Rebranding is often written off as no more than an expensive new logo. But when executed properly, the exercise can put a spotlight on real business change, as Joanna Perry discovers

A new font for the “W” at Waterstone’s, a big friendly smile in the Argos logo, and the new “Home Made” tagline at Robert Dyas are the most visual signs of the rebranding exercises taking place in each of these retailers.

With the pace of change in the industry accelerating as it comes out of recession, a succession of retailers has sought to redefine the image they portray to consumers. But the real story behind these rebranding initiatives is the underlying business and cultural change that both precedes and follows the more visual indicators.

So when retailers invest in a makeover, how should they go about it and what can they expect to get out of it?

Retail branding expert Martin Butler is writing a book on what makes retailers successful, The Art of Being Chosen, to be published in October. He has interviewed over 100 retailers around the world, and says that none of them mention rebranding as part of their success. However, they do talk about the underlying change in the business that led to a rebrand.

“So many companies get involved with a rebranding without identifying the purpose,” Butler says, explaining that rebranding should either be an ongoing evolutionary process, or directly support significant change taking place in a business.

“Rebranding will give people permission to feel differently about you,” he adds. “But only if it’s true. You must ask, is the rebrand honest? Rebranding should signal and celebrate change, and not be the change itself.”

Starting point

This is certainly the case at Robert Dyas. Dean Morris is head of marketing at the retailer. He says the starting point last year for the rebranding project was to clarify what the brand stood for, to define the proposition internally, and to think about why it was relevant to consumers. From here, the retailer began a store refurbishment programme. Only once this was under way has Robert Dyas begun to talk about these changes to its customers.

“The store estate was looking tired, and we needed to create a contemporary environment,” Morris explains. “The last piece has been how we communicate this to customers. It seemed a logical order.”

New leaf

Similarly at Waterstone’s (see panel opposite), the rebranding is part of a much larger business overhaul being led by new boss Dominic Myers. The launch of the umbrella logo and the localised treatments of it has been visible in stores for a few weeks, but this supports wider change taking place in the business, such as putting responsibility for choosing stock back into the hands of individual stores.

20 regional flagship stores are being created - including one in Kensington to be relaunched in a few weeks -which will showcase some of the more substantial modernisation taking place.

Verity Evans is creative strategist at venturethree, the brand studio working with Waterstone’s. She says that you should only rebrand if you are prepared to make a break from the past. “Waterstone’s is trying to use authors’ voices to sell their own books. So rather than putting 100 books in the window, it will have a few really strong posters to draw people into stores and get them excited and intrigued,” she says.

Butler adds that the recent rebranding of Marks & Spencer is another good example. “What Sir Stuart Rose has done at Marks & Spencer is great. They call themselves M&S now, and it reflects the ethos of what he brought to the business. The logo changed, the strapline changed and the advertising changed, but also the merchandise, the stores and the culture of the business.”

Butler adds that Rose got the timing of the rebrand spot on - slightly ahead of the change, but not too far.

For Argos, it is more about an evolution of its brand rather than a step-change (see panel overleaf). “The brand identity programme is part of a much bigger programme in the business,” says Siobhan Fitzpatrick, head of brand marketing at Argos. “So the identity change came at a point after we had begun to make the experience for the customer better.”

She adds that there will be ongoing work on keeping the identity fresh.

But if change occurs in your business, do you need to rebrand? Butler says this may be necessary to change people’s perceptions. But he warns you must communicate this internally before doing anything external, so that the rebranding matches its promises.

Morris says it is the refitting of Robert Dyas stores that will really change people’s perceptions - both internally and externally. “The guys in stores are really enthused by having their stores refitted - they are living the change,” he says.

Butler agrees: “It is particularly good for your internal audience because it galvanizes them into action. They can see what happens and feel part of it.”

How much needs to change as part of a rebrand also depends on the issues a retailer is attempting to overcome. When the Shop Direct Group made the decision to rebrand Littlewoods Direct last year, it went as far as changing the brand’s name to Very.

Butler believes that the more fashion-focused or attitudinal a brand, the more likely a rebrand will need to be accompanied by a name change.

He says fashion retailers often have to change their name when trying to reinvent themselves.

The further you move down the scale of how emotive a brand is, the less likely this is. “If you are dealing with a more functional business, you can rebrand more easily,” says Butler. He cites Tesco as an example of a retailer that has changed its image massively over the past 25 years, and substantially diversified its offer, while keeping its name the same.

Evans agrees that supermarkets are a great example of how elastic retail brands can be. Once your brand position begins to move as a business, it gives you permission to expand the scope of your business - such as Tesco moving into banking - that would probably not have been acceptable to customers before.

The right price

Robert Dyas had previously used the “Really Useful Store” tagline. This has been changed to “Home Made”. Morris says the old one was quite a good description of the business, but it was not emotive.

Rebrands are often derided when substantial sums are spent on external agencies. Robert Dyas worked with a number of external organisations on the different aspects of its project, and Morris says this was necessary from both a practical and creative standpoint.

“We run a very tight ship at head office. We’ve had to move quickly so we needed help with the project management side. Plus it’s good to have someone informed that you can debate with,” he says.

Butler adds that there is no right or wrong answer on whether to work with external agencies. “I have seen more bad examples from internal teams than external ones,” he says. “I think you should always get external advice.

It keeps the retailer honest, however much you pay.”

Everyone agrees that the true test of whether or not a rebrand has been successful is your top and bottom line. But many retailers are also keen to measure consumer sentiment, as well as the impact it has on staff.

What the customer wants

“Sales is a measure, and we want to understand the payback to the business, but also tracking measures in terms of store experience,” says Fitzpatrick.

“There are lots of ways of getting under the skin of online experience and how you move across channels. We also look at the effectiveness of communications.”

However, by gathering feedback along the way, Argos is confident that these measures will be positive. “Having an iterative process and taking customers and stakeholders on a journey means you end up in a place where you feel comfortable and confident,” Fitzpatrick adds.

Meanwhile, Evans adds that while research is important, too much can lead to paralysis or a “design by committee” effect. This can sometimes mean that a company’s output becomes bland in the process.

At some stage, it becomes a question of believing in what’s different about your business and why consumers would want to shop with you; and taking a leap of faith with a rebrand to embed this belief into the minds of customers.

Waterstone’s: A New Chapter

Lee Bannister is Waterstone’s head of marketing and customer insight. He says that progress has been quick since the retailer decided to rebrand to reflect the heart of the business.

Waterstone’s is working with brand studio venturethree on an ongoing basis on the creation and development of its new brand. “The vision is about us living for books that we know you’ll love. It’s an invitation rather than a tagline,” says Bannister. He adds that while this is not completely new to the business, the idea was not being conveyed especially well before.

The change is manifesting itself in publicity around book launches, bringing the books to life with the author’s voices alongside the new branding. He adds that staff from all over the business have been involved to get under the skin of the brand. Bannister is now working on a DVD that will be sent to all staff to help communicate the changes they will be seeing.

Part of this will be a new feel in stores, as well as a new look. “The brand isn’t just about visuals. We score highly on the store environment but we want to modernise, to move away from the library feel, and encourage families to come as a destination. So we are putting more furniture in, music where appropriate, and more space for e-readers,” Bannister says.

He adds that stores will also deliver service expertise around e-readers in an attempt to make Waterstone’s stores the number one destination to get advice on these products.

Bannister describes the current pace of change as relentless, and says that this will continue. He says: “This is a vision, not just a brand change. So I can see this being here permanently and evolving.”

Argos: One Brand’s Evolution

Working with agency The Brand Union, Argos unveiled an updated brand identity at the beginning of the year. Alongside a new logo, Argos is overhauling its store estate over five years, in a project which will cost £70m.

“It was really about an evolution, refreshing the brand rather than throwing everything out and starting again,” says Argos head of brand marketing Siobhan Fitzpatrick.

She believes that customers felt the brand imagery didn’t reflect the modern multichannel shopping experience of buying from Argos. “We were very keen to make sure that we retained the familiarity and warmth, so people recognised it was Argos, but it felt more modern, more like them.”

The rebrand took about 18 months to develop from start to finish, and it was an iterative process, checked with feedback from customers and staff along the way. The updated branding was revealed with the launch of the new catalogue and business-as-usual material.

However, the full overhaul of the store estate will take another four years to complete. Argos plans to have the new brand rolled out in more than 150 stores before the end of the current financial year.

The retailer has looked at the elements it had and what needed to be changed. “It’s ongoing, but that’s why we set up the feedback mechanism, so people in their business units can tell us,” says Fitzpatrick.

“Argos is a brand for everyone,” she adds. “Over 70% of households have a catalogue. The whole point of a rebrand was to bring that to life for all customers - not just those who are very comfortable shopping with us - as we want them to recognise something of themselves in the brand.”