Rebranding TLC: Timing, laying groundwork, communication

Advanced planning is key to the success of big, outward-facing brand changes, industry experts say.
Photograph: Shutterstock

The decision to delete the second half of Dunkin’ Donuts’ name, a change announced at the end of September, did not happen in haste. Far from it, in fact. Company executives acknowledged that they’d begun laying the groundwork for the beverage-focused rebranding effort more than a decade ago, with the launch of the pervasive “America Runs on Dunkin’” ad campaign.

“We’ve tested this extensively with consumers,” Tony Weisman, Dunkin’s chief marketing officer, said during a conference call. “Reaction was overwhelmingly positive. Consumers felt like this was the brand they know and love.”

It’s that kind of planning and forethought, industry experts say, that’s essential for a successful restaurant name redo.

Upfront research and buy-in

“Rebranding is a tough thing to do, but brands need to do it at times in their evolution,” says Steve Beagelman, an industry veteran who has held senior-level executive roles with Rita’s Italian Ice and Saladworks.

Beagelman began at Rita’s when the Philadelphia-based chain was known as Rita’s Water Ice. “I didn’t know what the heck ‘water ice’ was,” says Beagelman, who now runs a franchise consulting firm. “We started going out of the area, and no one knew what the heck it was.”

So the chain did a study of consumers in the existing market and in prospective markets to determine whether a name change was warranted and what new names resonated.

Beagelman said Rita’s gave franchisees six months to convert to the new Rita’s Italian Ice signage and branding, and achieved 95% compliance. The remaining franchise owners needed to be persuaded, he says, sometimes through calls from other franchisees. “It’s about educating the franchise system,” he says. “Educating them that it’s what’s best for the future of the brand. … You get their buy-in and they help you sell it through the system.”

Communicating it out

Famous Toastery began its life in 2005 as Toast Cafe. “It was never meant to be a massive chain at that point,” Robert Maynard, the chain’s founder and CEO, says. “It was started as a nice breakfast spot in North Carolina.” Then Maynard began to realize there were lots of other restaurants with the same name. With franchising in mind, he rebranded the concept to Famous Toastery in 2014. The company had three stores then and has since grown to 35 units.

Having a made-up word, such as “toastery,” in a brand name makes it easier to secure a registered trademark and ups the brand’s prominencewhen consumers search for it online, Maynard notes.

Famous Toastery’s leadership began laying the groundwork for the name change about a year before it became official, he says. Employees started answering the phone with the new name, menus were updated and so was the website. The chain used its social media accounts to start a countdown to the official launch of the new name, all with an eye toward ginning up excitement and communicating to customers that, despite a revised moniker, it would still be the same restaurant.  

“We started putting table tents on all the tables,” he says. “We’d have every server tell tables that we’re changing our name. You get the buzz out there.”

Maynard says the chain made an early mistake with its initial logo showcasing the new name. “Our logo was in script,” he says. “We didn’t realize how bad it was going to look until we did one sign. … So we changed it to big blocks to make sure it’s clear and in block letters.”

That clarity is something Rita’s also had to consider for its initial name change. Specifically, it had to think about whether a new name would fit on existing pole signs.

Too fast

A poorly handled name change—two of them, in fact—likely hastened the downfall of the once-promising Noon Mediterranean fast-casual chain, according to CEO Stefan Boyd. The brand began as VertsKebap, shortening its name to Verts in 2016 before switching to Noon the following year. The company recently filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection, and Los Angeles-based Elite Restaurant Group has filed an intent to purchase it and fold it into its Daphne’s California Greek brand.

The earlier name changes were an attempt to turn around sagging sales, Boyd says.  “It was a bad idea for us to rebrand,” he says. “The effect was not good. … We should’ve spent more time planning it and preparing for it and also done a better job communicating to our guests and our employees.”

“Since the rebrand, we’ve suffered in the bottom line.”

In some cases, Boyd says, Noon didn’t receive necessary city permits to change signage in its rush to change names. To add to the brand’s challenges, the name shift came along with menu changes that angered some consumers, he says.

As the chain attempts to come through bankruptcy, Boyd hopes to swing Noon back toward the menu and branding of Verts. “It’s a risky move. Any rebrand is a risky move,” he says. “Take your time crafting the new brand and testing it and getting feedback from your new target demographic to make sure you’ve done everything so you don’t miss the mark.”

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