all prove helpful and provides a good starting point. From there, additional research may take the form of staff intake sessions, focus groups, qualitative and quantitative surveys and interviews, and competitive audits. 

Phase 2. Creative Brief and Brand Pyramid

In addition to the creative brief, a brand pyramid will help to summarize and guide what the brand should be. The brand pyramid organizes results from intake sessions and research into a pyramid structure that starts with "Tone of Voice" at the base and builds upwards with "Values," "Personality," "Brand Essence" and then "Brand Reward" at the very top. A brand pyramid is a great at-a-glance tool for brand champions and brand designers alike. It also helps us to begin to make succinct statements (both visual and verbal) about the brand. See a real example of a brand pyramid that distills the brand elements of a new credential for an international association in our case study.  

Phase 3. Brand Concept Development (Brand, Naming, Tagline)

A brand must be an authentic expression of an organizationits unique vision, goals, values, voice and personality. That's why the previous phases are so crucial the process. No matter how great a brand may look visually, it won't stick if it doesn't resonate with your organization itself and appeal to your audience as authentic to what you stand for.

To get started with concepts, we at NeigerDesign take a sketchbook-first approach. That means we pull out our sketchbooks and brainstorm the old-fashioned way before taking ideas to the computer. This approach allows our ideas to flow more freely and take a wider variety of forms, instead of getting stuck on technical limitations or of-the-moment trends reliant on software features.    

Our naming process begins with learning about and helping to define your brand, how it emerged and where it's headed, how it compares to your competition and fits within your industry. Similar to the sketchbook-first approach to creating concepts, naming often starts with casting a wide net of potential ideas before worrying about URLs and social media handles, although availability and discoverability will be an important part of the process in selecting the final name. 

Taglines aren't required�or even appropriate�for every brand, but they can serve as a helpful way to convey your brand's mission and core values, and to provide another opportunity to be memorable. It's important that a tagline is short and simple. It's not your mission statement, but instead a way of positioning your brand for your audience. Think of BMW and their tagline, "The ultimate driving machine." For Anixter Center, their new kite brandmark was paired with a fresh tagline that encapsulates what they aim to provide to individuals with disabilities: "The ability to soar."  

Phase 4. Brand Architecture

In some situations, a brand architecture is required. A brand architecture is the system for organizing sub-brands or owned brands within a larger organizational entity, whether those are products (such as Tide, which has a distinct brand from parent company Proctor & Gamble) or divisions (such as FedEx Freight versus FedEx Office). Both were the case with Anixter Center, which was operating as several distinct brands alongside each other but wanted to move forward with a more cohesive look that brought them all under the same umbrella while maintaining differentiation between the main divisions of the organization. We coordinated with the staff of each division to create a unique logo that resonated with their audience and was easy to tell apart from the others, but that was still based on the primary brandmark. This was accomplished with the consistency of typography, color palette, and basic structure and worked together to create a unified family of brands. In addition to the organization's divisions, the main services needed brand variants as well

Phase 5. Family Look

A family look is the overall suite of your essential branded collateral�naturally this includes company stationery and business cards, but also brochures, postcards, and even digital items like social media cover images and templates for email newsletters. Not every branding project calls for creating an entire system of materials from the outset, but it's important to have some basics determined from the beginning. These will be the first connections your customers and prospects will have with your new brand, but they also serve as examples for future branded marketing materials. It's important that all materials have consistent use of logos, typography, color, format, image style, graphic elements, copy style and brand voice to lay the foundation for brand integrity. 

Phase 6. Brand Standards Guide

Brand standards guides are used to maintain and execute the brand and provide guidelines for usage, placement, and coloring. These are created after the new brand has been finalized and serve as an easy way for your staff to properly apply the new branding to company visuals, from the specifics of the font to the spacing around the brandmark and how to use it appropriately. They can be printed or digital, but the key is that they must be accessible and easy to understand so that everyone is on the same page.

Phase 7. Brand Book

Many people confuse a brand book with a brand standards guide, but they serve different purposes. A brand book's primary function is not to educate on the specifics of a brand, but instead to tell its story and introduce the new brand to your organization in order to create strong brand ambassadors. Anyone who promotes the brand through interaction with customers, prospects, partners or the media should be familiar with and follow the brand book guidelines. Keep in mind, however, that every employee or stakeholder is a brand ambassador or brand champion. The brand book will help you to communicate the meaning and significance of the new brand and how it aligns with your overall mission and vision for the future. 


Learning from Our Stories from the Trenches

It's Called a Creative Brief for a Reason

The creative brief is the foundation of your project. A creative brief can be initiated by you (the client) or used as a summary report by the brand agency. Basically, a good brief helps you organize your thoughts and summarize research and allow you to evaluate the success of your rebranding after the project is completed. At NeigerDesign, we'd never start concept development for a branding project without first gaining full client agreement on all of the many important points that inform the strategic direction of the design using our creative blueprint: the creative brief.

We had an experience where a client was surprised to see that the creative brief (written by NeigerDesign after conducting qualitative phone interviews with staff and members of the BOD) did not state the specific font style and brand color, nor did it include a conclusion as to whether the final brand format should be a wordmark, lettermark or brand mark. What that approach would have missed are all of the opportunities for exploration that happen in the next phases. A good brief informs creativity, not constrain it. Why risk stifling the creative process that way?

There is No Winning Concept

But wait, yes there is (but there is such a thing as too many options).

How many concepts should you ask for? We have had the experience of clients asking for as many as 12 concepts. This many concepts have proven to be detrimental rather than helpful in the process. Clients must trust designers to be their advocate and to go through a vetting process prior to showing initial concepts to you.

We have been most successful with the rule of three. Creating three options is enough to see diverse solutions but not so many as to overwhelm and let that evil fear come back to haunt the process. Imagine you must pick a new color for your kitchen walls. You walk into the paint store and see a rack with thousands of colors. Or, you have someone offer you a choice of three based on your original input. Which experience makes you feel more comfortable? Which experience makes you feel more confident?

When a client once asked us for 10 concepts, we developed and presented them. They were initially excited, but asked if they could think about the concepts for a few days. After more than a week, they got back to us. There was nothing in that first set of 10 that they loved. Although we explained that the logos were "rough" and needed a process of refinement even though they were comps and looked final, they insisted there was nothing there that "rocked their boat." We developed more concepts, then more concepts, eventually coming back to refining one of our top choices from the very first round. They loved it! Lots of hours wasted later, we were able to explain to them that design is iterative and there is a process of refinement and you must trust the designer and the process.

The lesson here: as branding experts, we focus on the problem to be solved first and the aesthetic second. Designs always need multiple rounds of refinement, but the concept is driven by the research and criteria for success, which is summarized by the creative brief. By focusing too much on the small details of a design you are in danger of eliminating a concept that truly defines your brand.

The IFMA rebrand is a great example of a concept-driven brand solution. "Our logo is so much more than a collection of shapes and colors," says Stewart Dallas, IFMA Marketing Director. "It's the flagship of a brand that represents everything IFMA stands for. During the creative process, we wanted to incorporate our rich history with our shared vision for the future. In viewing this logo, one can simultaneously see within it a globe representing the international scope of IFMA's membership and the built environment itself, for which that membership is responsible. The vibrant colors and sleek typeface are both modern and timeless. IFMA's new logo redefines our visual legacy. It charts a bold path forward. And since our legacy is shared by everyone at IFMA, this logo truly does belong to us all."

On the other hand, it isn't surprising that CEOs, and brand directors have fear of branding. There are some very historic cases of companies that spent millions on new brands, launched the new brand and then met with so much negative public reaction that they pulled the new brand in favor of the original. Gap's historic replacement of their iconic tall serif logo with a bland sans serif logo with a little blue square behind it is one of those brand mishaps. It took only six days before they reverted back to their original logo. MasterCard's move from the stripy overlapped circles to gradients and bling duet is another sinker. The Tropicana Juice redesign cost the company over 137 million in loss of sales and within 2 months of rebranding, the old cartons were back. Kraft Foods had one of the most iconic and trusted brandmarks around but rebranded because of the massive acquisitions they absorbed. The new logo met with such negative reaction that they went back to the original logo after 6 months.

Too Many Chefs in the Kitchen?

Who is a part of the approval process? Who gets to give input?

Before even issuing your RFP, discuss and establish your internal approval process with your executive leadership and staff team. Your branding firm will be able to plan accordingly, both in terms of gathering insights ahead of time from every person involved in the approval process and in terms of providing an accurate budget.

This is one of the key preparations to avoid fear. If you know from the onset who is making decisions, who is offering input, and who is doing both, you can better prepare those individuals and groups for what they will see and hear at each stage of the process. You can also arm your branding staff and design firm with tools to gauge presentation formats and the timing needed for approvals.

Who Should Give Input?

We believe in the citizen brander. That means that anyone who wants to be contributory should be. Especially when branding a non-profit organization, where staff members highly value the work they do and feel heavily invested in the organization's success on a personal as well as a professional level.

To fully capitalize on this strength and commitment, the brand-building process should be highly participatory and interactive�not dictated from the top down. Staff and leadership should be viewed as "citizen branders" responsible for contributing creativity, insight and enthusiasm to the development of the brand.

If this is done properly, you will also foster a more cohesive culture, develop a better understanding of the importance of brand, and garner more support for brand compliance once your new brand is created. When we rebranded Anixter Center and IFMA we used our practice of citizen branding. In both cases, the final brand emerged from something that was said by a member of the staff or leadership in our research phase. This type of input is invaluable to everyone involved.


7 Strategies for Brand Managers to Ensure a Successful Rebrand

A combination of rigorous strategy and analytics with world-class design creativity will help you create and manage brand value.

  1. Report regularly. Communicate with staff and possibly your public (especially in the case of membership organizations) from the beginning of the project. Dallas from IFMA wrote monthly newsletter updates to keep the entire staff aware of each phase of the project. He was looking to build brand champions�they participated in and contributed to the research and saw the results, and by the time the new brand was unveiled he had tons of support! Use myriad media to update people: emails, posters, newsletters, and social media.

  2. Be brand driven from the top down and bottom up. Keep your CEO in the spotlight. Whoever strategically owns the new brand vision (usually the CEO but it may be someone else) has to remain the loudest cheerleader in the room. Being the top brand champion can't be delegated.

  3. Reinforce the research and process. You want the staff to feel like owners, not renters. You want your public to understand that nothing as important as a brand is changed lightly. Research and lots of thought go into it.

  4. Don't be impatient about the new brand being loved. It takes time. It takes branding. Remember, branding means "any effort or program to build a brand; the ongoing process of brand-building." The brand will develop meaning over time through consistent brand marketing.

  5. Create a brand book for staff and board members. Your staff really needs to understand why you are doing the name change and what it means to them. People can get a little concerned that they will lose their job when there are big changes in the business. It's important that they feel they're a part of the change in a positive way.

  6. Generate excitement around the launch�have brand advocates in your corner. Try to make the name change a celebration. Have a function, launch the new brand, work to get press coverage, and of course put it all over your social media channels.

  7. Don't let a little negative buzz get you down. Not every great brand is beloved by all�especially right away�and any change is at risk of experiencing some pushback. Know that it may take some time, but keep the momentum going. Make sure to develop a flurry of your own positive buzz, chock full of the brand story (the articulation of the brand as a narrative or a coherent set of messages that articulate the brand). 

Don't let fear of rebranding stop you from re-energizing your organization or business with a name or brand change. Keep this toolkit of brand redesign strategy close at hand and add two crucial ingredients: patience and courage.

The bottom line is that with a great process you will be equipped for success and have nothing to fear. Just stay away from long words. 

Have no fear of perfection�you'll never reach it."  �Salvador Dali


Written by

Carol Neiger


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