Redefining rebranding with Hong Kong agency experts

 When a house is so weathered and costly to maintain, rather than repair it, the smart money is to tear the walls down and build anew. The same is true of any brand.

Previously a once-in-a-decade seismic event, the rebrand cycle for all, but the biggest brands, has sped up to only a few short years.

But just as the timing of rebrands has seen rapid change so has the industry’s understanding of enacting them. Speaking with a selection of figures behind some of Hong Kong and APAC’s biggest overhauls, Rick Boost delves into the misconceptions of total rebrands.


Strong foundations

“A rebrand is really evaluating the key values of a company or a brand and seeing that it is still in line with the creative output so eventually what the users see is the visual identity. Branding has much more than just the logo or the branding that users see,” says Arthur Kuipers, creative director at advertising and branding agency WeCreate.

“What’s different from a facelift or a touch-up is you’re really re-evaluating the strategy. You’re getting down to the basics. You’re really getting into the mind of the company itself.”

Marketing is repeatedly guided to that same central axiom; that a rebrand – what is perceived by many as one of the most seemingly externally-focused attention-seeking enterprises – is overwhelmingly about looking inward in cautious contemplation.

“The rebrand or the brand idea should really stem from the brand purpose, which is the raison d’être for a company: why employees go to work every day,” says Angie Wong, managing partner at Publicis Groupe.

“In order to define a brand purpose, one should go back to why the company or the brand exists in the first place: what does the brand believe? How does the brand and the products change consumers’ lives?”

Wong believes that a rebrand – unlike a light refresh or a single campaign – requires that the whole organisation be behind it.

“It cannot just be a marketing effort, the changing of a slogan or the launch of a new ad,” she explains.

“Everybody in the company is responsible for bringing it to life for consumers. Not just from the marketing department, but – say if you were a coffee company – from the CEO down to the coffee baristas. Because consumers don’t only experience your brand through ads, but also through multiple touch-points such as retail or the customer service.”

That’s something that Benedict Gordon, the CEO for Asia at Superunion, can relate to. In September 2019 his brand agency unveiled its total overhaul of the Lianhua Supermarket. The Chinese shop chain had found itself perceived as a traditional retailer. Though it had a huge footprint, its lack of a digital component in the face of massive innovation from rivals such as Alibaba had left it looking like a relic.

But Superunion went further than just adding some technological baubles at the checkout, it worked with the company to refocus every level of Lianhua.

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Benedict Gordon

“Part of the rebrand is about signalling change. We’re gonna update our logo and colour palette, we’re gonna feel more contemporary, fresh and relevant,” he says.

“But at the same time, whatever that brand platform is that’s created as part of that refresh should also be something that informs the whole business.”

Gordon compares that brand identity as its centre of gravity or a North Star that should inform service standards, training, recruitment, and the values of its staff.

“For all those different bits of the business, whether you’re operations or you’re people management or the in-store designer, it [brand identity] should be a guiding force for you,”  he says.

“And if it works hard in that way then at least – and this is why the ‘brand’ is increasingly valued by leadership – you can all feel you’re moving in the same direction. It won’t always happen perfectly; in a big organisation it’s complicated, but that’s the ethos.”

lianhua supermarket

A collective blueprint

Getting all those mechanisms working in unison seems daunting. But it begins with agencies and their client brands approaching the relationship with a sense of intimacy.

Wong says: “I always encourage my clients that it should be a co-creative process. Rather than just clients giving out a brief and then the agency disappearing for a few weeks and then coming back with ideas for the client to pick and choose from.”

She explains that on a rebranding project, Publicis Groupe agency, Leo Burnett, will run co-creation workshops with all the key stakeholders in the company, with the CEO, or similar, also in the room providing a vision of where they want to take the brand. Sessions such as this helps reduce the issue of getting “buy-in” from multiple figures at the brand from the start.

She adds: “It’s about getting the right people onboard at the right time and not just have the agency going through the marketing department working through stuff for a few months. Because by the time you present to the board everything gets challenged or redacted.”

The WeCreate team has a similar mindset, with understanding coming from first-hand knowledge rather than a CMO report. Speaking to people from top to bottom.

“You do stakeholder meetings, you do interviews with users,  you do interviews with employees and just get a very clear understanding of how they envision the company,” Kuipers says.

“You compare that to the previous strategy and what’s lacking, and see how you would like to improve that, and what’s needed to really put it in place.”

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Arthur Kuipers

Gaining consensus from a larger pool than just a brand’s bigwigs can be extremely difficult to arrange. In fact, all our interviewees state that getting the time and co-operation required is the hardest individual part of the process. Yet, while the initial spark for a rebrand may come from the boardroom, rushing forward without engaging the rest of the company would be a major misstep.

“The C-suite has their reasons for wanting to do it [a rebrand] and their time frames for wanting to do it,” Gordon elaborates.

“But it’s so important to bring the rest of the organisation along with you; making the process consultative, and making sure you’re engaging with the right levels and the breadth of the organisation so you’re getting inputs from different people, junior to senior, and with different tenures.”

And the consequences otherwise, he says, aren’t great.

“If you announce it to the outside world and the rest of the organisation behind you does not feel part of it, they’re not engaged, and they don’t believe in it, then that’s gonna really create problems down the road.”

Surveying the damage

The question remains though, how does a brand figure out if a rebrand is even necessary? An obvious reason is adapting to a shift in its offering. If the service

of a company changes, perhaps its focus will reactively move onto a different target audience with new products. In that case, the original branding might not be suitable for a specific range of those products.

“Maybe they go green or more organic and the original branding might not be covering that aspect and a rebranding is required just to make sure it covers all the services or new products that have been added to the category,” Kuipers says.

Radical moves may make rebranding a clear option. It’s the alternative that can be a lot harsher and that brands will be reluctant to admit. That they’re just not part of the zeitgeist anymore and have become tragically unhip.

“I think one of the most common red flags would be when the consumer who’s supposed to be your core target audience says, ‘You’re my grandmother’s brand’,” Wong says bluntly.

“Once you become that to a certain part  of the segment it’s very hard to change and rejuvenate that image.”

Wong clarifies that brands in even the most vibrant markets can find themselves circling this drain, possibly more so because of the lack of challenge.

She recalls how – especially with the quick growth of eCommerce – a lot of brands in China have found it difficult to keep up with the rapid changes in the market. Their leaders felt they could keep relying on the same formula ad infinitum because the market was deceptively still rife with opportunities.

Beyond the obvious sales figures which can lull a brand into idleness, Wong believes keeping tabs on referrals can reveal the need for a rebrand. Specifically, when doing brand tracking studies there is one essential question: “Would you recommend this brand to your friends or family?”

Because, as Wong explains: “When you’re a true believer of the brand or when you’re a fan of the brand, you’ll always talk about it with the people around you.”

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Angie Wong

It’s not just what your customers are saying about you though, it’s your brand’s employees. If your own people don’t believe in the brand’s purpose, that’s a serious internal issue that should act as an oft-overlooked bellwether.

“In today’s world there’s the war for talent,” Gordon says. “Whatever category you’re in, if you’re trying to attract the best people your brand’s gotta work hard for you. So perhaps that’s another metric that if as an organisation you’re finding it harder to attract and retain the best talent versus some of your peers, your competitors.”

Despite all this, eagerly pulling the trigger on a rebrand should come from more than a desperate desire to be cool with the kids again. It’s risky, as you could just end up looking desperate and offending existing users.

Wong shares with us about a  rebrand for another company in China 10 years ago. Wanting to chase a younger target consumer it actually named the youth segment in the headline together with the brand name. And, as Wong tells it, it backfired.

“I think this move actually completely alienated its original core audience because they felt betrayed by the brand because of their existing loyalty. They also felt that the younger audience seeing the ads would feel that the brand was too old, too irrelevant and it was too forced.”

She reiterates that an overnight rejuvenation is wishful thinking and that it’s a tricky tightrope between securing a base and moving forward progressively.

Gordon is in agreement: “It’s a balance of if people want to see the organisation change and adapt and therefore evolve and transform into something new or is your relevance – and the loyalty people have to you as a brand – based on the equity from the past. If you judge that wrong that could be very dangerous.”

He also thinks that though consumers are generally very open to companies evolving and changing, they won’t be won over by new graphics and can smell the insincerity of a shallow rebrand.

“It’s got to come from a meaningful place,” he says. “If in the consumer experience they’re having with that company, they’re seeing some sort of shift or change that is purely cosmetic, people will feel it’s a bit meaningless.”

The watchword is research. To avoid the appeal of what others are doing and know both your own brand and the audience that genuinely likes you already and the current values that remain.

“It’s a rebranding, it’s not creating a new company,” Kuipers says. “By conducting interviews you can get a lot of  information  on what positive associations people have with the brand and take those qualities into account and see that – with a  new strategy  in place – you still keep those positive vibes and incorporate them into the new logo, new identity, and new colours.”

wecreate

Most importantly, Kuipers makes clear that a rebrand is not a panacea for deeper problems. Plastering over a brand’s rot will not solve anything.

“If there’s a lot of bad PR for a company and they’re facing major issues and they have a very bad general opinion from the public, slapping a new identity or logo on it is not going to fix it.”

Or as Wong puts it: “A miracle doesn’t happen because of a rebrand. When a product or a service has become irrelevant to the market, rebranding can be like putting a Band-Aid on a gunshot wound. We have to look into the product and service as well, rather than just focusing on rebranding as a marketing effort.”

Home sweet home

It’s undeniable that the practice of rebranding is in a state of metamorphosis. New technologies and the speed of disruption for competing brands mean more frequent adaptations.

Gordon states: “If you’re a brand with history you’ve just gotta keep moving forward. Waiting to update yourself every ten years or so nowadays? You’re gonna be dead in the water. You need to adapt quicker. That doesn’t mean there won’t be the bigger, more significant rebrands every once in a while, but I think more incremental change and innovation is more of what we’re seeing.”

Usually, Hong Kong would be the perfect match for that climate. One of the accepted and praised qualities of the city’s consumers in marketing circles is their adherence to practicality and concrete benefits, visible in every text-packed piece of OOH and script-heavy video ad, Hong Kong is a city that looks for explicitly defined value in products, and its consumers are always on the lookout for the next solid set of improvements offered.

Yet, it’s that highly evaluative nature that could make the present a poor time for any brands considering an overhaul. As Hongkongers focus on the city’s battle with COVID-19, and a teetering economy, they will likely bank on the established and dependable merits of known entities.

Wong says: “It will be very hard to grab consumers’ attention during this period of time. Also, given that it’s a time of many uncertainties, consumers tend to be more cautious with their choice when buying products or brands and will tend to choose brands that are familiar and can be trusted.”

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Kuipers, however, looks at the city’s near-frozen state as a perfect time to get things rolling. That it provides a window to work on something that to do right takes a lot of time to spare.

“Do it right now!” he exclaims. “For every company in Hong Kong this is a bit of a chill-out time at the moment because it’s simply less busy with meetings or emails and a lot of people are quite afraid. A lot of projects have been put on hold until this is over. So simply for a lot of people, there’s more time available at the moment to reflect. There’s a negative vibe at the moment and things aren’t going so well. But there will definitely be light at the end of the tunnel.”

He believes that with enough introspection, a brand considering a change can return from the current downturn in a stronger position.

“Rather than just putting yourself back in your cave, why not use that time in your cave to come out with a bang and work on yourself in the meantime?”

rebrand cover

This article was produced for the March/April 2020 issue of Marketing Magazine Hong Kong. For more features and other magazine-exclusive content from this and upcoming issues, you can subscribe to receive your free monthly print copy here or you can read the digital version in its entirety here.


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