Rebranding: Engaging Employees

If you want a rebrand to work, you have to engage the whole team.
Here’s how to get started.

engaging staff in a rebranding exercise

I’m often brought in to help companies transition from their very first branding efforts to one that’s more suitable for the ways in which they’re growing:  They may have set up a basic website when they first started, but now they have a few employees, a few big clients, and they need a brand that is a little more polished and sophisticated.

As I’ve said before, I think that great brands are built from the inside out. The best brands seem organic and almost inevitable, because they’re an accurate reflection of the business and of the people who work there.  Which means that when you undertake a ‘rebranding’ exercise, it’s important to engage employees in the process.  

In my experience, the best way to do this is to gather everyone (or key stakeholders, depending on the size of the organization) together for a workshop session (with pizza is best) in which we discuss the functional and emotional benefits of the company and the current brand identity. Employees become invested in the new brand; more importantly, the session can help identify key insights which form the basis of the new brand identity.

Ask for answers to these key questions

It’s important that these workshops are productive and don’t deteriorate into free-for-all ‘brainstorming’ sessions which can drone on for ages and don’t really go anywhere.  

So we stick to gathering answers to – and controlled discussion about – these questions:

  1. What made you choose to work at this company?  What made you apply here in the first place?
  2. What’s the best thing about working here?
  3. Was there a ‘deciding factor’ in your decision to work here?
  4. When you’re talking to friends/family, what do you say about the company?
  5. When you’re talking to colleagues/former co-workers, what do you say about the company?
  6. When you’re talking to potential clients, how do you describe the company?
  7. In your opinion, why is this company better than others in the market?
  8. What do you think this company does really, really well?
  9. What do you think this company could do better?
  10. If you had to come up with 3 words to describe this company, what would they be?
  11. If this company was a retail store, what would it be?
  12. If it were a product brand, what would it be?  

Depending on the size of the group, this exercise will take 2-3 hours – but will generate a huge amount of internal brand loyalty and investment as you move forward.


More than 10 people were involved in this ad. WTF?

Ads for big brands are touched by a lot of people before they’re released.
How come no one noticed this one was terrible?

This week Belvedere Vodka got in a lot of trouble when it posted this print advertisement on its Facebook page:

Belvedere vodka ad

Maybe the person who wrote the tagline thought it would be a ‘cheeky’ double-entendre – in questionable taste, but maybe okay if it was used with a photo of, say, two obviously gay men and used in the bathroom of a downtown dance club.

This, for example, doesn’t bother me (or, probably, anyone) nearly as much:

double entendre effen advertising

(The line here is “There is nothing more satisfying than Effen on a plane.”)

But when you stick a “going down” line on a photo of a man apparently forcibly restraining a woman, and neither of them are displaying facial expressions consistent with lighthearted, consensual fun, you’ve got a problem. When posting it on your Facebook page brings a firestorm of comments about how it depicts rape, you start to look like you’ve lost the plot.

One guy apologized, but creating this ad was a team effort

When the blogosphere went crazy, Jason Lundy, SVP of Global Marketing for Belvedere, issued an apology and pulled the ad.  That’s fine, I guess, but it misses the point:  This ad wasn’t the misguided brainchild of a single person, or even a single company.  A whole team of people had to create and approve this ad before it ever saw a Facebook page:

  • Copywriter
  • Art director
  • Creative director
  • Designer
  • Account executive (at the ad agency)
  • Account director (at the ad agency)
  • Brand manager (at Belvedere)
  • Marketing director
  • Someone from legal (at Belvedere)
  • Social media coordinator (whoever posts to Belvedere’s Facebook page)

Having worked in a number of big ad agencies, on big brands, I can tell you that this is probably only a partial list of the people who had input on this piece before it ever got converted into a jpg and posted in public.  

So at least 10 people – and probably a whole lot more – who work on the Belvedere marketing account decided that this ad was a good idea.  Apparently they still don’t think it was a big deal, because Belvedere’s ad agency, Last Exit (an interesting name, in the circumstances), still has Belvedere front and center on their website, and they haven’t bothered to post anything about the ad on their blog about the controversy, either.

Now the woman in the ad is suing Belvedere and parent company LVMH – she says the photo they used is actually a still from a short film she made with a friend, that Belvedere used without permission.  

Kinda makes you wonder what the heck goes on in team meetings over at Belvedere and Last Exit. Perhaps they’ve been sampling the product a little too early in the day.

Are you sure your employees know what you sell?

Your most influential target audience is your staff.

confused employees

This is a painting called ‘Confusion’, and it’s definitely how the inside of my head looks when I myself am not sure what’s going on.


A couple of years ago I was working with a smallish-but-getting-bigger-fast B2B company, and our marketing efforts seemed to be fairly successful: We were getting buzz in the marketplace, having little trouble getting meetings because potential clients had always “heard good things” about us, winning new business over larger, more established competitors – by most indices, our marketing efforts were delivering results.

But revenue growth just wasn’t following the same trajectory.  Sure, it was growing – but not as steeply as our brand awareness and equity seemed to be.  And we weren’t sure why.

Then I sat in on an all-staff meeting, and I began to understand.

When the company was smaller, senior leadership (all of whom were highly entrepreneurial) was very involved with every client engagement.  They were handling much of the day-to-day interaction, which meant they could build relationships, listen for opportunities, ask for referrals, sell additional services – all the revenue drivers that make an investment in marketing worthwhile in the long-term.

As the company had grown, however, a lot of the account management had been handed off to newer, more junior employees.  When I sat in on the staff meeting, I could see that while the newbies were hard-working and anxious to do a good job, most of them weren’t nearly as enthusiastic about the organization as the senior leadership, and in many cases didn’t even really have a good grasp of everything the company sold, how it could help clients, and why it was so great.

In other words, they weren’t familiar with the brand story, the positioning, or the value proposition.

Stop thinking about training your people. Start thinking about marketing to them.

Now, some people would say that this was a job for Sales Training.  I tend to disagree – mostly because ‘Sales Training’ is something that seems to be reserved for ‘Sales People‘, and I’m of the opinion that every single person in the organization, from admin assistants to account managers to the accounts payable people, can (and should) be sales influencers.  They can spot opportunities, influence decision-makers, increase brand awareness, build relationships – all of the things that drive long-term revenue growth.

Try to give them ‘sales training’, and they’ll tune out or privately decide that it’s ‘not their job’, since they aren’t in sales.  Market to them, on the other hand, and they can become passionate evangelists who are invested in telling (and living) the brand story.

What does internal marketing look like?

Well, it looks a lot like your external marketing – just using different channels.  

Some ways to start marketing to employees:

  • Include a session with the Marketing Director as part of your onboarding efforts for new hires – I know you probably make fun of your marketing people for being so bloody enthusiastic all the time, but they can be infectious
  • Make sure all employees have reviewed your marketing materials and know exactly what you sell, why it’s different and better, and why it’s so successful in the marketplace
  • Deliver the same great experiences to employees that you deliver to your customers.  Do you send flowers or gift baskets to new clients?  Great – send them to new employees or on employee anniversaries, too.  
  • You know that e-newsletter you send to clients to tell them about all the neat stuff you’re doing?  Make sure you’re sending the same info to your employees – before you send it out externally.  It’s amazing how well people respond to feeling like they’re ‘in the know’ ahead of everyone else
  • Have all staff – especially juniors and newbies – spend time with members of the senior leadership team, the same way you bring in the C-suites to help sell a new client.  Employees will feel respected and valuable, which encourages engagement, and they’ll absorb some of the entrepreneurial enthusiasm that your senior people are projecting
  • You wouldn’t hand a potential client a giant binder of single-spaced text and tell them to read it and call you if they want to buy something – don’t do it to employees (via an Employee Handbook), either.  Review information with them, point out the interesting bits, and encourage them to ask questions
  • It takes 4-7+ touchpoints for a potential customer to really understand what you do and make a purchase, and it takes a long-term relationship to drive repeat business.  It’s the same with employees:  Don’t assume that a week’s worth of ‘onboarding’ is all it takes for them to become experts in your business or passionate brand storytellers.  

I know this has a lot of overlap with what HR would call ‘training’.  But when you think of it as informing, persuading and wooing your employees the same way you do your customers, you’ll get the increased emotional investment that does a better job of driving long-term sales growth.

How to gently nudge a client toward a better brand identity

Strategies for helping reluctant clients find better ways to express themselves.

pushing uphill

Yes, this is a dung beetle pushing a large ball of dung.  At least I didn’t use an image of Sisyphus.

Yesterday I wrote about how to approach the problem of a client with a brand identity you don’t like, and making sure you’re not mistaking ‘personal opinion’ for ‘professional advice’.

But what happens when you’ve asked yourself the right questions, remembered you’re not the target, and still come to the conclusion that the client’s brand identity is getting in the way of overall marketing success?  

Negative know-it-alls never prosper

You know who I’m talking about:  The people who waltz in and proceed to tell the client, with a boatload of condescension, that everything they’ve done up to this point is a giant heap of awful and they need to rebuild everything from the bottom up if they are to have a hope in hell of getting any more business from anyone, ever.

These blowhards do manage to get the odd client, but it’s amazing how they never seem to keep them for very long. Because anyone who tells you they have the magic marketing answer to everything never does – sooner or later clients realize this for themselves, and go elsewhere.  

When you first meet a client, you don’t know how much money they’ve already spent on their brand identity; you don’t know how emotionally invested they are in it; you don’t know how the organization feels about it; and you definitely don’t know if what they’re doing is working for them or not.  Walking up to someone at a bar and saying, “You know, you’re really kind of ugly, but if you fix your hair, makeup and wardrobe, maybe we could go out sometime…” is the start of a totally dysfunctional relationship.

Ask questions, build trust

Client relationships are like any other relationships:  Before they’re going to take your advice, they’re going to have to trust you.  So before you make pronouncements about their brand and their organization, start by asking questions.  These are the questions I ask when I think a client may need a brand identity overhaul:

1.  Tell me the story behind your brand.

As I said yesterday, a logo or brand identity that looks unappealing to you may in fact have a great story behind it.  You may even find that that story has value for their sales team, or quite a bit of equity in the marketplace.  (‘Kleenex’, for example, is actually a terrible name, and the logo isn’t much better.  But it doesn’t matter, since ‘Kleenex‘ has been around so long, and is so ubiquitous, that it’s become the generic name for any paper-based facial tissue.)

How this can help your case: If they struggle to tell you the story behind their brand, you can suggest that building a brand identity with a proper story behind it will make their sales and marketing efforts a lot easier.

2.  Tell me the history of your brand identity.  Have you worked with designers or marketing people before?

This is important to know, because if they say they just spent $50,000 on a new brand identity – especially if they worked with one of the blowhards mentioned above – they’re going to be highly sensitive to criticism or suggestions for change.  On the other hand, you may discover that the current logo was designed by the CEO’s 18-year-old nephew.  

How this can help your case: If you discover that they’re new to ‘marketing’, educating them about how a properly-articulated brand identity can help them position and sell themselves can be all you need to propel them in the right direction.

3.  Tell me about how you think marketing can help your business.

Good marketing starts with understanding the client’s business, so by the time you’re talking about branding you should already know what they do and why they think they’re unique in the marketplace.  Now it’s time to drill down to identify gaps or opportunities that marketing can help to fill.  Ideally this will become a discussion between you and the client – with you recommending opportunities, not just taking orders from the client – but it’s good to start with what the client is thinking about how you can help them.

How this can help your case:  If the client identifies a specific challenge (“Our salespeople aren’t getting enough meetings” or “People aren’t spending enough time on our website”), they open the door to a conversation about how the brand identity might be part of the problem.

4.  Who is your target audience/market?

Over the years, I’ve worked with several property management-related companies, many of whom have had dreadful brand identities.  At first I tried hard to get them to change, until I realized that 95% of their business happened as a result of long-standing relationships within a fairly tight-knit community of guys (yes, it’s usually men) who have known each other forever, have owned commercial/industrial properties together, and tended to make business deals based on handshakes and beer.  They didn’t need expensive brand identities with charming brand stories – they just needed some basics to make them look professional.

However, when some of these businesses grew, and were looking to penetrate larger consumer markets, then it was time to push a better brand identity.  

How this can help your case: Knowing your client’s target market will allow you to demonstrate who else is excelling in their space – and show them how important it is that their brand identity is good enough to compete.

5.  How do you see your business growing in the next 12-24 months? 

As a business grows, so does their need for marketing materials.  Today, all they think they need are business cards and a website; 6 months from now they may need anything from billboards to tradeshow displays to RFP templates; 2 years from now they may need branding and materials for line extensions. 

How this can help your case: The more you know about your client’s future plans, the more you can help them identify the marketing and communications materials they’ll need down the line – and the easier it is to demonstrate how their current brand identity won’t accommodate that kind of growth in the long run.  

It’s an organic process

It’s a rare client who, after being asked a question or two, says, “Okay! I get it – let’s revamp the whole brand identity! How soon can we do it?” That’s okay – I’m a firm believer that the best brands are built over time, and as a result of a close relationship between the organization and their marketing team.  Asking the right questions will help you build that relationship.