Darling, you’ve got to let me know, should I stay or should I go?
If you say that you are mine, I’ll be here ‘til the end of time.
So you’ve got to let me know, should I stay or should I go?

Perhaps the last meeting to discuss your company’s brand brought out the same anguish that the Clash howled about in their punk rock classic. Tormented relationships provide endless fodder for music playlists and business strategy sessions. It’s because brands, like people, evolve and change over time. Sometimes it’s for the better, and sometimes not.

As one of a company’s most visible and valuable assets, its brand represents a significant investment in time, resources and pride. After all the hard work, inertia can set in, which can easily cloud one’s thinking if the brand strategy is not looked at and evaluated on a regular basis. Only through continual examination of a brand’s strengths and weaknesses can one truly answer the Clash’s existential question about staying the course or going in a new direction.

Littered with Icons

Academic and business literature is littered with stories of iconic companies like Blockbuster, Research in Motion (BlackBerry), and Sports Authority that stayed too long on the same path for their brands, and ultimately failed. The companies behind Lego, Old Spice and Pabst Blue Ribbon saw the writing on the wall and fundamentally changed the direction of their brands to better meet the realities of today’s marketplace and have been rewarded with renewed market share. And companies like General Motors have made the hard call to let go legacy product brands, such as Pontiac, to ensure their focus remains on their most profitable brands.

Brand Clarity

So how do you know when it’s time to make this call? Your moment of “brand clarity” (the point where you realize you either need to stay or go) usually happens when one of the following occurs:

1. Your business model has significantly evolved to the point that the current brand no longer adequately represents it anymore.

In this case, the good news is that your business has been adept in growing and innovating. The bad news is that the original premise it was founded on no longer fits who the company is or what it does, and is actually constraining its growth. This is a common scenario and when it occurs, the decision needs to be a forward-looking one. Move your brand to where you want to go, and not in the past.

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Case in point: When the Arabian American Development Corporation realized that its name no longer captured the essence of what it did, or was an easy story for investors to understand, the company rebranded as Trecora. The new name, brand and stock ticker symbol more accurately reflect their brand story of a specialty materials company capturing “true and pure resources” from the core of the earth and transforming them into high-value products.

2. Your tradeshow stand has more logos than a NASCAR vehicle.

Unless you have a clearly defined set of brand standards, the tradeshow booth often becomes the point where disconnects between various businesses unit and subsidies come to light. And if you think it is confusing to your sales team, just think about how difficult it is for your customers and prospects to walk up to your booth and understand how it all fits together.

The “NASCAR effect” is most prominent in companies that have recently grown through a series of M&As, but haven’t established a clearly defined process for integrating the new entities into the existing brand architecture. Once you realize that you have inadvertently created a NASCAR situation, rally your leadership team around the importance of establishing a clearer brand strategy and standards going forward. Focus on building consistency into your brand expression and streamlining what you put in front of customers and you will be rewarded with a winning look, feel and brand.

3. Your latest product brand is named after one of your engineer’s dogs.

You might be surprised how many product and technology brands start as a placeholder name in the lab… that eventually sticks. The name becomes the internal nomenclature used by the development team, and then as the shorthand used by the sales team looking for the pilot project. If you aren’t careful, it’s what the customers are ordering and you’ve lost the opportunity to capture the potential brand value or put the brand genie back in the bottle.

To avoid this effect, make sure you work closely with R&D to put a naming convention in place before things start coming out of the lab. If you can work with your R&D teams to establish a master naming strategy that has built-in futureproofing for new inventions in development and likely product extensions, it will be money and time well spent.

4. You haven’t refreshed your brand look, feel or logo in more than a decade.

What do you mean, our brand looks like something out of the 1990s? It’s easy to get comfortable if your brand is working for you. But even in the good times (especially in the good times), one needs to institute the habit of an annual brand health check. Such evaluations should take a comprehensive look at the various brand materials being created, messages being delivered, and that brand guidelines are being adhered to across all media.

Such a proactive approach to monitoring, maintaining and updating your brand standards will help keep your brand fresh and well-functioning. Remember, even Google and Apple make minor adjustments to their brands and logos every so often to keep them fresh. Maybe you should, too?

5. What’s a brand? We don’t really invest in ours. Our customers know who we are and we’re really just a sales-driven culture.

Statements like these can become surprisingly common in technical organizations. After all, many technical people truly believe that their inventions are so good that they will sell themselves and that branding is all “fluff.”

Don’t be fooled into accepting what amounts to be echo chamber talk. You need to invest in your brand for the long term. Organizations that get overly myopic on sales to the detriment of their brand may be profitable in the short term. However, they often fail in the long term when competing against a better funded and managed brand. If your company’s leadership team doesn’t support or actively invest in its brand, then they aren’t making decisions that reflect the real market dynamics where customers are continually rationalizing their purchases by recognizing what differentiates one brand from the others.

Unflinching Punk Rocker

If any one of these scenarios sounds familiar, then it is time to evaluate your brand with the unflinching directness of a punk rocker: Should it stay or go?

The best approach for answering this question is to pull together a cross-section of your current leadership team who can discuss the importance and health of your brand and how it matches up against your current business strategy and market context. Take the time to map out the gaps and opportunities, build consensus about your future direction and agree to the importance you will all place on the brand going forward.

A good place to start is with these five fundamental questions for any brand:

  1. Does the brand have a clear purpose?
  2. Is the brand clearly aligned with the business strategy?
  3. Does it tell a good story?
  4. Is it clearly articulated and expressed?
  5. Does it deliver value for your target audience

Depending on where your leadership team lands on these questions, the answer should become fairly obvious: Stay the course; update and refresh the current brand; or set the brand free.

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