How to…rebrand your think tank

Author(s): Katy Oglethorpe

December 16, 2020

At the start of October my organisation transformed from the New Local Government Network to simply New Local. We swapped our plain black acronym for bold lettering and a hot pink colour scheme and unveiled a new website and logo. Post-transformation, it seems like a no-brainer: we now enjoy a name and brand that accurately reflects who we are as an organisation and where we are going. External feedback has been amazingly positive, but the process of rebranding was complex, time-consuming and at times nerve-wracking. Here are my ‘top tips’ of how to get through it.

Trust your first impressions

It pains me to say this but when I first saw the job at New Local Government Network advertised, I didn’t want to apply. I wasn’t attracted by the organisation’s bureaucratic-sounding name, the unmemorable acronym it produced, and the plain, corporate logo.

This changed when I read ‘The Community Paradigm’, an NLGN report calling for an upheaval of how power works in our society – moving it away from institutions and towards people and communities. The ideas this organisation was sharing felt big, timely and exciting, and I wanted to be a part of sharing them.

I don’t say this just to diss the old name or logo. They had taken NLGN to a position of credibility and trust. But there seemed to now be a gulf between how the organisation appeared on the surface and what it was saying. Joining the organisation, I realised this was a feeling that had been bubbling away for a while, as the think tank and our council members expanded our focus beyond local government and broadening out towards public services and communities.

Although you might not be the typical or intended audience, your own first impression can be a good barometer for how others will judge the organisation from a snap impression (and let’s face it – a snap impression is what most of us get). So your gut reaction is something that’s worth holding on to as you get comfortable inside a brand. After all, you may be used to the ugly wallpaper but that doesn’t mean it won’t stop other people moving in.

Bring your people with you

Regardless of who is ‘leading’ the project, remember that many people will have a personal relationship with your name and brand – including staff, board members, supporters, partners, etc. Create a detailed plan of who will be involved, consulted with, or informed and at what stage.

Buy-in should start with staff members. For them, your new brand is going to be what they are using in every email, report and in nearly every bit of small talk they’ll ever have. Their enthusiasm and engagement will be essential in how the brand is shared and perceived long after the launch.

At the very beginning of contemplating a name change, we held a strategy away day with all our staff and Board. We discussed the vision and mission of the (then) NLGN; where we felt we were and where we hoped to go.

Team members put forward famous people or characters they felt most encapsulated us – ranging from the grown-up Lisa Simpson to Steve Jobs, Antman and Greta Thunberg. We used this to discuss how we were viewed externally vs our own internal aspirations and a gulf between how we were appearing, and what we wanted to become, began to emerge.

By starting the rebrand this way, we didn’t lead with the top-down assertion that we were going to change the name; it came up organically, as a logical and natural step to becoming the grown-up Lisa Simpson we aspired to.

(Continually) ask the audiences

Audiences should always be the top consideration with any piece of communication, and this especially applies to something as major as a rebrand. Questions like ‘Who are our audience?’ ‘What do they want from us?’ ‘How do they view us?’ should never be far from anyone’s mind.

At New Local, one of our most important audiences are people working in local government, especially those who are members of the 60-plus councils in our network.

Before beginning any design work we put out a survey to this group asking them:

  1. What they thought of us as an organisation, and
  2. What they thought of our existing (NLGN) name and logo

From a selection of negative and positive adjectives, the most popular choices to describe NLGN were: ‘forward-thinking’; ‘progressive’; ‘credible’ and ‘connected’. However, this contrasted with perception of our visual identity, which respondents saw as ‘establishment’, ‘credible’, ‘boring’ and ‘old-fashioned’.

Their answers confirmed what we had heard from staff and board members, that there was a gulf between our visual projection, and our work.

This research was our most valuable mandate for changing the brand – providing justification for our Board, and clear direction for the designers with whom we later worked. It also ensured members were involved and informed from an early stage.

Later, we held more focus groups with our members – comparing different logo versions and looking closely at the final brand and website design. Just before launching we purposely engaged our ‘best friends’ – people who we felt would not only give us some final advice, but who would help us to share the change with their peers.

But prioritise where you* need to go

Existing audiences and stakeholders are vitally important, but they shouldn’t override your strategic priorities.

When consulting with your organisation’s closest friends, you may receive some push-back – after all, if someone already has warm feelings towards a brand, they might not see the need for it to change.

However it’s likely that the rebrand is intended to move the organisation forward, and to attract new and emerging audiences, so think about the voices that are not in the room as well as those who seem loudest at present.

A phrase I’ve found particularly helpful is ‘we’re gathering views from a range of different people with whom we work.’ It’s useful to set expectations among people advising you that while their views will be considered it is as one of a range of important voices.

I wish I’d done this more clearly at a previous role I had at a prison charity where we asked prisoners we supported to come up with logo ideas, as part of a broader consultation. One man drew shackled hands emerging from a dove, which were in turn bursting out of a book. It was a cool image but totally wrong for the funders and elderly supporters who provided most of our income. This initially threw me – were we authentically representing people in prison if we didn’t take on all their views? However, I found that when I explained this to the prisoners they understood that different audience priorities needed to be weighed against each other. They ‘bought-in’ to the final outcome, even if it wasn’t their first choice.

Indeed, people who are sceptical or risk-averse to this change can be some of your most valuable assets – they’ll provide a sense check for your decisions and force you to rationalise and justify choices. And of course, their buy-in (if it comes) is ultimately the most rewarding.

*By you, I mean the organisation as whole. I prefer to forget now that our final logo wasn’t my first choice (in fact I fiercely campaigned for another) but I’m now a convert so another tip would be to know when to compromise and to let go!

Share your narrative

There should be a strong and relatable narrative around your decision to rebrand.

This may not be the same as your internal narrative.

Externally, it’s better to focus on the positive causes for change rather than any defects with your former brand. And it’s important that all your internal stakeholders have a firm grip of what the top lines are when they are asked about the change.

Our own name transition was relatively straight-forward – removing only two words from our name meant we could easily frame the change as a transition rather than complete upheaval. Our comms emphasised that the choice was based on what we had continually heard from our members. Their remit had expanded beyond local government and therefore so could our brand. We spoke about their – and our – aspirational vision of working towards a ‘new local’. And we put forward various interpretations of our new bold, hot-pink logo (equals sign or two building blocks – you decide.)

Of course, the messenger is as important as the message. Our Chair, Professor Donna Hall (who is hugely admired in our sector) filmed a short video telling people directly about our rebrand and the reasons behind the change. I’ve no doubt that this helped it to reach more people and encouraged them to see the change in a positive light!

A rebrand is a massive endeavour and should only be entered into with strong evidence and real conviction that a change is needed.

It’s also one of the most rewarding things you can be involved with professionally – a chance to go back to the fundamentals of what your organisation’s for and what makes your audience tick.

At the end of it, you’ll hopefully be left with a brand that feels like a genuine reflection of your organisation’s mission, values and aspirations – one that can help propel you forward and make you a little bit proud during every bit of work-related small talk to come.