Even highly capable leaders make the mistake of vaulting straight into market strategy without first considering brand. The most effective window to develop a brand, however, often arises when you first launch your company, acquire a new private equity venture or embark in a new direction after reaching a business turning point.
Especially at the start of these new ventures, leaders are faced with difficult decisions about how they will launch the company or initiative:
- Do I brand my product or services from the start? Or revisit branding after I gain some initial traction?
- How much money should I invest in my brand up-front?
- Will it be worth the time if it means postponing my launch?
Since we've helped many clients navigate the decision-making process for new branding initiatives, we want to share these experiences with you. To make sure the advice is actionable, we'll be discussing examples from our client, American Disposal Services (ADS), now Milestone Environmental Services. Their journey mirrors many of the challenges entrepreneurs and business owners face as they embark on a new business venture or significant strategy shift.
We're excited to share advice and insights from both our CEO, Bo Bothe, and the President of Milestone Environmental Services, Gabriel Rio. Gabriel discusses how his company made the decision to rebrand after its acquisition, with the goal of a strategic relaunch and expansion into new markets. Gain strategies to lead your company through a brand launch or rebrand at a critical business turning point, including how to determine the right timing and appropriate investment.
The Turning Point: Identify the Initiating Force
Intervale Capital had acquired ADS and placed Gabriel Rio as President and CEO. Gabriel aims to transform the regional, formerly family-owned business into a large-scale company with greater national presence. But the company’s existing brand identity felt limiting; it was too kitschy to reach the scale he envisioned for ADS' future. Rio discusses his experience partnering with BrandExtract as he prepared to re-launch and rename the ADS brand for a new era of company growth.
The Decision to Rebrand
Gabriel Rio: I have not always been a believer in the power of branding. At a previous company, I was convinced that the brand would not make a difference in the oilfield waste management space – however, other company leaders felt our regional brand and its logo were failing to attract talent or gain traction with our customers to earn national work.
When we introduced a new, aspirational brand, the energy of the whole company changed. It was not just about a new name or logo; it became a way for us to engage with our customers and employees about what made the company strong.
When I arrived at American Disposal Services, I discovered a similar situation. While the company has great processes and technologies, they were unsure of how to take the business further. The ADS brand did not speak to the full value of the company we want to build, nor does it possess the infrastructure to scale in a meaningful way. To support our growth objectives, it was crucial to invest in strengthening our brand.
Bo Bothe: Great point, Gabriel. We find many executives have initial reservations about how branding can revive a struggling company. There are plenty of misconceptions about what “brand” means or how it fits alongside your business strategy.
Branding should always be purposeful. A new logo or color palette is just a single, tactical element of your entire brand experience. Sometimes business owners establish these basic identity elements and mistakenly believe they have finished “branding” their company.
We believe brand influences and reflects everything from operations to sales to internal company culture. It’s the ultimate power tool that supports multiple areas of your business from marketing to management to hiring and recruiting.
Especially if your ultimate business goal includes selling your company for a profit, we find time and again that our clients get better and more offers after engaging in a concerted branding effort. This has held true across every industry for a variety of clients, including Ascende (human capital consulting), Techcess Group (IT support services), Varel International (drill bit manufacturing) and Lone Star Medical Products, to name a few.
"Especially if your ultimate business goal includes selling your company for a profit, we find time and again that our clients get better and more offers after engaging in a concerted branding effort."
Determine the Right Timing
GR: Timing was a difficult decision, especially during the oil downturn. As a company, we are trying to be very conservative with our spending. I knew the investment in branding would also require the changeover of marketing materials and quite possibly modifications to our overall operations as we strive to support our brand promise.
It came down to growth. We’re in the process of moving from serving one oil basin to three. As we’re expanding, it made sense to put money behind the right brand that we want to support long-term.
Instead of putting up billboards or running advertisements in each market, we viewed this as an opportunity to understand customer needs and how these relate to the services we provide. Our brand became a core piece of our market strategy.
BB: Exactly, that's the right approach. When you are presented with a natural point of change - in Gabriel's case: an acquisition situation, leadership transition and significant market expansion - you have a prime opportunity to set the tone for the brand going forward.
Gabriel recognized that launching his company in two new geographical markets, and then switching out the brand soon after, would undermine the hard work done to establish equity in those regions.
Make these decisions in a very intentional way that works alongside your overall corporate strategy. The pay-off for investing upfront can be huge, as the right brand becomes a decision-making tool that can help guide your company through formative years.
GR: The downturn actually turned out to be great timing for our rebrand. With customers focusing so heavily on price, they were less sensitive to a name and brand change, so we were able to avoid potential turbulence.
Understand the Process
BB: In a downturn especially, rebranding serves as a powerful, regenerative force. It's an opportunity to transform and improve the overall health of the company. When we started working with ADS, we engaged every possible stakeholder, from investors to customers to internal groups, to figure out what their audience wants and to learn what they perceive as its strengths and weaknesses. These insights informed the direction we took with Milestone’s new brand position and promise.
Once you define this promise and invest in the structure and processes to support it, you often end up with a re-energized workforce and better relationships with customers.
"In a downturn especially, rebranding serves as a powerful, regenerative force. It's an opportunity to transform and improve the overall health of the company."
GR: Risk-free environmental protection turned out to be the baseline of what customers expect from us, not our key promise. During the rebrand, we discovered that the priority at the top of our pyramid was actually reliability. Our customers need us to be there for them and care about what ultimately happens with the disposal of their waste. Our new brand speaks to our commitment to reliability through out every stage of the disposal process.
Using BrandExtract to conduct third party research and interviews removed any agenda from the process. Our employees were not worried about saying what they thought the boss wanted to hear, and our customers felt open to speak freely because their feedback would be anonymous.
Weigh Time and Cost Considerations
GR: We felt strongly that it would be most cost effective to invest in establishing our brand upfront, before rolling it out to new markets, even if it meant delaying our expansion by a few months. The opportunity to develop our brand before launching a significant new venture saved us the cost and hassle of entering these regions, only to double back later to reinvest and reestablish our presence with a new identity.
BB: To build on Gabriel's point about investing in brand upfront, we often find that the depth and quality of a rebrand is proportionate to how much time or money an organization is willing to commit to the effort. Even if you partner with a third party, expect to be engaged throughout the process. The brand should reflect the authentic spirit of the company, which means providing your team with access to company leadership as well as the vital “boots on the ground” stewards of your brand.
Benefits of Branding for Entrepreneurs
BB: The branding process helps align the organization around your values. Active engagement with and participation from internal groups leads to a more authentic expression of your identity. And because you cared enough to ask your customers questions about your service and their expectations, you have formed stronger bonds with clients.
GR: Now we’re beginning to introduce the new brand to our team. If our sales people go out after this and continue to sell in the same way they did before, then we have not done our job properly. The rebrand means so much more than that. When customers ask “why did you change your name,” that is an opportunity for a field sales person to engage in a conversation about our company values that they do not normally get to have. And the whole idea is that these conversations matter to the growth our business.
Watch Bo Bothe and Gabriel Rio give a similar talk at Rice University's Jones Graduate School of Business.
Take the First Step
When a strategy shift or new opportunity catapults major changes to your core operations or customer promise, brand transformation is already underway. Your job, as a leader of your organization, is to recognize the need for purposeful management of this transformation.
A Few Extra Insights
If you're starting a new venture or at a major business turning point, we're happy to chat. As you think about a rebrand, here are a few extra insights to help: