As the communications market continues to evolve, many firms have attempted to adapt by reorganizing their staff internally, creating new offerings or freshening their look. But some have gone farther, giving their firms a wholesale rebranding. What are the advantages of a rebranding in today’s market? How can PR firms best distinguish themselves from advertising agencies, digital shops, and other competitors? And what can firms do to make rebranding work best for them?
The 21-year old Horn Group recently rebranded itself as “Horn. A Digital Communications Group,” a move that reflects the firm’s conviction that the communications world has fundamentally shifted. As founder Sabrina Horn explains, whereas before companies could manage communications channels individually, now companies need communications programs that cut across channels and work “under a single, unified strategy to ensure consistency and effectiveness.” Rebranding as “Horn. A Digital Communications Group” underlines the firm’s ability to provide this more comprehensive and more strategic service.
Unlike other mid-sized agencies, Horn doesn’t outsource any of its services. “[H]aving PR, Interactive and Social Media all under one roof allows us to create truly integrated campaigns from conceptualization to execution. It’s a more strategic approach to solving real problems that clients need and are asking us for.” Horn acknowledges that rebranding can require a certain measure of client re-education, and she advises other executives that a rebranding should be forward thinking: “We believe a re-branding ultimately isn’t about now, but about what’s next—and most importantly, how evolving your company will better solve your customer’s business problems in the years to come.”
Horn’s comments suggest another important take-away: Any rebranding a firm attempts should be substantive, not just empty window dressing. When Hill & Knowlton rebranded as Hill+Knowlton Strategies, the firm did so with the aim of delivering on specific client needs. As Amanda Groty, H+K Strategies’ Vice Chairman of Strategy and Marketing, explains, communicating with audiences has taken on a profoundly strategic function for most companies in the digital age. “The public is now connected 24/7 in ways that put the reputations of corporations, institutions, products and high-profile individuals in their hands. As a result, public opinions have an immediate and measurable impact on revenues, corporate valuation, brand, policy decisions and purchase decisions.”
Whereas consulting firms have focused on diagnosing business issues and developing strategies, and PR agencies have focused on creative ways to deliver against those strategies, nobody has offered both in a way suitable to “the real-time nature of today’s connected publics.” Seeking to fill that need, H+K Strategies rebranded so as to emphasize its ability to provide strategic communications advice in addition to what had long been its bread and butter—exceptional execution. “The brand refresh reflects our ability to deliver against this promise. It’s much more than a new name; it is a commitment to meet our clients’ evolving needs.”
So far the rebrandings we have examined sustained continuity by containing elements of the firm’s original name. Yet sometimes it may be necessary to go further and make a clean break from a previous brand identity. In explaining his firm’s evolution from Barkley PR/Cause to Crossroads, President Mike Swenson points to the sheer enormity of the change in the communications market. “We all live in glass houses today. Everyone sees and hears everything we all say and can easily voice their own opinion whenever and wherever they choose. Organizations are facing a crossroads each and every day deciding how to navigate in these truly open waters that make up the marketplace.”
Swenson acknowledges that giving up the Barkley brand name, which had served the firm well for a quarter of a century, seemed “especially risky,” but he avers that, “the rewards outweigh the risk in this case. Rebranding has allowed us to communicate our real and authentic philosophy. We take the quarter century of experience we have in the art and science of public communication and take it to the marketplace with more than just a new name. We’ve defined a new, real approach to public communication. Crossroads picks up where Barkley PR/Cause left off, and provides us with new energy and independence without giving up the access to the breadth of services that Barkley offers.”
Swenson allows that “[t]here are likely other cases where simply adding a new practice area is enough. But that only changes the story for a period of time. A rebrand that is done right makes a statement that goes beyond a new service offering.” And on this point—the need to make a powerful statement—the industry executives we consulted seem in agreement. Horn notes that rebranding can position a firm at the forefront of an industry, conferring a first mover advantage, and it can also clearly differentiate a firm from competitors who have yet to adapt. The key is to rebrand in a way to better address and solve client needs so that you can grow your business.
What is your take on re-branding? How far is too far when it comes to adapting to the market? Does “too far” even exist? We’d love to hear what you think!