Face Off: The Essentials of Online Rebranding

A company may choose to rebrand itself because of a merger, a bankrupting scandal, or because they simply have outgrown their name. These are solid reasons; however, on the web, rebranding should be considered with the caution of a face transplant.

Websites are names—people have to know the name to find a site, and the name has to be remembered. To tamper with an existing name is extremely dangerous—not only does it change how people find you (your URL), it also changes the user’s expectations.

We are currently working on rebranding and relaunching a now defunct brand and were interested in hearing accounts from those deep in the trenches. We had the pleasure of talking with Lars Hinrichs, current CEO of Xing (a LinkedIn out of Germany), about his efforts rebranding Xing from OpenBC. He had many practical insights into the process, and we’d like to share his main points with you.

1. Preparing

This one goes without saying, yet we were surprised to see just how much preparation was involved before making the switch. It was something comparable to setting off on an expedition to the arctic—Lars and his team spent an entire two years planning and executing the relaunch. They researched available brands and matched these to an evolving concept of the new site. They developed the interface, gained international naming rights for the new brand, and invested a large amount in customer support infrastructure. Only then did they flick the switch.

2. Communicating

2.1 To your Audience

Even though Powerbook is a much more attractive name than “Mac Book Pro”, Apple decided to rebrand its portable product line to match their overall naming convention. While the name change of a computer line doesn’t have a large effect on sales (it’s still a Macintosh Laptop and it says so every time we use it), Steve Jobs made sure that his customers were aware of the change.

A website that suddenly changes its name has to face the fact that it doesn’t have the same luxuries as a physical product. Visitors who don’t expect a change will often get confused (is this still the same website?) and insecure (what happened to my data?) and unlike physical products, the risk of a visitor forgetting the new name and never coming back is implicit.

To avoid oblivion, part of the initial research should involve testing whether visitor’s images of the site match the new name, whether the new name invokes the right image, and mainly: whether the new name is easy to remember.

The really tough part is that you have to make sure that the name change is well communicated online and offline. This is where most websites fail—they don’t have the marketing power to reach people on a broad enough scale.

Take the case of GaijinPot.com, a website we worked on a couple of years ago. It has a terrible name: “gaijin” means “alien” in Japanese, and “pot” has a very dubious second meaning; thus to Japanese ears “GaijinPot” might sound somewhat like “AlienDope”. In short: As a reasonable brand manager the first thing one should do is to rename GaijinPot. But oddly enough, it’s very difficult to do as the brand now is extremely well known among foreigners in Japan. An effective name change would require an advertising campaign, both on- and offline, in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. As a result, instead of changing the name to something more respectable and widening the market reach, GaijinPot.com decided to stay where they are and not risk their current market share.

Xing was lucky in that a blogger broke the story of the relaunch six days early. The German media found the new name intriguing and caught hold of the story—essentially communicating the changes for them. On the other hand, they were not quite prepared for the sudden attention, and they had to rush the final touches on their marketing materials and support systems.

2.2 Internally

Here again the key to success is communication. A large amount of time needs to be spent educating internal staff about the project, allowing input from everybody and making sure they understand and support the re-brand.

3. The Outrage

3.1 Users hate change

Anyone who has taken part in a redesign knows: Users hate big changes. They appreciate a step by step evolution, but they dislike redesigns because they have to relearn what they already know. A rebranding is a big slap in the face, and usually leads to whining, shouting, threats and angry letters. This is inevitable, and if you aren’t able to involve the key users in the rebranding, you just have to doubly prepare your support for the angry users threatening to leave your website. The fact is, if you continue to deliver a useful, trustworthy service, users will stay no matter how angry they are with the recent change. In fact, the outrage is an excellent opportunity to gain honest and tough outside opinions about your website, which will ultimate lead to a better service.

3.2 Outrage is Free Marketing

The angrier a client the more aggressive is his critique. At this point you need to be equally cool and friendly. If you get through the initial storm keeping your calm, and using the outrage as a free marketing push, you might actually profit from your customer’s anger. See what happened after Facebook opened up and when Flickr changed its user accounts: People ran amok and that attracted more users than ever. So don’t worry about an exodus just because of the name change: If you are well prepared in terms of internal and external communication and you continue to deliver a unique service, things will be fine.

4. Technology

Especially if you are coupling the rebrand of a site with a redesign, technical consistency needs to be taken into consideration. Over the life of the website, users and search engines learn to find things by accessing certain URLs. You should try to mimic the old URL structure as closely as possible. Without proper planning, you will no doubt have users who can’t find a page they bookmarked last week, and search engines who bring new visitors to somewhere they didn’t expect to go. This shouldn’t be a problem for the right technical team, but in general it’s not as easy as it looks.

Conclusion

Rebranding is big adventure, and it shouldn’t be done on a whim. What are your reasons for doing it? How will the website be better off? Appeasing user needs and expectations is an important task, and that requires a lot of preparation. Thankfully more people are aware of these issues than ever before, but being aware still doesn’t make it easy. If you have the time and the manpower to back up the technical challenges along with customer support, you still need to make sure that the change is communicated effectively. So the basic question is: Do you have the money for a PR campaign or a story that incites people to talk about your rebranding? Is it an exciting story, or something that no-one really cares about?—If it is the latter you should ask yourself why you need a rebrand in the first place. Remember: Rebranding is an extreme measure than needs to be handled by a professional—just like a face transplant.

iA creates digital products. We offer strategic design and consulting services through our UX studios in Zurich, Tokyo and Berlin. To get in touch, just write a short mail to [email protected]. Subscribe to our newsletter to receive brief summaries of our articles and interviews.