What’s the difference between a brand refresh and a wholesale rebrand? How do you know which you need? Read on for a demystification of the difference — and tips for determining which approach is right for you.
A tricky distinction
In most people’s minds, a brand refresh is a surface-level makeover, one that…
Getting the green light to undertake a rebranding project is a moment to savor. You’ve got a mandate and a budget: time to hit the ground running. But you’re going to need an agency partner — even companies with in-house capabilities often go outside for fresh perspectives and expanded resources. So you’re facing a new question: how to hire a B2B branding agency? You’ve fought hard for this opportunity, so who can you trust to steward the project to success?
The selection process seems straightforward: research top agencies, select a handful of candidates, send out an RFP, create a shortlist, interview the finalists, make a choice. But this is a high-stakes, relationship-driven decision. The future of the brand can’t just be handed to the firm with the lowest bid or the flashiest credentials. At DeSantis Breindel, we’ve been part of a lot of pitches — both as a competing agency and as the client to be won over. When we’re asked for insider advice on how to hire a B2B branding agency, we tell our friends, clients, and prospects to focus on the following nine areas of consideration.
Hiring a B2B branding agency: Initial research
1. Is the agency comfortable working in your industry?
The more familiarity an agency has with your industry, or industries like yours, the less onboarding you’ll have to do before the project starts. An agency doesn’t need have extensive experience in your exact field. It’s great if they do, but what’s more important is their comfort level working in similar industries. Do they understand the general business model and sales process? Do they have an understanding of the buyers you’re targeting? Can they communicate in a way that would resonate with decisionmakers in your company? If an agency partner can translate learnings from an adjacent industry, they’ll save time and money upfront — as well as impress the C-suite.
For B2B firms, this means hiring branding agencies with experience in broad segments: professional services, real estate, technology, health care, etc. For example, if you’re an economic consulting firm, don’t knock out an agency just because they’ve never worked in your niche. Experience in other professional services areas (law firms, financial advisors) can provide them a heuristic for getting up to speed on your business. Look for an agency experienced in similar industries, and don’t eliminate a good fit just because they’ve never worked with one of your competitors.
2. Have they worked with other companies your size?
When you’re hiring a B2B branding firm, compare the sizes of an agency’s clients with yours. Working with a regional law firm is very different than working with the AmLaw 100. Working with a recently launched app is very different than working with a global tech corporation. Determine an agency’s sweet spot: Fortune 500s? SMBs? Start-ups?
Companies of different sizes have very different B2B branding needs. Global firms need deliverables tailored to multiple geographic markets. They need massive employee engagement programs and sophisticated intranets. Brand architecture may be a big challenge. Often, they require investor or acquisition messaging. These clients have big budgets — and big demands.
Smaller firms have a different set of challenges. Perhaps they need to increase brand recognition, or even define a brand for the first time. Recruitment branding is crucial in this space — these firms are competing with big-name companies for talent. Smaller businesses are less likely to have large marketing departments, so they may need more help with day-to-day operations.
Look for an agency that not only understands the dynamics of a business your size, but will also prioritize your business. Large agencies — the ones that cater to the FedExes and GEs of the world — may take on smaller engagements in leaner times, but those smaller clients are not likely their first priority. This means you may not get the A (or B or C) team. The best partner to hire will be a B2B branding agency that is not only willing to work with you, but is also excited about it.
3. Do you like the work they’ve chosen to showcase?
Admiring an agency’s previous work seems like enough of a reason to include it in the RFP process. But CMOs sometimes second-guess their own taste, get distracted by an agency’s prestige, or simply don’t take a close look at the work an agency has chosen to promote. But there’s no getting around not liking a potential partners’ work. If you want an edgy rebrand, don’t call a conservative firm. If your CEO hates an informal tone, don’t send your RFP to an agency known for its cheeky touch. In short, don’t feel like you must invite any specific agency to pitch. At the end of the day, you know best what styles you — and your bosses — like best. While you should be prepared for a good B2B branding agency to push you a little outside your comfort zone, some may simply be incompatible with your organization.
Hiring a B2B branding agency: After the first contact
4. Do the agency’s employees make themselves available to you? What about senior leaders?
Pay close attention to how the agencies you’re considering respond after you reach out to them. Do they get back to you quickly with clarifying questions? Do they try to get some time on the calendar for a call or Zoom? It’s likely that an agency’s working style pre-contract is similar to what you can expect once the contract is signed. A high-touch relationship before they become your agency is a good sign that they will be responsive partners.
Your access to an agency’s senior staff is another predictor of a positive working relationship. If the top talent takes the time to talk to you before anything is inked, it shows that they value the opportunity to work with you. Furthermore, it demonstrates that an agency’s leaders take an active role in the business — and your project may reap the benefits of their experience.
5. Are the people you meet the team you’ll be working with?
Make sure that the pitch team wowing you with their experience and expertise includes the project team you’ll be working with. Don’t hesitate to ask up front: Would this be my team if I were to hire you as my B2B branding agency? Chemistry is very important to a successful client-agency experience, so it’s crucial that you’ve been building rapport with the right people.
Additionally, your agency’s staffing choices for your project give you an idea how much of a priority you are. If they can’t promise you that you’ll receive the A team, you’re likely not the client they’re most committed to impressing.
Hiring a B2B branding agency: Evaluating the pitches
6. Have they tailored their response to your situation?
When you’re reading an agency’s proposal, or watching their pitch presentation, is their content speaking to your exact situation? Or is it something that could be rolled out for every company hiring a B2B branding agency? Are they selling you a solution or are they selling you themselves? Is their pitch focused on your business, or their business?
Don’t let your prospective agencies rest on their laurels. Let them know you’re expecting to hear some original thinking about your situation. The quality of their response not only demonstrates their skill, but also their investment in winning your business.
7. Do they have a plan for gaining internal buy-in?
A branding agency should have experience in ensuring buy-in from internal stakeholders. In B2B industries, particularly professional services, decision-making tends to be consensus-based — but leaders don’t always tend to be consensus-prone. This is why the B2B branding agency you hire should be able to articulate how it’s negotiated internal stakeholder approval in the past, and what strategy it thinks will work best in your organization. Building consensus usually involves incorporating significant stakeholder input in the branding process. This may mean hands-on leadership involvement in creating the brand, or simply adding plenty of progress meetings into the schedule.
8. Have they promised the world? Have they promised too little?
When B2B branding agencies return their proposals, you may see roughly the same deliverables for roughly the same price. While there will be some differences between firms’ recommendations and fees, proposals from high-quality brand agencies will typically cluster around the same services and in the same general price range.
So when an agency’s response to the RFP is significantly different than other candidates, a red flag is raised. There’s a chance the firm is a disruptive visionary, the deal of the century, or so prestigious that choosing it is worth any investment. But more likely it means they aren’t the best fit for your project, or have misunderstood something about your situation or needs. While many would hesitate to hire an agency that promised too little, it’s equally dangerous to hire a B2B branding agency that promises too much.
Hiring a B2B branding agency: The ultimate question
9. Do you like them?
Chances are, if you don’t click with an agency during the pitch process, working with them will never be smooth sailing. Perhaps there’s nothing you can put your finger on exactly. Perhaps they’ve ticked all the boxes, but they just don’t sit well with you. It’s difficult to overcome gut feelings, and it doesn’t bode well for a successful partnership. If the intangible elements of comfort and trust aren’t there, no one can perform at their best. An agency’s likeability is a scary metric on which to base an important and expensive decision — but all things being equal, it contributes more to a working relationship than a long list of awards or a more impressive roster of clients.
Hiring a B2B branding agency: An art, not a science
If there’s a theme here, it may be this: when hiring a B2B branding agency, how an agency treats you — and how that makes you feel — should be high on your list of considerations. During the pitch process, everyone is presenting their best work and promising the world. So be sure you’re tuned in to the subtler cues that show a firm is comfortable with your industry, values your business, and will provide a smooth experience. Because for branding agencies, just as for brands, client experience is a key driver of satisfaction and loyalty.
We welcome the opportunity to work with you on your branding project. Contact us.