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Behind the scenes of a rebrand

Andrew MitrakBy Andrew Mitrak

I thought that April 5th would be a typical Wednesday morning, but then I opened my email. My heart sank as I read the subject line: “FW: Taser changes name to Axon…”

I ran marketing at a startup called AxonVR. Now Taser, a big company that makes electroshock weapons, had adopted an identical name. We didn’t want our startup to be mistaken for the company that gave us “Don’t Tase me, bro!”.

We needed to rename and rebrand.

Thankfully, we were prepared. In late 2016, we introduced HaptX™ as an ingredient brand under AxonVR. We’re a haptic technology company, so people in our industry loved the name “HaptX.” Even prior to Taser’s change to Axon, several advisors suggested we make HaptX our company name. While we had a few other reasons to rebrand (read this LinkedIn post for more info), the Taser/Axon change sealed the deal.

Rebranding from a position of strength
A startup earns only so many news beats, so we wanted to use this as an opportunity to tell our story. We didn’t want our new name to get lost in the noise.

However, we realized that our rebrand by itself isn’t a compelling news piece. We decided to couple the name change with our next big announcement: our first product, HaptX Gloves. By attaching our new name to a major milestone, we projected pride in our new HaptX identity. We elevated our brand to a level where it’s just as important as our world-changing product.

Telling a unified story through an integrated media campaign
You’ve probably heard of owned, earned, and paid media. We use a similar framework, but as a scrappy startup that looks to maximize every marketing dollar, we do little-to-no paid media. Instead we group our efforts into three categories: owned, earned, and events.

Owned: This is what we say about ourselves. Our new website, launch video, social media channels, press release, and our new visual identity. Throughout these materials, we told a story about why touch is fundamental to virtual reality, and showed how we can simulate touch more realistically than anyone else.

Earned: This is what other people say about us. We spent months sharing our demo with media and influential members of our industry to earn third-party endorsements that validate our claims. We launched with positive coverage in Engadget, Road to VR, GeekWire, IEEE Spectrum, WIRED Magazine, and several other outlets.

Events: This is where we engage with people directly. We decided to publicize this announcement in advance of a busy events season. We had three events in the two weeks following our launch:

  • I/ITSEC – the world’s largest modeling, simulation, and training event
  • GeekWire Gala – the local tech outlet’s year-end celebration. This year, GeekWire recognized HaptX as one of the Seattle 10 – their annual list of the hottest startups in the region
  • VRX – a leading senior level VR industry event

We hope this launch will build our momentum into the new year. After we kick off 2018 at CES, we’re heading to the Sundance Film Festival. As an official selection of the New Frontier, we’ll be premiere two of our new demo experiences to the world.

Using timing to maximize impact
We scheduled our rebrand for November 20th, the Monday of Thanksgiving week. It’s unusual launch on a short holiday week, but it worked to our advantage. It was a quiet week, so our content earned high view counts and engagement levels. There’s merit to zigging while everyone else zags.

We worked over the weekend to make our transition: publishing and testing the website, migrating social channels, and uploading our launch video. This way, we could test and break things while our website had relatively low traffic.

Do things differently
I often think, “Had I known then what I know now, I would have done things differently.” Usually, this is in regard to some “what if” pipe dream, like wishing I’d bought Bitcoin in 2010. This rebrand was an opportunity to take what I learned in my first 18 months at AxonVR, and do things differently. We kept what worked. We changed or discarded what didn’t.

I also applied what I learned from my time at UW’s Communication Leadership Program. I keep Brian Marr’s Marketing and Branding slides in a handy Dropbox folder. When building our website, I drew from my lessons from Andrea Zeller’s Content Strategy course. Along the way, I bounced ideas and shared works in progress with my peers in the CommLead community.

Our brand has never been more aligned with our company’s mission, vision, and go-to-market strategy.

Collaborate with rock star talent
I used the rebrand as an excuse to work alongside creatives that I admire. Rotator, who did our logo and website, is a tremendously talented design and branding team in Tacoma. Not only do they create stellar work for their clients, they craft and spread art that builds their community.

When we planned our launch video, I knew Cinesaurus was the production company for us. They make content that people actually watch. They’re the team behind Gritty Reboots and Job Hunters, and work with big clients like Deloitte and SpaceX. My jaw hit the floor when I first saw the animated fox they created for our launch video.

Finally, the rebrand only worked because of Greg Bilsland, CommLead Cohort 12, my partner on this effort. We earned our press coverage thanks to Greg’s nonstop hustle. When our website crashed at 10PM before launch day, Greg stayed up all night fixing it.

A new brand will only be as strong as the team behind it. I’m lucky to work alongside the best.

Connect and learn more
If you want to talk branding and rebranding, you can find me on LinkedIn and Twitter. If this piqued your interest in HaptX, learn more about us on our blog.

Alex StonehillBehind the scenes of a rebrand
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