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Ten years ago, Kevin Brady had an epiphany about the group-benefits business-and Brady Financial Group was born.

Today, the Burlington, Ontario, insurance broker services more than 400 corporate clients boasting a collective employee head count of more than 25,000. "We get every account we quote on," Brady says nonchalantly.

But even success gives birth to problems. Last year, as the small company approached maturity, Brady faced an existential question: "Do we want to grow?"

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He reckoned the answer was yes, but he wasn't sure how to proceed. That's when a local adman suggested Brady try rebranding his company. In the adman's thinking, a makeover would capitalize on a rapidly developing business opportunity: the recession.

No matter what the inspiration, business owners who have rebranded know that the process is rarely just about finding shinier corporate wrapping paper. Rebranding can reveal ugly truths not only about a company's communications strategy but also about its fundamentals. And the process is not foolproof by definition: A rebranding gone wrong is a debranding.

The aforementioned adman is Brian Torsney, who runs Play Advertising, also based in Burlington. Torsney had handled Brady's advertising account for some years, and the two men liked and respected each other. Moreover, Play has a group insurance plan through Brady Financial, so Torsney understood Brady's business as a client.

Brady built the Brady Financial Group around an insider's grasp of the subtleties of the group benefits business. He and his wife, Barbara, originally worked at insurer London Life. By dint of long experience, Brady knew that many firms buy prêt-à-porter benefits plans without having a clear sense of what kinds of coverage their employees actually need. Then, when premiums rise, the human resources department scales back the package. The result: Employees don't get what they really want from the plan and become resentful when it's pared back to trim costs.

Realizing he could profitably insert himself into this unhappy picture by setting up shop as a different sort of broker, Brady offered to audit his clients' insurance claims in order to help them develop more focused group plans. Then, instead of simply shopping around for the best deal, he'd ask insurers to bid on those tighter specifications. The result: lower-cost group benefits plans that the employees actually appreciate.

A decade on, with the economy contracting rapidly, Torsney realized just how salient those savings were. He saw an opportunity to recast Brady Financial's claims-auditing technique as a balm for recession-weary companies. Brady confirmed for him that many firms regard group benefits as a "grudge purchase" : They feel they're at the mercy of the insurance giants, which are constantly raising their premiums. And therein lay the potential brand promise.

"This is the perfect time to retool and really focus on your relevance to current customers," Torsney told Brady. Torsney's advice: "Let's put your strong foot forward."

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On a March afternoon, Brady and Bernie Knowles, another London Life alumnus who has been with Brady Financial since the beginning, take their places at a massive boardroom table strewn with papers that may contain the keys to their destiny.

They are meeting with Torsney and two of his senior people: creative director Craig Brownrigg and Karen Contestabile, vice-president of client services. "We've got lots of stuff to show you," Torsney begins, launching into an overview of the "creative brief." "The more we work on this," he adds, "the more we realize we're on to something, and it could be business-changing." Torsney is smooth and self-deprecating-a pose carefully calibrated to the task of selling a potentially disruptive project with a five-figure price tag.

The rebranding journey has its roots in the art and science of advertising, but it's about more than just image. A rebranding may lead to wholesale changes in the company's operations, from sales and marketing to human resources and distribution. In other instances, the rebranding emphasizes certain business lines or repositions the firm so it can move into new markets. Owner/operators like Brady find themselves confronting decisions on how to rewire their firms to deliver the new brand promise. "It's thinking from the inside out, and not from the outside in," says Torsney.

What's more, a rebranding exercise forces owners to confront how their firms are perceived-by customers, suppliers, competitors and employees. The rebranding consultant's first task, in fact, is to diagnose what's not working about a client's brand (see "Diagnosis," page 24). His second order of business is to propose a slate of remedies that includes everything from refreshed logos and slogans to revamped marketing strategies, websites and communications plans.

During the run-up to their meeting, Torsney's team had worked up a diagnosis of the weaknesses with Brady Financial's brand, and how it could be remade to capitalize on the firm's competitive advantage in hard times. As the session gets under way, Torsney and Brownrigg unveil the first of a series of surprises, all of which they've teed up to ensure maximum buy-in and minimum shock. The first bombshell has to do with changing the company's name, Brady Financial Group, which, they said, didn't carry the right message.

As an alternative, Torsney has proposed "Brady Benefits." It is simple, alliterative and easy to remember, he assures Brady. "You don't want to end up sounding like an insurance company."

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Brady wonders out loud to Bernie Knowles whether a new handle means changing the company's legal name. Torsney moves to snuff out that objection quickly: "It's just a marketing name."

"I often wrestle with the name," Brady confides, warming to the idea of a change. "I've known people for years who still don't know what I do." Some of them even think he's a financial adviser. The original reason behind the name, he explains, is that "when I was one person, I wanted to sound bigger."

Sensing he's successfully forded some tricky waters, Torsney instructs Brownrigg to walk Brady through a series of new logo designs. The first option looks like a leaf on its side. The second is a stylized plus-sign, and the third and fourth resemble badges-one in teal, the other in purple. The designs are a sharp contrast to Brady Financial's pompous-looking logo-the capital of an Ionic column, sometimes accompanied by a bright red strawberry and the suggestive but vague slogan "Success Is Sweet."

Branding experts inevitably emphasize the importance of meaningful corporate symbols, and point to companies like Apple Inc. as proof that savvy design-as well as strong product development-is an indispensable ingredient of success. But the truth is that it's easier to assess what's wrong with existing corporate brands than it is to devise new ones. What's more, branding consultants point out that small business people like Brady often feel more comfortable dealing with spreadsheets and manufacturing specs than with the creative processes that go on during a rebranding exercise.

Pondering the four disparate designs laid out in front of him, Brady fiddles with a paper clip. Eventually, he reveals that he likes the leaf. Torsney's recommended logo, however, is the fourth one, the teal badge with the words "Brady Benefits" printed in white letters. "Can you imagine that on the side of this building?" Torsney asks, urging Brady forward. "Looks strong, yet friendly."

After Torsney has skillfully guided Brady through the complex judgment calls involved in selecting new names and symbols, he turns to the final components of his strategy. He sketches out the plan in broad strokes: a radio-and-newspaper ad blitz throughout the Toronto area that stresses the new-look company's audit-based approach to group benefits. The idea, Torsney explains, is to entice prospective customers with hip, vaguely ironic ads which suggest that Brady alone has the secret formula for reducing the cost of group benefits plans. But if curious readers and listeners want to find out more, they'll have to phone a 1-800 number or visit Brady's website.

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Torsney hands the presentation over to Brownrigg, who, with his artfully tousled hair, slacker clothes and offhand manner, fulfills the stereotype of an ad-agency creative type. Brownrigg explains that he enjoys working with a "tight" strategy-in this case, one that leverages Brady's "secret." "It limits the world you're playing in," he says. "I like a sandbox that's a little smaller, where I can go deeper."

Brownrigg reads out a series of playful radio scripts, all of which build on the notion that Brady has a secret. In one clip, a narrator is about to explain how Brady Benefits can "save clients hundreds of thousands of dollars." But just as the narrator gets going, a honking sound erupts and blocks out the specifics. When the din subsides, the announcer reveals the 800 number. Another option has Brady himself whispering the come-on, urging listeners not to tell "even your wife or Dave in sales." Brady chuckles as he listens. "All good. Really creative," he says. But he's more interested in results: "Is radio an effective form of communications? Do you get a lot of response?" Torsney cites a similar radio campaign he did for a regional economic development agency that elicited "thousands of calls." "These guys told us, 'When you run those ads, we get crazy-busy.' "

Brownrigg then walks Brady through a series of complementary print ads that also use humour to play up the "secret." One is a crossword filled in with answers that include "Brady Benefits" and the 800 number. Another looks like a confidential internal memo about the company's audit strategy, with the secret redacted. "The biggest trick with newspapers," Torsney chimes in, "is getting people to look at ads. It's the odd ones that get your attention."

It occurs to Brady that while this kind of marketing could produce a flood of leads, his small company would have a hard time managing all of them. "We'd need to set up internally," he says to Bernie Knowles.

"Dedicated lines, dedicated e-mails," she acknowledges.

"And accountability," Brady adds.

Once Torsney and Brownrigg have finished detailing their integrated rebranding strategy, they reach the awkward business of costs. They sketch out a couple of advertising scenarios and run through an itemization of expenses. The estimated tab for the rebranding and ad campaign is just under $100,000.

Not distracted, Brady muses again about how his firm might handle all those calls that could come in thanks to a sustained radio campaign. He notes that it would take time to do each new audit, so they'd have to staff up. Knowles points out that the website would need to be ready before any of the advertising went live. Torsney suggests a few other ideas-commission-driven telemarketing and a streamlined sales call process.

"The critical thing for us is that we've got to have the manpower to turn it into sales," replies Brady. "In order for us to proceed with something like this, we need to have the people in place. Maybe we even have to look at how we do business. Right now, we smother people with service."

Knowles brings her boss back to earth: "That's changing our whole business. I don't think we want to do that." The meeting breaks up convivially, with a promise of more discussions to come.

A few days later, Brady is on his car phone, racing between appointments. He says that he's given Torsney a qualified green light. "I liked [their proposal]" he says. "But I have to get my head around it."

Brady's instructions: Start renovating the website right away, and proceed with rebranding the company's logo, slogans and name. "Their analysis of 'Brady Benefits' makes a lot of sense," he says.

As for the follow-on advertising strategy, Brady says he needs time to bulk up his sales force and customer service team. And he has to work out his return on investment. "We're going to spend $100,000. Are we going to get $300,000? It's not like we have an unsuccessful business. But I do think it's the right thing to do."

Indeed, despite his qualms about the price, Brady admits he already has a timeline in mind: "We'll go wide with the advertising on September 1." Early fall, after all, is always a good time to make a fresh start.

***

CASE STUDY

Success

For Susanne Lang, rebranding was the lifeline that saved her struggling company.

In 2005, Lang, a boutique perfume manufacturer, was watching her nascent line of fragrances founder. Lang had developed an innovative mix-and-match line that allowed consumers to blend their own scents at purpose-built kiosks. She started with a small store in Toronto, then expanded to high-end retailers like Barneys New York.

But consumer acceptance wasn't forthcoming for the pricey concoctions. Lang burned through $300,000, and then was forced to lay off her 18 employees and relocate the firm to her Toronto home. The only thing that kept the business going was a distribution deal in the Middle East. "It was a really difficult time," she says.

Determined to relaunch, Lang noticed a growing demand among teens for "custom" scents at an affordable price. She realized that she had to reposition her products so they'd appeal to younger, less affluent consumers.

Lang approached Concrete Design, a Toronto firm, for help.

Partner Diti Katona duly developed a new brand (Sula), packaging with tactile appeal, and playful, age-conscious product names (Vixen, Supermodel, etc.), all geared to younger women who don't wear traditional perfume. Such aesthetic details are not incidental to the process, Katona says. "Design has to be an integral part at the beginning of a rebranding process, not a band-aid at the end."

In Lang's case, the goal was to develop a brand identity that distinguished her product in the visual congestion of a retail outlet. Besides rebranding, she also recast her distribution and marketing strategies, abandoning the specialized kiosks in tony retailers and focusing instead on getting stock into clothing stores geared to hip young women. The integrated plan bore fruit: Lang's line now sells in about 1,000 stores across North America, Europe and Asia.

And the rebranded company has rebounded to a staff of six employees and $2 million in sales, up from a scant $40,000 in 2006.

Lang figures she has invested about $500,000 in the rebranding and the development work that arose from it.

*

Failure

While BCE isn't exactly a small business, the phone company's rebranding campaign, unveiled in the run-up to last summer's Beijing Olympics, offers a cautionary tale for companies of any size that are thinking about changing their image.

For several years, Bell's branding workload was successfully carried by Frank and Gordon, a popular pair of cartoon beavers.

Their replacement was launched with a teaser campaign featuring huge billboards that were entirely white except for the letters " er." Just days before the Games began, Bell revealed the rest of the campaign and a new slogan, "Today just got better." Strangely, that " er" proved to be the sum of the connective tissue between the various strands of the campaign once it was fully rolled out.

CEO George Cope explained the change this way: "It's a straightforward and customer-focused brand that directly supports the Bell team's goal: to be recognized by customers as Canada's leading communications company."

In rebranding, Bell streamlined, dropping subsidiary brand names like ExpressVu. Some observers noted that Bell's decision was intended to address mounting consumer dissatisfaction about poor technical service and the sluggish performance of Sympatico, Bell's high-speed Internet service. Iain Grant, president of telecom consultant SeaBoard Group, made the obvious criticism: Bell would have to boost its customer service to capitalize on the new look. "If all you're doing is a cosmetic change, the remake will fail," Grant said. Indeed, some critics felt that was precisely the outcome; moreover, they slammed the campaign for inconsistency and design flaws.

***

STEP ONE

Diagnosis

The first step in rebranding is a comprehensive analysis of how the subject company is perceived by customers, suppliers and even its own employees. John Lee, managing director of M:30 Communications in Toronto, asks key decision-makers to address basic questions: "Who are we, and what are we selling?" Hot Tomali Communications in Vancouver, for its part, reviews a client's communication materials and interviews a sampling of employees from the executive suite to the mailroom, all with an eye toward developing a snapshot of the firm. Chris Staples, co-founder of Rethink Communications in Vancouver, also watches closely for any mismatches between the perceptions of senior management and those of customers or employees. "If there are huge disparities," he says, "that's a red flag for us."

Most rebranding experts will also conduct their own market research and perhaps even convene focus groups. Sometimes the results can be uncomfortable: "You have to ask, 'Why are your customers rejecting you for a key competitor?' " Lee says. All this reconnaissance is ultimately presented to the client during what Staples refers to as the "tough love" portion of the process. Different agencies have their own names-"brand summit," "brand briefing," "creative brief" -but the net result is generally the same: a sharp, concise diagnosis of what's both right and wrong with the existing brand, as well as a plan for moving forward.

The answer may be quite straightforward-a high-growth company that's been branding itself on the fly may now simply need to move to a more uniform and professionally produced image. In other cases, the strategic analysis can lead to unexpected decisions-a need for new pricing strategies, different sales channels, or an outright repositioning to respond to shifts in the market.

*

STEP TWO

Remedy

After all the strategic prep-work, brand consultants will call in the copywriters and designers to begin the open-ended process of brainstorming the new image, including tag lines, logos, brand attitude, core messages and Web presence. As Hot Tomali Communications president Thomas Stringham says, all the components must hang together and constantly refer back to the conclusions of strategic analysis. Lastly, it all needs to be simple: "If a piece of creative is being presented to you and it needs an explanation," Stringham observes, "it's probably not that great an idea."

The creative/aesthetic end of a rebranding process often throws small business operators, who may feel more comfortable in the realm of numbers and operational details. "Design is not accounting," cautions Diti Katona, a partner at Concrete Design in Toronto. "It doesn't add up. It's about feelings." And, she adds, the generation of new images or messages is a back-and-forth process that requires a high level of trust between the firm's principals and the brand adviser. "We never pretend to know more about our client's products than they do."

At Rethink Communications, the creative team sequesters itself in rooms lined with corkboard, where they produce dozens or even hundreds of scribbled ideas and sketches. Chris Staples says his firm relentlessly winnows these down, sometimes going so far as to ask pedestrians or bike couriers for their opinions. "Then we show the clients what made it through the gauntlet unscathed." After the client has chosen one of these rough drafts, the consultants start all over again, experimenting with different colours and fonts and materials. "It's all about going wide and narrowing down," says Staples.

Katona says that close attention to the aesthetic details counts for a great deal.

That means sweating over minute decisions-everything from the colour of the logo to boilerplate copy on press releases and even paper finishes for new packaging.

As she says, "If that package on the shelf doesn't say, 'Pick me up,' then people won't pick it up. It's very basic-hard to do, but the idea is simple."

***

REBRANDING

Dos

Do Consult with a branding expert at the very beginning, rather than charging ahead on your own and then going to an agency with a half-cooked plan.

Do Have the owner/operator, CEO and head of marketing all at the table with the rebranding advisers. "When you're sitting with them and listening to them articulate where they want the brand to go," says adman John Lee, "that's a real advantage for the agency."

Do Strive for consistency. The design elements of the rebranding must be present in every aspect of the company's communications, from its stationery to the way the customer service representatives answer the phones. Don't Copy. Imitation may be the highest form of flattery, but in the rebranding game, it's a signal to customers that a company is living in the shadow of its rivals. Says Thomas Stringham of Hot Tomali Communications: "You're setting yourself up for failure."

Don'ts

Don't Relegate the task to a small team. In addition to key stakeholders, "You've got to involve people across the company," says Chris Staples of Rethink Communications. "If you do that, your chances of success are far higher."

Don't Gamble with the company's name. There's equity in there.

Don't Second-guess. "If you're changing your logo every three to four years, you're consistently inconsistent," says Stringham. "You're always going back to square one with your customers."

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