A Better Brand of Partner: How to select a branding agency

Julie Springer – CMO of TransUnion

An interview with Julie Springer, CMO, TransUnion

Arguably one of the most challenging choices senior marketers make is the hiring of external partners. Agency of Record reviews are legendary for their level of angst and activity, on all sides. But other key partner choices, particularly in this increasingly post-AOR world, are equally important and challenging.

The founding member of The B2B Brand Council recently sat down to discuss what it takes to find a good partner to help you build your very foundation–your brand. Julie Springer, Chief Marketing Officer of TransUnion, and Avenue, both have significant experience in this arena, including working together as client and agency on the rebranding of TransUnion. Anyone considering a branding or rebranding project who needs to take that crucial first step is strongly encouraged to hear what they had to say:

Avenue: When you have to rebrand a company, what are the key criteria that you’re looking for in a partner?

Julie Springer: I’ve been through rebranding a couple of times, and I’ve found that the company you choose to work with is probably the most important aspect of your project, at least the early stages of the process.

The first thing I look for in a branding firm is, obviously, experience. That’s table stakes. But the most particular thing I’m looking for is “fit,” and here’s what I mean by that…

Rebranding can be a very aspirational moment, and some people think they need to go out and look for a branding agency that’s really big and that’s done blue chip projects. However, a “marquee” firm may or may not be the best fit for your organization, for your culture or people, or for the scope of brand aspirations you’re trying to achieve.

“Shopping for a branding agency is all about fit.”

Avenue: So you need to “right-size” your partner, to fit your need?

JS: Yes, but fit doesn’t start with asking why you’d pick a particular agency–it starts with looking at what your company is trying to achieve. First ask yourself, “What’s the purpose of this exercise? Are we simply trying to evolve our brand and business? Are we trying to utterly transform it?” Once you know the order of magnitude of your project you’ll have a good guide for choosing the right agency.

I think of it this way: If I go shopping and buy an amazing pair of incredibly stylish jeans just because they’re incredibly stylish–but they’re just not the right fit, or the right look for me–then they end up being this $500 mistake in the back of my closet that I never wear. Likewise, you want to make sure that the agency you choose has the scope and scale and feel that you’re comfortable with and that ultimately is going to be a great fit for your organization.

Avenue: Rebranding can be looked at as a very functional exercise, but I’ve heard you talk about how important emotion is. Can you speak to that, relative to choosing a partner?

JS: If you see your rebrand or branding effort as just being about changing the colors or the logo, well, that’s a pretty simple, straightforward exercise that will be likely be smooth sailing.

However, real branding or rebranding is done because there is a fundamental business reason for it–and that is inherently an emotional journey. “We’re changing, we’re trying to change something about our business!” Every person at a company has a stake in that–and people have emotions.

So, it’s going be an emotional journey and you’ll need partners that you’re really comfortable with. It’s a long process and you’re going to find yourselves in the 48th hour of still discussing your “Why,” and it will unavoidably become emotional–not in a negative way, but just because that’s the nature of an honest process.

Good branding requires you to really dig deep, so you have to be comfortable that the people you work with can create honest dialogues with your team.

Avenue: Once you’ve chosen a resource, what’s the right process to follow when you’re rebranding?

JS: Wow, that’s a very big question–and there are a lot of ways to answer it.

Certainly a company like Avenue, which guided us through our entire rebranding process, could answer that question from the standpoint of steps 1, 2, and 3. But from my perspective the most important first stages of the branding process are internal…internal…and then more internal work. I realize that it sounds “so what” to say that, but truly, branding must start from within, and it must start at the top.

“You have to make the business case for rebranding.”

If I’d gone to our CEO and said “Hey! I’m going to take several months–and quite a bit of money–because I think we need to rebrand,” well, that would have been a very short conversation.

You have to make the business case for rebranding, and then there has to be a business agreement and alignment. That’s the very first part of the process. And this definitely needs to be collaborative, pursued through extensive dialogue. The more you’re inclusive at the beginning, the easier the process is going to be throughout.

We had extensive input sessions, we had them at the executive level, we had them at the middle management level, we had them with sales, so we really got a lot out of that. I attribute this largely to our agency, who led it all…Avenue… I think you know them [laughs].

Because instead of pursuing a transformational brand that we came up with and presented, the Avenue team took us on an “archaeological dig.” The process was like slowly using those little fan brushes to uncover what was already there.

I’ve been part of some rebrands at some pretty large companies, but the effort that we’ve just been through at TransUnion is the most successful rebranding work I’ve ever been part of. It’s because we took our time and we started at the top, and also because we went out and created brand ambassadors in every part of the organization.

I think when you do that you end up with something that’s entirely genuine and authentic. That’s why now I always say that I don’t need to own the brand anymore, it’s just inherent to the organization.

About Julie Springer: Julie is the Chief Marketing Officer of TransUnion, the global information and risk solutions provider that equips businesses and individuals worldwide with “Information for Good.”

About Avenue: Avenue is B2B marketing strategy and activation firm that helps mid-size firms drive change and growth.