While a number of big companies are refreshing their brands, rebranding remains one of the riskiest, costliest, and most communication-intensive exercises a business can undertake

From Scotiabank to WeWork to Kroger, some big, well-known category leaders underwent a rebrand in 2019, spending vast amounts of time and money to refresh their identities, shift their value propositions, foster new customer relationships, and ultimately increase sales.

In 2020, however, a growing number of rebrands have been driven not by sales but by social consciousness. Increased awareness of racial issues has shone a spotlight on companies with controversial visual identities. Mars, for instance, recently announced plans to change its Uncle Ben’s brand to Ben’s Original, retiring branding that was racially insensitive. Similarly, the Aunt Jemima brand is undergoing a redesign, while B&G Foods’ Cream of Wheat is also reviewing its visual packaging.

Whether the motivation for a rebrand is financial or social, it is a risky, expensive, and intensive undertaking. The bigger the brand and consumer following, the higher the stakes; errors and oversights could mean losses in the tens of millions of dollars.

All reasons why rebranding is as much about minimizing risk as it is maximizing exposure. When considering a rebrand, there are three general guidelines to keep in mind:

Really know your customers—and how they perceive you.

When running down the list of rebranding disasters, there is a clear recurring theme: Consumers didn’t really care about the rebrand, or found the new identity irrelevant. The consumer (not your marketing team) must be at the centre of any rebranding initiative. Take the example of GAP.

In 2010, GAP attempted to establish a more modern look, undertaking its first redesign in 24 years. Its efforts ignored a critical bit of insight: The vast majority of customers liked the company’s history and established tradition. The change was met with instant backlash, resulting in one of the fastest branding turnarounds ever—the company reverted to its previous look a mere 6 days after the new logo went public. The whole exercise was estimated to have cost GAP about $100 million.

Get the message out.

If no one is aware of your rebrand, you could end up losing the loyalty of existing customers rather than gaining new ones.

After launching a full rebrand in 2009, Tropicana failed to provide sufficient communications support. Essentially, the company changed its packaging and logo without explaining the change to consumers. When customers saw the new packaging, they mistakenly thought it was a cheap, generic brand. Sales dropped a whopping 20 percent before Tropicana reverted to the previous design.

Be consistent moving forward.

If a brand is going to invest in changing its name, everything that follows must be consistent—not only visually, but culturally as well. The brand—its look, its vision, its value proposition—must be reflected at every touchpoint.

Comcast, for example, was getting blasted online for its poor customer service, spawning nightmare stories across the internet. The company rebranded to Xfinity to help usher in a new era of customer service and quality. However, the Comcast name continued to be used in some places, while Xfinity was used in others. There was no clarity on what either company did or stood for. Consequently, consumers simply carried their dissatisfaction from Comcast to Xfinity.

What do these cautionary tales reveal? When it comes to rebranding, even the largest, most well-established companies can mess up. Whether rebranding for financial or social reasons, it’s vital that you (a) focus on what your audience wants, (b) clearly communicate the change, and (c) keep your message consistent going forward.