Rebranding Your Startup

We decided to rebrand from myGengo to Gengo in early 2012. Two small letters, one big decision. It was expensive and time-consuming, but definitely worth it. Few first-time founders have done it before. So I thought I’d share my experience.

To give you an idea of the investment you’re making with a serious rebrand:

  • You’ll spend roughly the price of a luxury car if you use an agency.
  • If you need them to do naming too, it will cost 10-20% more still.
  • It will take at least 8 weeks for the branding phase, normally longer.
  • The implementation will take longer than you think. For shame, our developer sandbox is still in the old myGengo design…
  • It will take at least 80h of management time in meetings, travel, implementation.
  • Trademarks can be $5k to $20k+ depending on complexity and region choice.
  • It can go wrong.

So, probably best to have a think about it first, eh?

Why rebrand?

For us, it was simple: “myGengo” was friendly, but clunky and childlike. At the time, people who knew the company well would get confused and ask me “How’s Gengo?” and I’d have to correct them. Moving from a 3-syllable, 7-letter domain to a 2-syllable, 5-letter domain was always going to be appealing, but we couldn’t afford the domain.

Gengo rebrand

Our movement to Gengo was more than just about removing two letters and a new logo. The company had grown to 30 people. We had enterprise customers. We had partners. The cheeky attitude and bright colors that had made sense in 2008 were starting to look a bit childish. We needed a public face that was more mature, more confident, less kiddy. It would be nice if you could fix all that with a $500 99Designs logo contest. But you can’t.

So when we raised our Series A, a proper rebranding was on our to-do list. We successfully acquired the domain through a broker (the previous owner was very reticent to sell). That was the simple part. Now the real work of doing the rebrand.

At this point I should make a confession. I’m a reformed designer. Before Gengo I worked in branding, advertising (always on the web) and building often quite flashy sites for larger corporate clients. Design’s always going to be important to me and how I run Gengo. So it was vital to me that we did this properly. As a reformed designer who is CEO, I also didn’t want to distract myself by trying to do it myself — it would have been a half-assed vanity project. We didn’t have the internal resource. So we went the route of choosing an agency.

How do you choose an agency?

Agencies are expensive. But the good ones are experts. They’re outsiders, which means they can provide perspective, new ideas and objectivity (if you let them).
You want to choose an agency with these attributes:

  • They understand you as a company. You have to “click”.
  • They will challenge you.
  • They will educate you.
  • They have good process (not just pretty designs).

I’m lucky enough to have worked in this world, so I knew where to start. And I knew what agencies to avoid. But it’s not hard to get recommendations from other founders, from investors, from finding out which agencies your favorite companies used. We interviewed 7-8 branding agencies of different sizes, ranging from a studio of three people, to two of the largest in the world, in Tokyo, London, New York and San Francisco.

We chose Cuban Council because they “got” us from the start. Their portfolio is 90% web startups (including Zendesk, Facebook, Rdio, Quora, Evernote). Our chats with them were easy and comfortable. The price made sense. They described a process that sounded right. Most importantly, we really liked their work:

Cuban Council's work

How does an agency work?

Normally an agency will have a creative director who oversees all the output and provides, yep, direction, and designers who do the bulk of the actual design work. The bulk of your fee will be calculated from the hourly rates of the people doing the work. Creative directors cost more than designers. So your fee might include a handful of hours from the CD and tens of hours of designer time. They’ll have project managers and account managers too. Don’t be surprised if the person you meet during the evaluation phase is not the person who ends up doing the work — but a good agency will give you a clear idea of who will be on your project before you start.

Each agency will have their own defined process for branding. One that allows them to fully understand your company and its needs, the competitive environment, your tastes and desires for the brand. This should happen well before anyone opens up Photoshop. This might sound like overkill, it might sound airy-fairy. But this process separates good work from poor work. I always say that design is about problem-solving. If you don’t know the problem, you’re just making pretty pictures.

A typical agency branding process might look like this:
1. Research  2. Concepts  3. Refinement  4. Applications of the brand  5. Extras

For an in-depth view of a branding process on a large, year-long project, it’s worth checking out Moving Brands’ work for HP. You won’t need anything of this scale!

Good company => Good brand

People bandy around words like “clean” and “uncluttered” when they try to describe design they like. What they really mean is that they like brands that have focus. That have a clear message. That know themselves and their priorities. Design can express that, but design can’t decide what the company is and what it stands for. That’s your job. You can’t do a rebrand unless you understand your company. And often the research process forces you to understand your company better. This is often a reason why companies spend much longer re-doing their websites, re-doing marketing materials than they think they will — because they realize in the middle of the process that they don’t understand their own company, and have to figure it all out. It’s healthy, but can be surprisingly time-consuming.

In our case, Cuban Council sent two designers to Tokyo for a few days to meet Gengo, hang out with Gengons, learn about our company, see us work, and experience Japan. They found out what design Matt & I really loved (and hated). They saw how we ran meetings. They saw how we eat together. They interviewed almost everyone on the team. They asked questions like “If Gengo was a car, what kind of car would it be?” (and, quite awesomely, everyone gave a very consistent answer that it would either be a Prius or, not a car even: public transport). They took photos of Tokyo. They ate. By the time they’d left they had absorbed Gengo into their pores, and had bookloads of inspiration to get started.

What do you get?

After the Research phase, depending on the route you’ve agreed on with the agency, you may be presented with 2-3 concepts for the brand. These may include a logo, color palette, typography and photography. If you’re doing a more in-depth project, you might start from a much more abstract set of choices, and the agency might guide you towards the 2-3 concepts phase more gradually. It all depends on your timeline and your budget. But at the early stages, it’s much more about choosing a route, rather than perfecting artwork (a logo could just be a sketch at this stage).

You might get a kind of “mood board” like this to set the tone:

Yoda

Cuban Council presented their ideas to us over Skype, remotely from New York. The clear winner for us was the identity created from the Japanese Ensō shape, because it had meaning — not just because we’re based in Japan, but because of the human nature of our translation platform. They’d combined this approach with a color palette that felt mature but individual, and photography that was calm but had personality. We also chose the new brand tagline of “Communicate freely” at this stage.

Gengo Logo Construction

In our case, this process was very smooth. We got to a design we liked, on schedule. For many companies it’s not smooth, there’s a lot of back-and-forth — especially if you have a committee (boo). That’s why you need very clear direction (see below in my dos and don’ts).

After you’ve decided on a general route, there’s normally still a lot of tweaking and development of the brand to come. For instance, the logo will be finessed, iconography and illustration might be created. Typography will be defined. Photography will be refined into a set of principles and guidelines. You’ll talk about brand voice. Some of this work might seem fussy and time-consuming to non-designers, but it’s in the details that good work is done.

At the end of the process, you’ll normally create a set of Brand Guidelines. This used to be a big printed book or a larger website (and still is for a big company rebrand) but for our purposes, a PDF was fine. You can see the contents below.

Brand Guidelines

At the same time as the guidelines, or directly after, you might ask the agency to come up with so-called “applications” of the brand. All this means is showing you how the brand might look as a homepage, a mobile app or similar. It helps define how all the elements fit together in practice. These are very useful for communicating the brand to the rest of your team. An example of this can be to show the brand in action, as opposed to just a ‘dead’ logo on a page. It’s a simple trick that really brings it to life:

Fake Gengo Office

We chose to communicate the brand to the rest of the team once we had most of this in place, and could make it an exciting event. So it was a celebration, as well as a chance to reaffirm what we want Gengo to be. Actually launching the brand to the public took a while longer, but we got there in the end! It was well-received by our users, but equally importantly it’s a brand we know we can use for years to come, and working with it is a pleasure every day. We’re proud.

Rebranding isn’t something you want to do very often. It’s a big investment. But if you need to do it, do it well. You see your brand everyday, so you gotta love it!

Do’s and Don’ts

Go with your gut
Your brand is something you have to be 100% comfortable with, 100% of the time. No persuasion from a project manager should change that. Be prepared to draw a line in the sand to protect that gut feeling, and accept that some people will not like the brand. That’s a good thing. It means, you have an identity. And that’s the whole point.

Avoid committees
If you allow committee-like behaviour to decide your brand, you’ll end up with mediocrity. We had one decider (me), and I took feedback from just two others during the process. Then we rolled out the brand to the rest of the company. This worked very well. If I do say so myself.

Think globally
You need a brand that will work in the US, in China, in Spain. Make sure you take the basic steps to ensure it does. There’s no excuse in 2013 not to think globally.

Be honest and clear about your desires and feedback
As with anything that will cost your company a lot of money, be crystal clear about what you expect to achieve with a rebrand. Having unrealistic expectations (e.g. instant user growth) helps no one. Don’t expect agencies to throw in freebies. It’s incumbent on you as a client to provide honest feedback as early and as clearly as possible. Good designers respect honesty, and hate last-minute changes of direction.

Make sure you know what you’re paying for
Agencies can throw in hundreds of extras that you may not need. Things like design layouts for brochures, animations, sounds, brand videos, music choices. Expensive brand books to communicate the brand to the company. You probably don’t need these things as a small company.

Have a brand guardian to maintain and develop the brand
As you work with the brand over the weeks and months after the rebrand, you need a single person in the company to ensure anything that gets produced is on-brand. This could be your head of marketing or a designer. Just make sure it’s a single person and it’s clear to everyone who it is. Be strict!

Good luck!

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12 thoughts on “Rebranding Your Startup

  1. Thanks for this, I’ve read it twice now and it really is a bountiful mine of insight :)

    The one thing it’s steered me towards thinking is that ‘design’ (generalising with that term I know) can be outsourced and the results can be amazing. Development (coding/building) however is different and in order to be able to change and iterate quickly you should have an internal coding team close to your leaders.

    This is probably why design agencies are still doing pretty well in the age of 99designs and such.

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  3. Robert, your post is very honest and instructive. Thank you for sharing these thoughts. I’m a web designer, and sometimes I am forced to do some jobs of branding strategy and you’ve just given me a few ideas and directives on how to make my work better to raise it to a higher level.

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