Rebranding: How to Be Successful in a Unique Industry

By Brian Benson September 5, 2018 Marketing Operations, CMP

There is probably nothing that brings more excitement and fear to the hearts and minds of multifamily operation executives and marketers than the term “rebrand.”

Rebranding provides an opportunity to create a new, fresh approach to how you position yourself in the market, how your residents, prospects and employees feel about your company and the overall approach you take to the business. But ask anyone who’s been through a rebrand and it’s likely they’ll spend hours telling you about the pain they experienced.

Having worked with more than 100 operators and overseen marketing operations, rebrand logistics and other marketing initiatives for more than 2 million units, we could gather around a campfire and tell you rebrand horror story after rebrand horror story all night long…  

What Makes Multifamily Branding Different

Make no mistake, a rebrand initiative is about the most complicated endeavor that multifamily operators can undertake; so, no matter what you do, it will be a challenging process.

While a rebrand is a difficult process for any business in any industry, it’s especially difficult in multifamily. The reason? Rebranding in multifamily is a unique endeavor - at which very few agencies (or operators) excel.

Imagine that you've been put in charge of a rebranding initiative for one of the greatest brands in the world: Coca-Cola.  You have control over, and input on, virtually every part of the process.  Your task is to make every bottle, every sign, every ad and every touch point the same.  It sounds like a pretty daunting assignment, doesn't it? 

In multifamily you’re dealing with a multitude of disparate inputs, few of which you actually control. Not only must you think of your brand in terms of identity items like logos, colors, fonts and designs, but you must also translate this branding to the property level. 

At the property level, everything is variable. From landscapes and buildings (the core of your brand) to regions with culturally diverse neighborhoods and employees who must deliver your “brand experience.” Each property represents a unique piece of the company.  Capturing and incorporating that uniqueness is both challenging and essential to a successful rebrand. When these differences aren’t integrated into the initial planning of your rebrand, ineffectiveness and higher costs are likely outcomes.  

2 Critical Factors for Successful Rebrand Initiatives

A company rebrand initiative calls for the involvement of all aspects of your operation. There are two areas that are especially important for success:

  1. Creative: This is the part that gets all the attention in branding, and to be candid, it’s the most enjoyable and exciting part of a rebrand. After all, who doesn’t love the idea of seeing new designs, modern layouts and creative identities?
  2. Operations: Less exciting than its creative counterpart, operations is easy to overlook.   However, this critical component of your business model needs to be evaluated and incorporated into your re-branding process from the start.  It's true that everyone - residents, customers, investors, employees, etc. - will admire and talk about the new and exciting creative, but ultimately, it's the operational side that will determine if you get the results you want.
     

There are lessons to be learned from past experiences and we have an extensive background in the rebranding arena.  We can usually tell how the rebrand will go within the first few weeks of starting the project.  While our clients may manage a company rebrand once or twice a decade, at Benson we do it three to seven times a year - every year.  Drawing on that familiarity, our teams collaborated to assemble some examples of rebrand mishaps that occurred when the operations and logistics portion of the re-brand weren't incorporated into the process from the beginning 

Lesson number one: be sure all key operatives are in the room when you start the process.  Waiting until you feel you need them is too late! 

 

What Happens to Rebrands When Marketing Operations & Logistics Aren’t Factored in Properly

Budget (and Other) Surprises

It’s no secret that managing costs is extraordinarily important in a multifamily operation. When dealing with marketing materials or any other physical components of a rebrand, the job of your rebrand team is to manage the trade-offs between cost, design, complexity and more. 

The most common problem occurs when the team responsible for designing elements of a rebrand doesn’t have a full understanding of the production constraints and costs. 

For example, we worked with a 25,000-unit operator going through a rebrand. They had a terrific and distinct design for the operator’s business cards. Unfortunately, they didn’t know that the card required a different print production process. When combined with the number of people who needed cards (multiplied by the turnover rate of onsite staff), those more expensive production processes led to significant budget overruns and the owners were unpleasantly surprised by the impact of that one little "special" card. 

The operator had to go back to the drawing board, which resulted in a delay in the launch. Because of other limitations, they were forced to go with a much simpler, less distinctive approach. The launch was delayed even further because of another initiative that had already been planned and the business card incident would have pushed that rebrand launch to conflict. Had we (or anyone with our knowledge and expertise) been brought into the process before the design was put together, we could have provided this team with some alternatives that would have enabled them to maintain the distinction they desired, without “breaking the bank.” 

Another common surprise/disappointment occurs when executives and rebrand teams see the application of the brand in the field. They experience a sort of buyer’s remorse because the materials don’t look and/or feel as they had imagined. When a rebrand process is done correctly, we’re able to provide samples of the actual application so that decisions can be adjusted before it’s too late.  

Disruptive Ineffective Rollouts

Anyone who has ever had to roll out any initiative in multifamily knows just how chaotic and arduous it can be. Rebrands are even more complicated. Onsite personnel must be educated on new brand standards and expectations; and, they must procure new items, often with new components or restrictions. 

We’ve seen it too often. An operator goes through a comprehensive rebrand and a leasing associate or community manager uses an old flyer design because they are either more comfortable with it, can’t remember what the new design is or simply forgot they were supposed to do it differently. 

Operationally, a successful rebrand requires three elements:

  1. A strong rollout plan
  2. An effective communications and education program
  3. A tracking and compliance process to ensure that new expectations are met and that disruptions are quickly identified and adjusted.

While most operators we’ve worked with have done a solid job with the first two elements, the focus is primarily on the creative side - the “why” for the rebrand. Little to no attention is paid to the operational elements, and nothing has been done on the third – the “how” it should be executed. 

When all three elements aren’t addressed, costs skyrocket as inventory is either thrown away, used when it shouldn’t be, or because of delays, small batch and custom orders skyrocket. All of this leads to frustration for all involved, in addition to higher costs, especially for the front-line onsite associate. 

Poor Compliance & Brand Inconsistency

There are two key elements here:

  1. Ongoing utilization of existing brand materials
  2. Proper use of new brand identity and assets

If you haven’t done a comprehensive audit of existing assets before beginning your rebranding, you’re creating a situation ripe for problems. We’ve interviewed marketers at the corporate, regional and on-site level and their number one complaint is that they feel like they’re flying blind. They’re responsible for important results, and some even have P & L responsibilities, but they lack the information they need to ensure they’re using their assets effectively. 

The execution of a rebrand is the difference between success and failure. We’ve seen situations where a $30,000 monument sign was designed, but the site lines or terrain weren’t considered properly, leading to cost overruns and delays.  In a situation like this you may have to implement a "quick fix" to stay within budget and deadline, but will probably end up with a monument sign which fails to deliver your desired brand impact. 

Another common cause of poor compliance occurs because all the parties (and required expertise) were not involved early on to assess the brand standards that are being developed. It’s not at all unusual when a rebrand is managed in this fashion that the standards turn out to be too rigid. When this happens, the rebrand team loses credibility and all the new “rules” are often simply ignored. 
 

Delays and, well, Delays

The second most common mistake we see in managing a rebranding initiative is that operators don’t spend enough time thinking about the end of the project before it starts. The rationale for a rebrand gets to the point where the decision is made to take action. The next thing that happens is a design agency is brought in to give the “brand a new feel and voice.” 

Then, when the rebrand is 2/3rds or more complete, the various constituencies impacted by the initiative start to express their concerns and desires. Senior executives start taking new designs and programs seriously and begin asking questions that should have been addressed before the first creative brief was completed. This leads to the first set of costly delays. 

Then, other conflicts arise. The cost of business cards, the terrain for signage, the difference in resident populations and regions, asset manager or stakeholders express dislikes for things. This leads to the second, third and often even more delays.
 

Confusion, Lost Productivity & Low Morale

Every delay means lost productivity, higher costs and greater uncertainty. 

We work closely with on-site personnel, regional and corporate marketers every day.  We know that, on a normal day, they already have too much on their plates.  It's a tough game and we have a lot of respect for the people who make it happen every day in multifamily.  That's why we want to streamline the rebranding process and insure that your employees get an initiative that is fully vetted and which they are enthusiastic to embrace.
 

Rebranding Done Right

A bit more than a year ago we worked with a large operator to support their rebranding initiative. They had just bought another operator and needed to bring them “into the family.” 

We conducted extensive surveys. Every property came up with a budget. We then conducted a comprehensive audit of their current marketing materials to determine inventory and usage levels. 

Next, we had everyone lay out their plans and make commitments to what they would do. It took some time, but we all knew how important the process was. 

Putting everything together, we realized that we had a problem - a BIG problem. The rebranding effort as it was defined was going to cost $3.6 million! It was quickly noted that this was not going to work, there was no way the operator could justify such a cost.

But, this wasn’t actually a problem. Because the work had been done up-front we were able to re-direct priorities, easily separating the “must-haves” from the “nice-to-haves. The net result was the operator was able to execute the rebrand on schedule at a total cost of just $1.2 million!

 

3 Considerations to a Successful Rebrand 

  1. Be Clear on the Why

Make sure everyone is clear on why a rebranding is taking place. What are the problems you’re solving for and/or the opportunities you’re pursuing? In the example above, because the why was clear, we were able to establish priorities with minimal disagreement. The priorities are the key to managing the trade-offs to end up with what you need (not want) in a rebrand. 

  1. Begin With The End In Mind

Start from the end of the project and work backwards. Identify the barriers and disruptions you’ll likely encounter before you encounter them. Remember you only know what you know, and, to paraphrase Warren Buffet: learning from other people’s experience is far more valuable – and less painful – than learning from your own. 

  1. Amateurs Talk Strategy, Professionals Talk Logistics

Make no mistake, the creative components around branding are important. But, never forget, we’re in the real estate business. In real estate, place is the core of who you are and what you do. If you haven’t thought through and mastered the operations and logistics of the branding exercise, you will be left with great designs, beautiful collateral, tons of needless costs, and, yes, yet another rebrand campfire story.