Not long ago, our world was entirely different. In the past 2 years alone, we’ve been through a pandemic, extraordinary climate disruptions, major political transitions, and transformative social reckonings. Culture, society, and individuals have adapted to new norms faster than ever before—but where do brands fit into this rapid pace of transformation? And what are the new standards for developing as a modern, equitable brand?
First, let’s take a step back to consider what a “brand” actually is. A brand, specifically, is the identity of a business. There are countless other definitions if you Google the term, “brand.” Here are a few favorites:
“Your brand is your promise to your customer,” from Entrepreneur magazine.
“A brand creates distinctive images and associations in the minds of customers,” from the American Marketing Association.
“A brand is a customer’s complete experience with a product or company,” from Harvard Business Review.
But does a brand always need to be tied to the customer? That’s a tough question to answer. In business, there is always a customer. In this new world we’ve half created and half been handed, perhaps a brand can be more than a customer relationship and go beyond the business or product. And that idea raises even more questions about what a modern brand can be, how it can function, and what it can represent.
The foundation of a brand is its purpose—the promise it’s made and what it’s supposed to stand for. Successful brands are intentional in their purpose, functional in their delivery, and recognizable in their identity, enabling them to connect with individuals on a personal level. Successful brands are also flexible, which is now more important than ever, as culture rapidly develops and adapts around us.
We think about this daily at Stocksy, where our vision is to be a brand of progress at the forefront of society. We want to play an active role in how culture develops, rather than chase that change and try to keep up. With a core product like stock media, we have the ability to implement change and evolve the identities of hundreds of brands we work with.
Bringing this vision to life relies on our community of creative collaborators and Contributors. Our goal is to push the media industry to become a more equitable space and to get there, we need to build and support a community that’s diverse and representative of the real world we live in.
What is your brand and what does it stand for?
Technically, a brand is something intangible. It lives apart from your product. It’s the concept of what your business stands for, how it’s recognized, and where it fits in consumers’ lives. There’s an endless supply of textbooks and courses led by branding experts who have been teaching and qualifying the fundamentals of brand strategy for decades, but a lot of those standards have been thrown out the window since we crash-landed into the current decade. There is more at stake today and higher expectations are imposed on any brand we choose to support or idealize.
Every brand is upheld by a set of core values and a vision that almost always encapsulates the idea of being and doing better—to find its place in the world and stand for something that makes life safer, more inclusive, and more sustainable for customers, audience members, and everyone else. And if those initiatives are not part of a brand’s foundational fabric… they really should be.
It’s important to call out that brands don’t make decisions—people do. And behind every brand, there are living, breathing, humans. It’s up to us as individuals to work collaboratively with open minds to align on what a brand should stand for in its respective market and the world at large. It’s up to us as individuals to ask challenging questions and make difficult decisions for when it’s time to reset or change or pivot and set a new course.
So, when is the right time to revisit your brand? The strategic decision to rebrand or debrand falls on leadership. Leaders have a responsibility to listen to their employees, their customers, and their community for guidance. Taking action on behalf of the individuals whom leaders represent, while still prioritizing business goals, should inform the current and future brand strategy and ongoing evolution.
What triggers the need for rebranding?
Rebranding is a signal of a strategic shift. Sometimes the intention is for a company to rid itself of a crisis or damaged image, but not always. It can simply be a necessary update to align with cultural, social, or political changes.
Truly proactive organizations will revisit their brand strategy before being challenged, but most brands need to be confronted with discomforts that force change or expose the need for rebranding. It could be a variety of issues, such as outdated company culture, inequity, product irrelevance, production ethics, category disruption, whitespace opportunity, press, loyalty, product development, new revenue streams, etc. So many variables—internal and external—can trigger the need to rebrand. This can happen gradually over time as culture and the market adapts, or by way of a major social event or political shift that acts as a catalyst.
It’s entirely possible that nothing is wrong or dysfunctional within a brand, but as the world changes around it, it becomes necessary to adapt. Rebranding can provide new opportunities to communicate brand attributes in a way that’s transparent and meaningful. These days, this must go beyond advertising. Establishing value-based relationships with consumers around their interests, life stages, and behaviors is what earns trust and loyalty. A rebranding strategy should be built around customer needs—and that often sits outside of the product. Rebranding is about collaborating with audiences to understand and activate what matters to them.
The decision to rebrand should have clear benefits. Will it elevate and optimize how the business functions? Will it create new revenue opportunities at scale? Will it differentiate the brand and show value within a saturated market landscape? Some brands benefit from small acts of rebranding, like a new campaign or progressive initiative. Others undergo monumental structural changes and completely redesign business models in order to attain similar benefits. The spectrum is broad and there’s no set criteria to inform the decision to rebrand.
Again, it’s about understanding the needs of your brand’s community, recognizing the necessary changes to be made, and executing that transformation.
When is the right time to step back and consider debranding?
Brand building, brand strategy, and brand marketing work cohesively to make up the visual identity and representation of a brand. What consumers see, read, and experience create a connection between them and a brand. That’s why it’s so critical for the brand language to be honest and progressive from within, so it creates an authentic and inclusive experience for the consumer.
Transparency and authenticity can be tied closely to the idea of debranding — another approach to revisiting and revising a brand. The notion of debranding is a transition away from traditional brand building to focus the connection with consumers on a more personal level.
Debranding can be an opportunity to break out of rigid brand guidelines and marketing molds, enabling new ways to freely tap into culture, politics, and social values—connecting with people outside of, or peripheral to, brand product offerings. Where rebranding is a way to revise and transition the image and purpose of a business, debranding extends the brand identity beyond the business.
There are benefits to debranding. Creative direction can be explored outside of the brand “rules” and communication can be progressive and opinionated in real-time. But there must be a consistent and relatable connection with the audience for debranding to be successful and understandable.
Modern branding trends and progressive brand building are becoming increasingly centralized around equity, inclusivity, and transparency. Brands competing for space in the current social climate need to break free of legacy identities to connect and collaborate with what people care about on a personal and emotional level. And it must be authentic and real for people to actually care. Progressive branding is about standing for something that’s bigger than your business.
At Stocksy, we took a hard look at our brand attributes and applied changes to them—rebranded—to reflect our values and beliefs. Stock media has been a category in dire need of disruption. When you think about equity and inclusion, media assets are at the core of almost every brand’s visual identity. It falls on us to overcome biases and underrepresentation. Providing access to contemporary, progressive visual media that tells an accurate modern story has been limited for a long time, but we’re set on changing that.
Revisiting branding is an ongoing exercise. It should be happening all the time, not in the pages of an annual report, and it will never be perfect or connect with everyone. Culture and society will continue to evolve, so every brand has the responsibility to participate in the change and come along for the ride.
Stocksy is a royalty-free stock media agency specialized in conceptual and authentic visuals that capture the modern world. We are committed to enabling the entire creative class to execute — without compromise — meaningful, forward-thinking work that drives social progress.