Is the foundation of your brand strong enough to support a lasting success? Are you authentically delivering on your brand promise? Or are you suffering from what research calls the current “crisis of trust” in business?

If you answered “yes” to that last question, it’s time to do some digging down to your brand’s base to re-discover what made it special in the first place. In short, become a brand archeologist.

This analogy – touched on in my Brand Quarterly interview with Julie Springer, CMO of Transunion ­- came to mind when a well-known brand tried to pull the wool (carpet) over my eyes. I needed carpet for my children’s room that was durable, of reasonable quality and moderately priced. In short, I needed exactly what this brand had for years claimed as its foundation. However…

After selecting my carpet, I was presented with an astronomical price. Immediately objecting, I just as immediately received a much lower cost. And even though that second offer was acceptable, the brand no longer was. They abandoned what was unique about them and revealed a false foundation. The trust that should have been built quickly crumbled.

They were, I suppose, lucky that I’m not in the habit of taking my grievances to social media, that brand blessing/curse that amplifies your consumers’ experience (especially when negative). Instead, I reached out to marketing contacts at the carpet company. As we spoke, I encouraged them to look under their years of accumulated brand history, to rediscover the essence of their brand that had somehow become buried and lost (likely in years of sales-centric worrying about this quarter’s numbers).

To dig that deeply, I told them, they’d have to become like archeologists. And I shared five principles toward that goal – which any brand steward will be wise to consider when it’s time to refresh, reset or in any way rebrand an offering or organization.

The Five Brand Archeology Principles

1. Become Students Of (Company) History

When fundamentally re-examining a brand, marketers and their consultants tend to think of themselves first as visionary creators – reimagining a new brand future and building it from the ground up. What we really need to be, particularly as a rebrand project starts, are students of history.

Good students spend time listening and learning, reading and reflecting, just as archeologists “listen” to the past through careful excavation, examination and contemplation of artifacts. So study both short- and long-term history; gather product innovation examples; soak up customer experience stories; devour employee success anecdotes; get details about sales wins. In short, learn all you can about where and why your company has been successful.

2. Dig For Insights In Unexpected Places

Whether you’re an experienced brand client or consultant, you doubtless have standard processes that have proven successful, and set roles within them. For example, perhaps you start a rebrand with qualitative discovery, then use that as directional input for quantitative research. The numbers come in. If you’re the consultant, you analyze and recommend. If you’re the client, you review and formulate a fact-based recommendation for leadership to approve.

It’s a reliable, predictable path. And that’s just the problem. Predictability does not make for breakout brands. But what might happen if, in addition to the standard methods, you intentionally stepped off that path? What if, rather than accept the all-too-common management assertion that “the data tells us everything,” you ride along on store-checks, attend sales meetings, crash company parties or attend consumer events, all to hear directly what’s happening at ground level? I can tell you from experience what happens: you hear the unvarnished truth about what consumers and customers feel, and which experiences shaped those feelings. And you can glean critical insights that scripted research could never deliver.

3. Be Patient With The Process, And Know When To Change Tools As You Reach Delicate Ground

It’s one thing to get agreement to a reasonable schedule. It’s another to force yourself to slow down when you sense you are reaching that delicate stage in the process when you approach nuanced, yet important, factors that can shape a unique brand. This is tough, especially when excitement starts to mount.

Here – good brand archeologist that you are – you proceed deliberately, even slowly. You know when to use a shovel, to get well beneath the surface. But also, once there, you know how to use a fine brush to uncover layer after layer of insight without missing even the finest points.

Taking time also allows you to build trust – with your project team, with the organization, and with all the stakeholders, those real people whose hearts and minds you’re trying to open up. Only when you’ve established that trust can you get past the top-level answers  – the ones research respondents think you want to hear – and uncover real attitudes and emotions.

4. Test Your Hypothesis

Do the above, and the odds are excellent that you’ll reach an honest “Aha!” moment. Then, after all the time and sweat invested, and all the secrets revealed, you’ll confidently formulate your purpose, promise and positioning. You’ll feel ready to launch – and with the project clock ticking you may feel enormous pressure to do so. But there’s one more step: test.

Test your hypothesis with customers. Does it reflect their experience of the company? Is it authentic and believable? And, if aspirational, is it a stretch for the marketplace to accept, or an organic and welcome progression of stakeholders’ expectations?

5. Use The Past As A Platform For The Future

In any project where you’re digging deep around brand foundations, particularly when you discover serious cracks, there’s the temptation to switch from archeology to demolition.
It can seem simpler to start over. But keep in mind that it’s rare for an organization to abandon its entire history and the brand equity that goes with it.

Yes, there are times a complete change is required. Philip Morris became Altria to escape a literally toxic brand association. GMAC became Ally Financial, to escape the catastrophic brand impact of the Great Recession.

But more commonly, the brand foundation upon which your success was originally built is still of great value – it’s just hiding beneath the surface, long forgotten amid strategy changes, mergers and acquisitions, or countless reorganizations that evolved your meaning and messaging, but which inevitably strayed a bit too far. A good brand archeologist recognizes when there’s treasure to be found by doing a little careful digging to first uncover, then restore, a brand to bring it newly to life.

Real Brand Visionaries Can See Ahead… And Behind

I never did find out if that carpet company heeded my free advice. But I can tell you this: they abandoned the core of what made them unique in search of something they weren’t. And in the process, they lost my trust, and my business. I ended up working with their competitor and paying 25% more. Happily.

Don’t make the same mistake. If you refuse to dig into your brand history, if you fail to develop a vision based on a clear view of the past, you will lose out on the essence of what makes you authentically, meaningfully, irresistibly special. And believe me, the market will take notice.