FEBRUARY 13, 2003

By Christopher Kenton

Building a Two-Faced Brand

To succeed in a rapidly changing market and be taken as seriously as we deserved, there was no choice but to break the rules

When I went into business with my partners in 1998, our goal was to establish a multimedia division for their existing design shop, Profile Design. I spent two weeks writing a one-year business plan to get Profile Online started. We would leverage Profile's existing customer base for the first year, offering expanded services to clients who trusted us enough to weather the bumps as we ramped up. In that way, we could build the revenue, the operations, and the reputation necessary to expand our market in the following years.

It was a conservative plan -- and totally out of step with the market. Within two months, the plan was in the trash. We were correct in targeting existing customers for expanded services. As a measure of the brand my partners had established, customers were actually excited to help us introduce technology and multimedia into Profile's offering. What we didn't anticipate was the demand for our emerging services among new clients. Six weeks into 1999, we would book sales equal to our projection for the entire year -- but not before we made some rapid adjustments in our approach.

There's been enough written about the excesses of the dot-com bubble -- the over-funding, the crazy business plans, the loss of fundamentals. What you don't get from that portrayal is the energy, the speed at which all businesses were suddenly able to move. It was as if everyone began to sprint. Those who were running for fear of being left behind were matched by those who were running for the thrill of leaving their competitors in the dust.

SEPARATION ANXIETY. Any tentative first steps we took with our business plan were overcome by a deluge of prospects streaming into our office every day to hear our capabilities presentation. Prospects were desperate for our services, but we weren't closing the deals. No matter how much experience we could demonstrate, most didn't trust a design-and-marketing shop to deliver technology. The market believed the two were irreconcilable -- and we were stuck in the middle. We were seen as just another design studio desperately trying to keep up.

To adjust, we decided to break one the basic rules of marketing -- we split our brand. Profile Design continued to provide the services upon which their reputation was built. But a new business would be launched to provide a technical face to our services, a business with a brand born and bred for the New Economy. In actual function the two companies were identical. We were the same employees in the same offices. But in form, we were separate firms presented to clients as partners. We had different Web sites, different stationary and different stories.

The obvious danger with such a ploy is that you'll confuse your customers and dilute your brand. Which business card do you carry? How do you answer the phone? How do you explain why two businesses are showing up to do a job that one should be able to handle alone? But once you dig below the surface, whole new levels of risks and concerns are raised, including legal, financial, ethical, and even psychological questions. Who's employed by what company? Is it really worthwhile to double our business expenses? Would clients think we were misrepresenting ourselves? How could we simultaneously inhabit two completely different brands?

We started by carefully planning the logistics. We would incorporate a second company with separate accounting. We would assign employees to one or the other company for legal status, though they might still represent both businesses. We bought a PBX system that could present two telephone-answering systems that converged on one directory of mailboxes. We developed protocols for deciding which situations called for which business. Finally, we began the process of creating a new brand.

NAMES OF THE GAME. As a design and branding business, Profile had developed many corporate identities and brands. We were like kids in a candy store sparing no expense on conceptualization and design. We began by documenting our strategic positioning. We wanted to build a brand that was modern and technically savvy, but showed an understanding of formal design. We wanted to convey a sense of confidence and capability, but also dedication to our clients. We liked the concept of nautical navigation for conveying vision, leadership, guidance and adventure, but it's a theme vastly overused in the marketplace.

Over the course of about six weeks, we simultaneously worked on "identity" design concepts and naming. We held a number of naming workshops, exploring about 3,000 names without finding anything that both satisfied our objectives and was available as an Internet address. Ultimately I came across the root of our new name in an obscure dictionary of adjectives, but it was my partner who recognized its potential.

Cymbic: in the shape of a vessel -- a vessel like a vase, or a like a ship. What made Cymbic work, other than the fact that it was completely off the radar in our trademark search and available as an Internet domain, was it's vague emptiness of meaning. In our research, we found that people didn't know what the word meant, but it had universally positive associations, like Symbolic, Symbiosis, Synergy. It was an empty vessel that we could build into a brand. Its only drawback was the spelling, which has to be sounded out over the phone, but once seen it tends to be memorable.

Our logo emerged in a similar manner. One of our designers was exploring the concepts of navigation, including compasses and the notion of true north. She created an abstract aggregation of symbols, including a globe, a compass bezel, and cardinal points designating the axis of true north. It was a perfect match for the name, familiar but unknown, stable but evocative, a blank canvass on which to build.

HEARTS AND MINDS. To businesses that haven't been through the process, it's hard to convey the power of a brand, much less to quantify the return on investment. I've made that sales presentation more times than I can remember, and it's the hardest sale to make. Attitudes and perceptions are hard to measure, and many businesses do just fine without investing in their brand thank you very much. But for us, the transformation was surreal. Prospects that had dismissed us as a quaint design shop suddenly believed we had the answer. Sales calls that had found us defending our capabilities became strategic discussions of our client's potential, literally overnight. And we closed a lot of deals.

We maintained two completely separate brands for two years. In time, the services and markets perception matured -- as did our own brand -- and it became believable that a company could excel in both technology and traditional design. We merged both companies under the brand name Cymbic, and have since moved on to incorporate other services into our mix, including marketing and more robust development services.

But that first step in rebranding our business was unforgettable. While I would never recommend such a risky and expensive move to anyone, it provided us with a lot of opportunities -- the opportunity to move with the market, the opportunity to live the process we provide to our clients, the opportunity to explore and build our identity. But most important of all was the opportunity to observe the strange power a brand has of shaping perceptions.