Everything you need to know about executing a rebrand

Evolving your brand is one of the most important responsibilities for a CMO.

Over the last 30 years, I have had the opportunity to work on - and lead - many brand projects. I’ve updated messaging for existing brands, launched new product brands (including PictureTel Live, Engage AudienceNet, Performaworks, Dragon for Mac, Dragon Anywhere), re-positioned companies (including PictureTel, Engage, ATG, Performaworks, Nuance), re-named a company (Nuance), and launched a new company (Plannuh). To support these projects, I’ve worked with internal teams, contract experts, small agencies, specialty brand agencies, and leading global agencies.

Some of the projects were quite successful, but I made some mistakes along the way too. What follows is a summary of my experience that you might find useful, or at least mildly entertaining.

I thought I’d start with my favorite branding story, a rocky road on the way to a successful rebrand - and ultimately renaming of a company.

“The answer is: SpeechWorks”

Back in 2004, I was running marketing for a cloud HR software company. A good friend, Steve Chambers, called me and told me that the company where he was CMO, SpeechWorks, was just sold to a local company called ScanSoft. Steve was taking a new role, and he wanted me to replace him to run marketing.

I went to the ScanSoft website and had an incredibly negative reaction. The word that came to mind was “yucky.”

Here's a screen grab from the web archive of the old ScanSoft site:


The old (yucky) ScanSoft website from 2004

But Steve was one of the smartest people I knew, and someone I deeply trusted, so I decided to join him as the VP of Marketing for the SpeechWorks Division of ScanSoft.

A few weeks into my tenure, I got a call from the ScanSoft CEO, Paul. He told me that he had a top-secret project for me, “I want you to rename the company.” I was thrilled. What a great opportunity to reposition the company to align with its new strategy of delivering speech solutions. But then Paul said, “And if you want to know the new name, the answer is SpeechWorks.”

I thought it was a terrible idea. Anything that ends in “works” seemed small to me. And while using “speech” in the name may have seemed OK for the moment, I wasn’t sure that it would last for a decade or more, given that the company was headed in the direction of broader artificial intelligence systems. But Paul went on to explain that we owned the name worldwide, and we had a limited budget for the project. So I relented. “SpeechWorks” was indeed the answer.

I spent the next several weeks working out the details of the plan with a small team. Because of the complexity of the company and the desire to execute the project globally, the cost for the project would be more than $1 million. A week or so after presenting the plan, I heard back from Paul with a simple message: “Never mind.” Frustrating.

About six months later, I got another call from Paul.

“Remember that renaming project?” he asked.

“Yes,” I said while trying not to roll my eyes.

“Good. What do you think about the name Nuance?”

“I love it! Unfortunately, someone else is using it,” I responded.

That somebody was our biggest direct competitor, called Nuance. Paul went on to tell me that we were going to buy Nuance and that they wanted us to take the name. I loved it. Even though we had some explaining to do in the short term because of the competitive nature of the company, it was a great name in the long term. It was a real word with a domain we owned worldwide - and it evoked the kind of subtlety that was required for machine intelligence.

The project was complicated by the fact that we were subject to a Second Request from the Antitrust Division of the Department of Justice. That meant that we could not cooperate with our peers in the new company until we got through the extremely detailed discovery process.

Once the DoJ approved, we had only about six weeks to pull off a renaming, messaging update, website relaunch, and internal training, because we had an impending sales kickoff meeting and customer conference that couldn’t be rescheduled. In the end, thanks in no small part to a fantastic team from “the original Nuance” led by their CMO, Lynda Smith, we were able to pull it off.

While I don’t recommend that approach, the process taught me a lot about what to do, and what not to do.

Here is a recent image from the Nuance website with their most recent branding:


The current Nuance website from 2019

Important considerations for a rebranding project

Start with the strategy

Your branding project should emerge from your strategy, which should be reviewed regularly. At least once a quarter, you should assess whether your current brand (including your brand promise, voice, visual identity, messaging) accurately represents your strategy. If you make a significant strategic shift (like Nuance going from an OCR and imaging software company to a speech and natural language company), it is a good time to evaluate your brand.

But sometimes your strategy evolves more slowly, and you need to make sure that your brand evolves along with that strategy. After we renamed the company at Nuance, we went through several brand evolutions to represent the progress we were making as a company.

Changing your brand doesn’t have to involve changing your name

A name change is a huge commitment - and it isn’t always necessary when you are rebranding. At the highest level, there are four types of rebranding projects:

  1. Messaging. Updating the messages that you use to communicate your brand promise to the market. This is the easiest kind of update, and can happen incrementally.
  2. Visual identity system. When you update your messaging, you might also update the visual system and brand toolkits that you use to express your message to the market.
  3. Logo change. A bigger step is a logo change. You shouldn’t change your logo randomly - reserve a change for a material change in the messaging and use the new logo mark to communicate the scale of the change.
  4. Name change. This is the biggest step of all because it includes all of the first three elements and should only be used to represent a strategy change, merger or acquisition, or to correct a strategic problem with the old identify (like a scandal, bankruptcy, etc.)

The key milestones in a rebranding project

While all projects are different, most rebranding projects follow a similar outline. The major milestones include:

  1. Project initiation. You should start a project with an agreement that it is time to *consider* a change (the research phase will help validate/invalidate your assumptions later.
  2. Research and assessment. Including strategy review, internal assessments, external (competitive and broader market assessments) to provide a context for your recommendations.
  3. Research readout, recommendations and agreement. I’ve packed a lot in this step. The project owner should assemble all the protagonists who might be involved in the decision process and start by summarizing the assumptions and research findings. Along with the findings, you must present a recommendation. For example, you might recommend that it is time to refresh messaging and visual identity based on strategic and market changes, but not time to change the logo or name. Finally, you need to get agreement on the steps forward. Lack of agreement can result in a project that unravels and wastes a lot of resources along the way.
  4. Message exploration. After you decide that it is time to make a change, you need to explore core directions in the messages. This doesn’t have anything to do with the visual identity or a name at this point, just the core concept behind the messages.
  5. Sign-off on message direction. Even though you had agreement in concept to move forward, you need to confirm the direction of your messages at this point.
  6. Creative exploration. Define at least 3 paths forward with creative design. This phase requires initial research on names, copyrights, domains, etc. if a new name is part of the recommendation.
  7. Creative path selection and sign-off. Yes, you need another sign-off here to make sure your project doesn’t go off the rails.
  8. Initial system design. Now is the time to develop the building blocks of your system. This will include messaging documents, brand toolkits, usage guidelines, etc.
  9. Final approval. One more time! You need to make sure the final versions are really approved.
  10. Launch new creative. With any change in your message, you need to communicate those changes to the market, your customers, your employees, and even your suppliers. This stage can range from a simple written communication to a global event.
  11. Full rollout and realization of the brand assets. Depending on the complexity of your project, you may find that there is a very long tail of brand assets to update. In any case, you need to make sure that your message and customer experience is consistent and high quality across all touch-points. If you are a startup, this can be done in a matter of days or weeks, while large organizations can take more than a year to fully implement changes.

How much should you budget for a rebranding project?

While there is always a huge range of potential costs, the projects I have seen over the years fall into a few major cost categories.=:

  1. Shoestring. Hire a freelancer from Fiverr or similar and hack something together for less than $25,000. If you are in an early stage company, this is usually the best approach. Most early stage companies will end up going through strategic evolution, so you probably need to make some changes anyway.
  2. Small. Hire a scrappy agency or a highly qualified consultant to do the basics for $50,000 - $100,000.
  3. Medium. Hire an agency with deep experience in branding. This kind of project will typically range from $100,000 to $250,000.
  4. Large. For a complex project with multiple brands, it is best to hire an agency with deep experience and broad capabilities. You should plan on spending at least $500,000 and it could be much more depending on the complexity. My last Nuance brand project was over $1,000,000. We developed new messaging, a new visual identity, and even a new logo that we never ended up launching.

A note on “realization”: Once you “finish” your project, you will enter the phase where you roll out your new brand and update the assets you have in the field already. For a startup, this isn’t a big deal, for a big company, this can add millions of dollars to the price tag.

Lessons learned from lots of branding projects

I can summarize my lessons learned in a few short points:

  • It will *always* cost more than you think to do a rebrand. It’s like building a house. You will decide to do other projects “while you are at it” and the scope can quickly increase. It is also easy to underestimate the cost of rebuilding assets that are already deployed in the field.
  • Getting approval and alignment at *every* step is critical. I tried to highlight this in my milestones chart above. These projects involve strategic decisions for your business and without agreement among the stakeholders at every step, the project can go off the rails.
  • You need to make sure the executive team is truly grounded on the strategy. This can be the hardest part - and the area where I spent most of my personal time on these projects. When you are trying to get agreement on each of the steps in the process, you will identify areas where the executive team disagrees on the strategy. It is important to get these issues resolved or you will encounter resistance later in your process.

Some recommended branding resources

I’ve had the opportunity to work with some great resources in the past. Here is a list of resources who have delivered great results for me in the past:

  • FORGE Worldwide. I worked with FORGE on many projects when I was the GM of Dragon. They helped us reinvigorate the brand with thoughtful messaging, copywriting, and digital execution.
  • A&G. Going way back to the late ‘90s, A&G helped me launch AudienceNet for Engage - the first behavioral profile advertising network. Our account director, Andrew Graff is now the CEO.
  • PJA. I met the PJA team after I left Nuance and didn’t get to do any projects with them, but I was impressed with the team and their work, and have since recommended them to others, with great results.
  • Moving Brands. Our largest rebrand for Nuance was done with this top-notch San Francisco and London based agency.
  • William Agush. I hired William as a consultant for one of the trickiest messaging projects at Nuance - that ended up being one of the most successful. He is brilliant, thoughtful and resourceful when he is available to work on a consulting basis.
  • CGI. I’ve relied on CGI to execute the realization of new brand assets with high quality and cost effectively.
  • Mechanica. Another great team based north of Boston with excellent brand, messaging, and creative chops.





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