Rebranding a Startup after a Pivot: Case Study with Apperian

In a recent post I talked about when it makes sense to challenge your branding elements. Today I’ll share a personal experience of rebranding an emerging software company after of a pivot. What follows is a quick example of something we faced at Apperian, where I am honored to be CMO.  


As quick background, the Apperian platform makes it incredibly easy for companies to securely get enterprise mobile apps and content into the hands of workers. It’s like a private and brandable iTunes app store for any company and provides a rich backend that makes securing and managing all the apps in it a breeze for IT.

Earlier in its life, the company was targeting mobile app developers in a wide range of organizations, driving prospects to software trials, and selling via telesales. At the time, mobile app developers tended to be a bit rogue in the enterprise. Known as technically astute individual contributors, they often worked detached from corporate IT to build an app in support of a line of business team.

Industry evolves, company pivots

The mobile industry was/is evolving quickly. CIOs and corporate IT began quickly reining in mobile app projects throughout organizations so they could ensure compliance with corporate security standards. The individual developers Apperian was targeting were still building apps, but they were now being coordinated by corporate efforts and funding was coming from senior IT and line of business budgets. Our target developer audience had quickly lost the ability to make purchase decisions beyond trials or very small deployments.

I joined the company as a key realization was starting to become clear. We were selling B2B software into the enterprise and needed to reach senior IT and line of business execs. And we needed to position against larger competitors who were attempting to apply their existing and not optimized architectures to solve a problem that we were and are much more effective at addressing. We began to quickly overhaul our go-to-market approach, messaging platform, and selling tactics.

Sensing our brand was not aligned with new target audience

As illustrated by our original logo, much of the branding direction was intended to elicit an emotional and empowering response with developers. Developed before I came on board, I do feel it was well done and effective at reaching that originally intended audience. But, as we pivoted and began targeting sr. managers and execs, many in that segment reported finding our messaging and creative elements threatening or defiant. They wanted to partner with us – not to have us fuel a revolution on their teams. 

We needed this new and essential market segment to support us. We needed them to know that we were THE thought-leaders in the space and that we would enable them to drive transformation in their business.

It was clear the company was evolving too quickly for the existing brand (messaging, creative design directions, logo, tagline, etc.) and it no longer accurately expressed how we wanted to be perceived. As a growing company, we needed the branding to work for us.

Determining if re-branding is needed: start with messaging

We knew changes to our branding approach were needed to align with our new strategy, but it wasn’t yet clear if we should make adjustments to our existing branding approach or if we should embark on a more significant overhaul. We started by challenging and refining our messaging platform. That would inform everything else.

When in doubt, talk to your customers. And talk we did. We conducted what felt like countless interviews with customers, prospects, industry analysts, company advisors and employees.

From external audiences we learned about how they perceived the company and our solutions. Entirely universal themes included language of empowerment and how we enabled them to lead visible and transformational mobility projects – sometimes in hours or days when they had been struggling with competitive products for months. Customers and analysts also referenced our company as being an authoritative thought leader in the industry and source of fresh and innovative ideas. With so much industry attention on consumer uses of mobile apps, Apperian was becoming seen as the experts for mobility in the enterprise.

We also took great care to meet with employees at all levels and in all functions within the organization. By the end of the exercise, we had interviewed practically every employee to understand what he or she believed the company stood for and how we were unique and valuable to our customers. This was incredibly eye opening and surprisingly consistent. It was also clear that these shared set of values were quite consistent with what we were hearing from our customers and analysts.

The volumes of feedback we collected led into an evolving messaging pyramid, which then informed creative briefs that started to capture the essence of how we wanted our stakeholders to perceive the company. We deliberately wrote these as if we were starting the company on Day 1. We captured what we believed to be the ideal positioning and branding direction – without regard to where these elements were currently. If we could evolve our current branding platform to align with this fresh guide, then we would. If we could not, then we were prepared to blow it up and start fresh.

The Big Decision: evolve existing brand vs. start fresh?

When we compared our messaging platform and creative briefs to our current branding platform, it was clear a significant change was needed. We evaluated numerous creative options for evolving the brand, but decided they looked forced and didn’t really capture the spirit of what our messaging guides were communicating in copy. The gap was just too significant. It was clear this had to be a branding re-start.  

OK, we’re rebranding… and it better be brilliant!

Having great design and creative partners in this process is essential. On my team I’m fortunate to have some incredibly talented and design-minded marketing pros. This is so critical since it allows the team to process ideas quickly and without wasting funds and time externally for every decision. But it’s also important to have a trusted outside creative and design advisor, as they’ll be a great source of fresh ideas and can help challenge the core team – and be ready to crank out core creative concepts quickly. For the branding and redesign work at Apperian we worked with a local firm, East Coast Catalyst, that has supported me on a number of similarly scoped projects over the years. Together, we worked to build a creative direction that embodied our messages.

“Customer” input and gaining buy-in

We moved quickly, but it was essential that we landed on a creative direction that had the buy-in from stakeholders. Though some CMO’s may disagree, we circulated creative drafts fairly early as well as quite widely. We exposed the ideas and drafts with select customers, with our closest industry analysts, and numerous people throughout the organization. We included members from our engineering team. They are an important part of our company and culture. And they would also have to implement it in our products and they caught several issues with earlier iterations that we corrected as the designs got finalized.

By exposing more people –and those representing a variety of viewpoints– I believe a much better outcome was achieved. Many people were surprised that we invited them to participate in the process. They shared candid feedback, sometimes identified issues we had not considered, and they ultimately became vested in our process and the outcome. I realize this can backfire or drive a creative project into watered-down compromise that attempts to address everyone’s feedback. This is where the core team needs to make a judgment call based on where the organization is and the personalities and issues at play.  So which is better: led and controlled by small, core Marketing team or more democratic and open? In my experience there is no universal answer. I think more openness and collaboration is better, but the extent of involvement is ultimately one of those tough calls that needs to be made based on judgment.

If branding for the first time is a delicate process, re-branding can be like walking on eggshells. Despite what any employee might say, everyone is interested and many people have remarkably strong opinions. I believe it’s important to make people feel part of the process, but also remind people about the intended audience and what messages the branding elements must communicate. We began all branding discussions with a description of our target audience and core messaging platform. I’ve found that most helpful to keep people focused and to remind them that they do not necessarily represent the buyers we are trying to reach.

“Up and To the Right”

It was essential that we broadcast the messages and tap into the emotions we wanted to convey. Most importantly, it needed to be well aligned with the audience, capabilities, values and our uniqueness. We wanted to project our passion for the mobile app lifecycle and express the speed, agility and strength we bring to the enterprise.

Apperian is at the forefront of a rapidly evolving industry. We are continually helping our customers move forward and in turn we are moving an entire industry forward. Our new look and feel needed to convey thought-leadership, represent a nimble company that would keep our customers on the cutting edge—one that would give them an edge and take them and their mobile apps to the next level.

The new brand direction is drastically different than the original and we believe it is very well aligned with the target audience and our core values.

Rolling out the rebranding

The unveiling of our new brand, new website and supporting materials was met with extreme excitement within the company. One of the very first things we did after showing the new branding platform was to distribute business cards for everyone. For some reason not everyone had had business cards before, but we changed that. Everyone received them during an all-hands meeting. Since everyone had a stake in guiding the branding effort, what better way to make the rebranding personal and easily sharable with family and friends?

The letter that announced the changes to our customer base was sent from my actual email account. And we did something a little different: we told our customers about the rebranding before we made it public. We didn’t want our customers to be surprised by the rebranding effort and they’re important people and we wanted to make them feel on the inside. To my knowledge, no one leaked the information publicly. I received an unforeseen number of personal emails back with positive comments and numerous people thanking me for the “sneak peek.” That was cool and I answered every one personally.

Approaching your rebranding decision

Blowing up and starting fresh may seem unthinkable to many marketers. And perhaps few business changes or pivots are so extreme that they warrant doing so.  But I wholeheartedly believe that it’s our duty to ensure messaging and branding platforms are optimally aligned with target audience and their challenges, the value delivered, and differentiation. The impact of a well-aligned branding platform may be hard to quantify, but if it’s not working in your favor, it’s worth challenging. Branding does matter - even in a startup.

Rebranding is a tricky thing to navigate. The design and creative aspects are only part of the endeavor. Customer knowledge, product capabilities and direction, business strategy, messaging, company culture, business process, and more – and how those are embodied in creative and design elements. It’s all tied together. Be sure to tackle a branding or rebranding effort with a solid understanding of these pieces and be sure to have the right stakeholders involved throughout the process.

Good luck!

Special thanks to @stskidmore, @tiffanyearly, @xylem, @ITredux, and @ecoastcatalyst for their contributions to this post and role in the rebranding efforts.