Minimize Risk When Rebranding by Deploying a Stealth Launch

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A solid brand presence is vital for organizations as they experience an exponential increase in competitors and platforms. Strong brands can help organizations remain relevant and drive value: in 2014, B2B organizations with strong brand identities outperformed the market by 73%. Organizations reap the value of brand equity in two ways: directly as revenue, when it drives customer purchases, and indirectly, as it influences market capitalization. Many leaders are aware of how a strong brand leads to a greater market share: three out of five chief executives cite corporate brand and reputation as representing more than 40% of their organization’s market capitalization.

It is no secret that a strong brand leads to value—but what happens when you need to update your brand? While many organizations may wish to avoid “locking themselves” into a brand in a continuously changing market, to sustain the brand’s strength in the long run, organizations must rebrand to reflect shifts in the market, customers, and the competitive landscape.

However, rebrands are risky; they take time to pursue, potentially more time for customers to adjust, and run the risk of eroding, instead of enhancing, brand value. Given the high stakes involved in a rebrand, many companies deploy a stealth launch—a marketing tactic that reveals the rebrand to customers, employees, and other stakeholder groups (like distributors) before the official launches. With a stealth launch, organizations can test the waters and make refinements as needed, generating momentum and honing their strategy before the full-scale launch takes place. To execute a successful stealth launch, organizations should assess their market and customer needs, build brand ambassadors, and deploy a buzz-worthy launch to build anticipation for the public release.

1. Assess the Market

Before planning your stealth launch, first evaluate the market to understand how consumers may respond to the launch. Read consumer data and conduct surveys to get a clear picture of potential customers, studying their demographics, purchasing motivations, and preferred means of communication. This market research data should fully shape how the launch will be communicated, taking into account which stealth tactics would best attract customers. For example, if you are a cosmetics company that has traditionally marketed to women in the 35-44-year age range but want to expand into the 18-24 range, your market data may indicate that younger audiences primarily interact with brands online, allowing you to pivot your stealth launch communications to social media.

When incorporating your research data into your stealth launch plan, it is important to ensure that your marketing tactics are authentic to your audience. One negative example to learn from was Sony’s 2005 stealth launch, which involved creating a website run in the guise of an enthusiastic fan promoting the product they were marketing. Consumers quickly discovered the truth, leading to highly negative buzz and great harm done to Sony’s public image. Avoid this downfall by fully assessing the potential costs and complications of your marketing strategy to ensure that consumers will not feel that you have taken advantage of them.

2. Build Brand Ambassadors

With a clear understanding of customers and the market, organizations can enfranchise two critical stakeholder groups to deploy a stealth rebrand: employees and engaged customers. Employees can become an organization’s staunchest brand ambassadors by advocating the new branding and messaging to current and potential customers. One way to convert employees into brand ambassadors is by creating a brand ambassador working group. Once the stealth marketing plan is launched, the brand ambassador working group will become critical advocates for the rebrand across the organization and to customers and prospects. When building this team, involve a cross section of employees across the organization from various departments and experience levels. Keep this group engaged throughout the rebranding process and solicit their feedback on messaging and new visual concepts, and preview any rebranding campaigns with them.

Engaged customers are also strong assets to involve during the stealth launch. Preview certain new branding assets with them including changes to product nomenclature, service offerings, packaging, or new website designs. Including customers not only serves to further strengthen their bond with the brand, but creates a cohort of external brand endorsements that will help to ensure a successful brand launch.

3. Execute the Launch

After evaluating the market and establishing brand ambassadors, it is time to create the stealth marketing plan. Decide where and how to deploy the launch: a social media campaign, promotions in public areas or in media, or an affiliated website promoting the brand can all be valuable ways to share your new brand. The launch should focus on creating buzz: consumers should crave the product or service and become impatient for the hard launch. However, marketers should resist directly advertising their products or services during the stealth launch. With an oversaturated advertising sector, many people simply do not bother to look at ads; with a stealth launch, customers become familiar with a brand without advertising pressure, paving the way for a more likely conversion later on.

One of the most successful stealth launches was deployed by Siri to build anticipation for the software’s release, with its co-founder, Adam Cheyer, citing the launch as critical to the company’s current success. With the initial prototype based in heavy technologies like machine learning, it took two years for Siri to be ready for an official launch. The team knew they would be competing with large companies like Google and Microsoft, making it essential to have a head start before coming out publicly—a move that proved successful when Steve Jobs called shortly after the public launch to begin discussions on acquiring the software.

After your stealth launch, determine whether to allow the campaign to stand on its own, or use it as the foundation for additional marketing. Begin to point at the product or service in advertisements and include a solutions or products tab on any affiliated websites. Finally, take care to nurture the consumer base you have built, inviting customers to connect through newsletters or RSS feeds and keeping them updated on beta versions and new features.

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