But it wasn’t as simple as putting up a new sign and telling his staff to change how they answer the phone. After having cultivated a loyal customer base for more than two decades, he wanted to make sure the entire process was deliberate, well-planned and, above all, lengthy, so there would be no confusion among his clients.
Andrews says he was perfectly happy operating as Stephen & Andrews for all those years because as a sole proprietor, he didn’t want to spend money when it wasn’t necessary. But when he decided a few years ago to replace the 15-year-old sign above his door with an electronic reader board, he thought if there was ever a time to change the store’s name, that was it.
“I didn’t want people to look us up in the phone book, (not see Stephen & Andrews) and think we’d gone out of business,” Andrews says. “My feeling was, we had been around for a long time and we had established a good name for ourselves, we didn’t want people to think we were gone.”
“We made sure everybody understood – this is not a new ownership, it’s strictly knocking off one name on the front.”
So, he decided the last thing he would change was the sign. The rebranding officially started with the legal name change to G.J. Andrews Food & Wine Shoppe, followed by postings inside the store informing customers that the new moniker would become official in a couple of years. The next phase of the transformation was to change the company letterhead and business cards when they ran out and needed to be replaced.
Then came the email addresses. Andrews had his computer techie work it out so emails to the old Stephen & Andrews addresses were delivered to his new G.J. Andrews mailboxes. (The techie also worked his magic on the Internet so when anybody Googles “Stephen & Andrews” they instantly receive information about G.J. Andrews Food & Wine Shoppe.)
“It made people much more comfortable and familiar with (the change) over time,” he says.
Then he started letting suppliers in on the deal and finally, he applied for a permit for the new sign. In all, the entire process took nearly three years.
“One of my customers says it was the longest name change in history,” Andrews says.
He recognized the risk from the beginning but he figured his slow and deliberate strategy would minimize the danger.
“I saw this as the best way to do it. I didn’t have to hire PR people, do marketing or advertising campaigns or pay a lot of money to consultants,” he says.
“Our biggest fear was people would think we were gone. Doing it the way we did, I had no fear. I didn’t think for one minute this wasn’t going to reach people and work. If you think it won’t work, it probably won’t. I’ve always been very positive in my thinking.”
Local companies with an embedded presence, a robust reputation and strong customer affinity are taking a big risk when rebranding, according to Derrick Coupland, a partner at Blacksheep Strategy, a Winnipeg-based branding strategy company.
“You almost never get a chance to explain your new name in a way that makes sense to customers. It’s very difficult to have a forum to explain the reasons and even if you do, (the name) is often rejected by the customer,” he says.
Coupland applauds Andrews for his deliberate and meticulous approach but says such success is rare. If an entrepreneur, who is looking from the inside out, wants to change the business’s name to reflect current ownership or management, none of that means anything to the marketplace, he says.
“It’s arguably an inefficient use of resources as opposed to spending the money to further capitalize on the brand and its strong history,” he says.
To illustrate his point, Coupland notes the confusion that often ensues when major law firms change their names after the arrival or departure of various partners.
“Our counsel is to be cautious of brand name changes. You want to avoid the revolving door of brand names. It can be very distracting to the market,” he says.
Coupland notes there has been significant negative reaction from the public to several incidents of brand tinkering in recent months, involving giants such as Starbucks, J.C. Penney and The Gap. The latter, an iconic clothing retailer, received so much flak late last year when it changed the size, font and color of its well-known logo, much of it via social media, that it reverted back to its rectangular blue box logo shortly after.
Andrews says he still gets customers asking about the new name, whether it’s G.J., J.G. or J.J. Andrews. (The “J” stands for “John.”)
“It takes a little while. Even if they’re having trouble with which letter comes first, they know it has changed and they know we’re still here. There was never a dip in business. We had very nice growth year over year. It will probably be 10 years before nobody says ‘Stephen & Andrews” anymore,” he says.