From time to time, every CMO faces a key question: to brand or not to rebrand?
Often, it’s right after joining a company and you want to make a big splash. Sometimes, it’s after you’ve been with a company for a while and you and some told-timers are bored with the current branding and want something new.
My general advice to those considering rebranding is “don’t do it” because I think it’s a siren’s call for several reasons:
- Branding projects are usually big and expensive. They cost a lot money. Lots of important people get involved, for example, in Post-It oriented workshops to help determine brand values and the real inner spirit of the company. You’ll need a new corporate identity so everything from business cards to email footers to booth signage to social media icons to collateral layout all needs to get re-done. And, of course, you’ll need to completely overhaul your website. It’s easy for a $30M company to spend $400K on a rebranding and not hard for a larger company to spend millions.
- Branding projects are highly visible. Everyone from customers to board members to employees to spouses to competitors to analysts is going to have an opinion on the new brand. There’s no opportunity for quiet failure as you’d find with testing a new message or experimental online campaign. Rebranding is a performance without a net in the center ring of the circus with the whole market watching.
- Branding projects are risky. Part of the risk comes from the fact that they’re expensive and visible. When rebranding includes renaming, there’s a whole additional level of risk around the name in terms of unknown meanings and homophones, missed trademark conflicts, problems with URL and/or social media handle availability (e.g., Netflix’s Qwikster debacle), or simply poor choices (e.g., PWC’s renaming to “Monday” [1A]). Agencies often compound the risk by insisting on keeping everything secretive during the process, resulting in unveilings that tend to work either really well or really badly when they finally occur [1B]. Finally, if you mess up a rebranding project, it’s nearly impossible to walk it back. When Business Objects did a dubious multi-million-dollar rebranding under the slogan, “Let There Be Light” and literally tried to trademark biblical content, there was no going back.
- Rebranding is usually not the most important priority of the business. If your sales force is starving for pipeline or the industry analysts aren’t placing you in their leader quadrants, sales probably wants you investing in demand generation or analyst relations, not rebranding. They’ll see rebranding as marketing for marketing’s sake more designed to impress other marketers (e.g., “we won an award”) than to help the business. And they’ll see the CMO who led it as “ivory tower” and misaligned with their needs.
For these reasons, we can say that it’s a pretty bold decision for a CMO to undertake a rebranding project. And CMOs should never forget the maxim about pilots: “there are old pilots and bold pilots, but no old, bold pilots.”
What is a Brand?
Since brand is a highfalutin word that marketers often toss around with a certain arrogance – as if only they understand its meaning — let’s take a minute to bring branding back down to earth.
In short, a company’s brand involves four things:
- Name (what I call it)
- Corporate identity (what it looks like)
- Brand values (what it stands for)
- Corporate voice (what it sounds like)
The Joy of Naming
The fact is that in high-tech, naming doesn’t matter much. Plenty of technology companies have been successful with pretty bad names. For example, one of today’s hottest companies has one of the worst names ever, MongoDB, which works in English but in several European languages translates roughly to RetardDB .
Does anyone believe the success of Red Hat, SAP, or Veeva was due to an outstanding company name? Or the success of Hashicorp, Zuora, or New Relic – each of which are just twists on the founder’s name ?
Pretty much any name that passes these tests works:
- Short, ideally 3 or fewer syllables (especially if used as product name prefix)
- No unintended meanings in other languages
- Clear on trademark conflicts
- Available URLs and social media handles
- Easy to pronounce (people avoid saying words they’re not sure how to pronounce)
- If descriptive, won’t becoming limiting and/or misleading over time 
- If multi-word, doesn’t form an awkward acronym (even if you add I or C for “Inc.” or “Corp.”)
In my opinion, names fall into four buckets:
Bad, due to unintended meanings, pronunciation difficulty, length (too many letters and/or syllables), or being descriptive but misleading. Examples: MongoDB, Versant, Business Objects, and Ingres . These can slow you down, but they certainly can’t stop you — which is why, when you compare brand equity to the risk and cost of renaming, it’s usually not worth it to change. Unless it’s early days, simply accept you have a bad name and move on to more important matters.
Potentially problematic, descriptive but potentially limiting in the mid- or long-term. Examples: Microsoft, PeopleSoft, Salesforce.com, VMware, and Zendesk . As the examples show, you can easily overcome the limits of such names, but they’re still not objectively great names in the first place. These companies have simply overpowered the description in the names and turned them into meaningless brands over time [6A].
Good enough. These are typically meaningless – which is fine – and they obey the above rules well. If they are descriptive, they’re broad enough to last long-term, given the company’s vision. Examples: Okta, Veeva, Marketo, Atlassian, Coupa, Intacct, Siebel, Zuora, New Relic, Ooma, Medalia, GainSight, PagerDuty, and FloQast . If you’re doing a renaming, good enough should be your practical goal.
Good. I think we all like names that are either suggestive or broadly descriptive (and are thus good for the long haul). Examples: Anaplan, Oracle, Uber, Workday, Splunk, Kustomer, Airtable, Cisco, and Snowflake . These are hard to find and you can waste a lot of time striving for a good name when you already have several good-enough candidates, and good enough is really all you need.
No discussion of technology naming would be complete without a reference to the epic episode of HBO’s Silicon Valley where Bachman decides to pick a new company name by going to the desert on a “vision quest” and eating psilocybin mushrooms to foster his creativity in so doing (NSFW).
The moral of the naming story is simple. There are bad names and good names and company success seems pretty much uncorrelated to them. Your goal should be to get a good-enough name and then stop obsessing.
Elements of Corporate Identity
Corporate identity is what you look like, the idea being that I could see your booth from a distance, look at your website from across the room, or see one of your brochures without my glasses on and still know it’s you.
Corporate identity thus deals in defining:
- Your logo, and its approved derivative forms
- Your standard color palette
- Your standard imagery
- The templates for your website
- The templates for collateral (e.g., data sheets, white papers)
- The template for your PowerPoint presentations
- The templates for business cards and email footers
- Your social media icons
This is all very graphic design-y and it consists of defining the identity, documenting it in a graphic design manual which can be given other graphic designers to ensure they produce identity-consistent material, re-flowing all existing content into the new templates, and of course, re-implementing your entire website.
This alone can run in the hundreds of thousands of dollars, even when you’re executing on a budget. And the fact is few people notice it. Yes, there is a basic professionalism bar that you need to surpass, and a light brand refresh from time to time to fix problems (that really should have been caught on the first go-round) is probably OK. But spending $1M on a corporate identity makeover is rarely appropriate, welcomed by sales, or a good use of money – unless your image is really, really out of date.
Understanding Brand Values
Quick, what does Coupa stand for? How about Microsoft? Or Adobe? Or New Relic? What’s the Oracle brand promise when you do business with them?
The reality is that most tech companies don’t stand for anything and don’t deliver much of a brand promise. You could say the Atlassian stands for developers, FireEye for security, or GainSight for customer success, but that’s more a description of what they do than their brand values.
And Oracle’s brand promise? Do they have one? They seem to think it’s all about “simple, authentic, adaptive, …” and such. If you asked ten Oracle customers about the Oracle brand promise, I think you’d more likely hear: “they promise to extract as much money from me as they possibly can each year.”
I make a distinction between brand values which are external, customer-facing and usually involve some sort of promise and corporate values which internal, employee-facing, and try to guide employees in decision making. Yes, there should be some linkage between the two and while virtually all technology companies have corporate values, they are also all too often empty words, not lived day-to-day and not reinforced in the culture .
So when it comes to brand values and technology companies, there’s not a lot to talk about. I think one notable exception is Salesforce.com. Salesforce understands branding, invests in it, trains new hires on it, and most importantly actually stands for something in the minds of customers. What does Salesforce stand for? In my opinion:
- Philanthropy. Exhibited both by Benioff personally and, as importantly, in the company’s 1-1-1 model where, among other things, employees get both paid time off (PTO) and volunteer time off (VTO) each year.
- Trust. Well ahead of its time and drilled into employees like a mantra, “nothing is more important than the trust of our customers.”
They may stand for other things as well. But the interesting part is that they actually stand for something, which most technology companies simply don’t.
To understand brand value, it’s thus easier to look at consumer examples. In my mind, brand value is what you sell in the store. To pick some controversial examples, in the store, I think Chick-Fil-A sells a quality chicken sandwich. While the founder had strong religious views which, for example, drove the decision to close on Sundays – I don’t think they’re selling a religious experience. And when they crossed their wires, they seem to have learned from it, effectively saying they’ll leave policy to government and continue to focus on making quality chicken sandwiches and giving back to the communities in which they operate.
SoulCycle, to stay with controversial examples, on the other hand apparently sells more than a workout, but a lifestyle, or as this Washington Post story put it, “an idealized version of you.” I’m not a customer so I can’t speak first-hand on this, but it appears that SoulCycle’s value proposition was bigger than a great spin class, selling values that their parent company owner visibly eschewed. That caused a customer uproar which drew this response. Quote:
This is about our values. So today, we are responding in the best way we know how—with diversity, inclusion, acceptance, and love.
Speaking with a Consistent Corporate Voice
If you think it’s hard to differentiate on visual identity or brand values, think about how hard it is to define a corporate voice. It’s really hard. Few companies do it. Most companies strive to sound, well, like companies. They want to be professional. They want copy written by 50 different people to read and sound like copy written by one. Towards these ends, companies usually produce Style Guides to drive such consistency, in matters from capitalization to spelling to diction to writing strategies .
But it’s rare in my experience to have an enterprise software company sound different from its peers. Yes, I’d say open source and developer-oriented companies sound a bit different from applications companies. But the only enterprise software company that I ever noticed having a unique corporate voice was Splunk, back in the day when Steve Sommer was CMO. Splunk’s copy always had a certain approachable snark that I always enjoyed and that made it pretty unique and recognizable. Some example Splunk slogans:
- Finding your faults, just like mom
- All bat-belt; no tights
- Winning the war on error
- CSI: logfiles
- Take the sh out of IT
But most technology companies sound like technology companies and there’s nothing really wrong with that. Just be professional and consistent.
To Net It All Out
My proudest accomplishment as a CMO was that in over 10 years I never instigated a major rebranding. I ran a huge rebranding project — but it was started before I joined — and I’ve run several brand refreshes.
Wholesale rebranding is expensive, visible, and risky. And it’s rarely the top priority of the business. So I have a strong presumption-of-guilt bias when it comes to rebranding – it’s something marketing wants to do because marketing likes doing it.
To overcome that presumption, I’ll need to see sales alignment (i.e., they support it as a top priority) and real, hard reasons why it needs to happen. Remember it’s not only a huge direct cost, but there’s a large opportunity cost as well — the entire time you’re re-implementing your website, re-laying out all your collateral, and refreshing your campaigns, you’re not making new content, collateral, and campaigns.
Looking at rebranding from my four perspectives, I think:
- Renaming should be undertaken rarely. As we have shown, there are few names that can’t be overcome. Be good enough.
- Refreshing corporate identity is appropriate from time to time. Minimize change both to stay recognizable and reduce costs associated with re-implementation – see the delicate evolution of Chick-Fil-A’s logo over 50+ years, below. Keep changes light.
- Putting a lot of work into brand values at any enterprise software company below $1B (and arguably above $1B) is probably a waste of time. Yes, you should have corporate values and live them. If you do, your customers will notice the visible ones and they will form the eventual basis for your brand values, if and when you formally define them.
- While you should establish (and continually enhance) a written Style Guide early in your marketing evolution, I wouldn’t invest much in defining a corporate voice unless you happen to have a gifted marketer who has the knack. Odds are you’ll end up sounding like everyone else, anyway, and that’s OK. It’s technology marketing — differentiate with your message, not your voice.
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[1A] Think: “We’re going to meet the guys from Monday on Tuesday.”
[1B] Agencies like unveilings because it makes their life simpler. Just get the CMO, the CEO, and maybe some small branding committee to say yes and they’re on their way. They are typically terrified of open voting, town halls, and other such forums to solicit wide input. If the unveiling fails, the agency can walk away and they were still paid, handsomely in most cases. You don’t have that luxury.
 The name originally comes from the word, huMONGOous. Apologies for using the R word, but it is the translation and the shock value is kind of the point.
 Founded by Mitchell Hashimoto, Tien Zuo, and Lew Cirne (which is an anagram of New Relic).
 Which is a great argument to avoid descriptive names in the first place. They’re also harder to register as trademarks.
 MongoDB has unintended meanings, Versant and Ingres are non-obvious to pronounce, Business Objects has too many syllables and is misleading-descriptive (to object-oriented programming).
 Microsoft meant software for microcomputers and isn’t a great name for server and/or cloud software. PeopleSoft meant HR software, not a great name for their financials application. Salesforce now does marketing and service, not just sales. VMware was about virtual machines and is not a great name as we move into a world of containers and serverless architecture. Zendesk was a great name for help desk software, but less so for sales.
[6A] Meaningless, not in the sense that the brands don’t mean anything – e.g., saying “Microsoft” evokes meaning and feelings – but in the sense that the original words don’t mean anything. You don’t immediately think, “the microcomputer software company.”
 I’m assuming Marketo wants to stay in marketing, Intacct wants to stay in accounting, and PagerDuty – the most potentially limiting name on this list – wants to stay in pagers and notifications.
 Most are self-explanatory, but on the more subtle side, Splunk suggests deep diving a la spelunking and Snowflake suggests data warehouses which are often built using snowflake schemas.
 One problem with core values is that they’re often all the same. For example, these are five of the most common: teamwork, customer service, lead-by-example, operational excellence, accountability. This alone tends to hollow them out.
 This blog lists the Chick-Fil-A brand message: part of the community, serving great food, giving back. They’re selling great chicken sandwiches, not religious experiences.
 Example writing strategy: Avoid using Business Objects in the possessive. Say: the people who work at Business Objects, not: Business Objects’ people.