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If there were such a thing as Mission Impossible: Marketing Edition, the plot would center around rebranding. By rebranding, we don't just mean gussying up the logo, although that may signify a rebrand. We’re talking about a strategic shift that repositions an old brand with a fresh image and, ideally, broader appeal.

Of course, revitalizing an old brand to attract new customers without alienating old ones is hard, and a misstep can send revenues plunging. In many cases, there’s no turning back.

What works? How can we rebrand with confidence?

LOOK BACKWARD

Core brand attributes need to be present in a rebrand. But a rebrand has to feel fresh. The task of maintaining consumers’ trust in the brand while achieving freshness can elude marketers.

For legacy brands, tapping into history has a couple of benefits. It helps strip away years of irrelevant-belief buildup while identifying the original essence of the brand. 

Check out Banana Republic. The purveyor of bland office basics has reinvented itself as an “imagined world,” and it’s gorgeous. 

If the new BR evokes a bit of nostalgia, it’s because you are old enough to remember the original Banana Republic, founded by Patricia and Mel Ziegler, who brought back bush jackets and military surplus trousers from their world travels in the 1970s to create a brand about exploration and adventure.

Even without nostalgia, the BR brand tells an aspirational story. It’s about moving beyond the sameness of the last two years and reinventing yourself, ditching the old office wear and creating your own sartorial world. No word yet on whether BR’s sales are on the rise, but A+ for effort.

How do you tap your brand’s history? 
  • First, you have to find it, and it’s not just on the “About” page of your company website. Look for artifacts, catalog early success stories, interview founders—what are the elements that drove the creation of the brand? What’s weird and different and special?
  • Second, bring all the elements together and workshop a few big narratives. You will need people for this: insiders and outsiders, keepers of the flame and rabble-rousers, analysts and storytellers. And your narratives need to address today’s culture: who is the brand for? What aspiration does it address?
  • Third, test the narratives. Create low-risk experiments that are real but evanescent: TikToks or Instagram stories, search and social media ads with defined target audiences, events that convey the stories. Read the results, identify winning directions, iterate and improve, then test again.
(Btw, using a digital whiteboard like Miro to workshop brand strategies is fun and provides a record of idea generation. Reply to this email to hit us up for our brand workshop Miro template.)

TWINNING

From painters’ pants in the 1970s to French worker’s jackets in 2016, workwear makes its way into fashion again and again. Behold the Carhartt beanie, 2021 edition, a prime example of workwear crossover—and a great opportunity for category stalwart Carhartt to redefine its brand for a much bigger market.

Or is it?

When it comes to crossing over into fashion, this is not Carhartt’s first rodeo. Hip hop stars in the 80s and 90s embraced Carhartt (viz Tupac), and in 1989 Carhartt created an entire brand, Carhartt Work in Progress, to serve the fashion market. Kinda crazy, right?

Carhartt OG features ranch hands in its hero image; Carhartt WIP shows skateboards and a 1989 capsule collection. Two target markets, one core brand name. Which explains the company’s blasé reaction to the beanie phenom: “I would love to take credit for the fact that we seeded the product to all of those influencers … but I would be lying,” said Carhartt’s chief brand officer as if this happens all the time.

So is a twin-brand strategy for you? Well sure, if it happens as naturally as it did for Carhartt or Airbnb Luxe. The key: find a natural dividing line among customers of your brand. Maybe it’s the way customers use the product. Maybe it’s differences in customer values or income levels. Frankly, selling the exact same product to two vastly different audiences seems kind of—awesome? But keep in mind that you are signing up to maintain two separate brands—engaging two different audiences, managing two distribution channels, keeping two distinct but related strategies extra-sharp.

ACT YOUR AGE

Boomers were addictive. A host of brands built huge franchises via the 75M+ people born between 1946 and 1964. Now, old-timers like Harley-Davidson and every cable company in America are struggling to find their footing with millennials and Gen Z.

Some of these brands are trying to look young, and it’s not always pretty. When brands launch the TikToks too soon, it’s like finding a couple of adults in the bouncy castle at a 5-year-old’s birthday party. You know why they’re there, but it feels so wrong.

If you're, say, Simmons, you tidied things up a decade ago by separating “Beautyrest” from your core brand. But now you’re trying to create hip social media to compete with DTC brands and yikes. You can’t just show up and expect the cool kids to want to party with you.

Rebranding is not about glomming on to the latest thing in a perfunctory way. The outer shell–logos, social media, uniforms–needs to magnify an inner core that has embraced real change. Current winner: Dunkin. The shift from Dunkin’ Donuts to Dunkin was never skin-deep—it reflected changes in menu, distribution, and target market—and marked the company’s debut as a lifestyle brand.

Dunkin didn’t change its spots; it made them more pronounced, with merchandise partnerships that leveraged its weird color scheme (from Saucony to e.l.f. Cosmetics), better drive-throughs, and seasonal menu items, all of which appeal to a younger demo. Dunkin’s rebrand is a new chapter in a 72-year-old story, with all the right plot twists to bring in new readers.

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