If your middle market company has grown and evolved over the years, then you might be wondering if it's time to rebrand. A company's or product's brand represents its identity — the distillation of what it is and what it stands for. For customers, encountering a rebranded product can be like learning that an acquaintance suddenly changed his name: not necessarily a bad thing, but it may take time to adjust.

Rebranding companies and products

Middle market companies often find that rebranding is necessary, but they do not usually have previous experience with the process. This can make it a new, somewhat daunting challenge. Here's where to start.

Deciding to Rebrand

The most common reasons to rebrand occur as a company grows, which is why midmarket companies often find themselves considering rebranding for the first time. The following are some of the main reasons you might need to rebrand:

  • New target market: You've entered new markets or are adding a new group of customers.
  • New offerings: Your products and services have changed.
  • Inorganic expansion: An acquisition or merger has brought another company's products and services under your umbrella, and you don't want to lose any customers.
  • Outdated branding: The company's graphic identity may look dated or out of touch with modern trends.
  • Poor perception: Your company may have been involved with something that tainted customers' perceptions of the brand, and you want give the company a fresh start.

Each case should be considered comprehensively: Have your products or services radically changed, or are they reasonable extensions of the originals? Are your new customers different from the old ones? Will a new identity placate markets or only make them distrust you more?

When you rebrand, you risk losing your company's history. Even something as simple as changing a product label can confuse customers and cause them to defect to a competitor. While rebranding may be necessary, the decision should not be made lightly.

Understanding Branding and Design

When you decide to go ahead and update your brand, it is essential to understand the degree of rebranding you're undertaking. There is an important difference between brand identity and design — the former is what the company or product represents and stands for, and the latter is more simply a graphic expression. A brand usually has design as part of its identity, but the design doesn't comprise the brand.

It is important to know the difference between branding and design, because changing each comes with a different level of commitment and effort. Changing a company's name, what it stands for and what it offers is far more complex than developing a new logo. It's the equivalent of becoming a completely different person. This type of change may be necessary — especially if you're trying to mitigate bad public perception — but the risks are high. Further, the resources available for the project may restrict how drastic a change you can successfully execute.

On the other hand, updating a logo or graphic identity is less intense. This tactic is often employed in response to a dated logo or expanded company offerings. In these situations, designers typically keep some relation to the original logo or design to minimize confusion.

Involving the Company

Many departments in your company will need to be involved in the process of creating a new brand. Marketing will often take the lead, but upper management must be involved in strategic planning. There will likely be trademark or copyright implications for the legal department. Product and packaging designers, corporate communications, customer service and many others will all have a role to play in creating the new brand. For instance, it is important to conduct market research early on to see how the new brand is received, and this could be a job for your research or public relations team.

Communicating the Change

Once you know the type of brand change you're going to make, the next step is to create plans for communicating it to employees, customers, business partners, investors and the press. Getting people to recognize and accept new branding is just as important as developing the new name or logo. Get employee or customer brand ambassadors on board with the change before you make the general announcement.

You may also need a transition period during which the product or company goes by its new name, but still mentions the old one. This step is particularly important for middle market companies. Enterprises have the resources to overhaul advertising and direct response to help people make the new association, but with a more modest budget, you will need to gradually walk people from the old to the new.

Has your company been rebranded? Was it a significant change or just a graphic update? What was the biggest challenge you faced during the process? Let us know in the comments below.

Erik Sherman is an NCMM contributor and author whose work has appeared in such publications as The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times Magazine, Newsweek, the Financial Times, Chief Executive, Inc. and Fortune. He also blogs for CBS MoneyWatch. Sherman has extensive experience in corporate communications consulting and is the author or co-author of 10 books. Follow him on Twitter.