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Top Tips for Branding a Family-owned Business

A rebrand can be one of the hardest and most rewarding things you ever do for your business. When rebranding a family-owned business in particular, there’s another level of complexity to every decision along the way. Family businesses speak to tradition, longevity and history in a unique way, and because of this, they also have unique considerations tied to history and legacy.

One of Roger That’s family-owned clients, DH Sutherland, recently invited me to present with them in Oregon State University’s Family Business 360 series, the premier family business education series in Oregon. Sutherland is led by Mary Sutherland Crouse and her son Andrew Crouse. Both of them took part in the presentation along with their business analyst Drew Vipond.

Last year, we helped DH Sutherland with their rebrand, refreshing their name, logo, website, and marketing collateral. Since they went through this process so recently, Mary, Andrew and Drew were able to share great insight about the challenges of updating their brand while honoring their family legacy. They also spoke to how they emerged from the process with a strong sense of identity that has helped their company weather the economic impact of Covid-19.

In this article, I’m sharing the highlights of this talk about branding for family-owned businesses, including:

  • Whether to make family part of your family business’ brand
  • Common perceptions of family-owned businesses
  • How to honor legacy and history in when updating your brand
  • How to pave the way for a smooth rebrand process
Andrew Crouse and Mary Sutherland Crouse hold up a framed display of their business.

Should Family Be Part of Your Family Business’ Brand?

Being family-owned does not necessarily have to be a central part of your brand. According to the U.S. Bureau of the Census, about 90 percent of American businesses are family-owned or controlled. Is that number higher than you expected? That’s because there are plenty of successful family-owned businesses that don’t choose to brand around it.

There are also plenty of companies that base their entire identity on being family-owned, but unfortunately don’t back it up with a strong brand that speaks to why customers should do business with them.

There is a sweet spot in the middle where your brand can clearly communicate your value, while also benefiting from all the positive feelings associated with being family-owned. For great examples of strong brands that emphasize family ownership or origins, take a look at Oregon-owned Reser Fine Foods and global giant SC Johnson. SC Johnson promotes it in their logo, and the first sentence on Reser’s About page reads, “As one of the country’s largest family-owned and -operated prepared foods businesses, it may be hard to imagine our humble beginnings in the rural farmhouse kitchen of Mildred and Earl Reser.”

Common Perceptions of Family-Owned Businesses

Whether you know it or not, your potential employees and customers are meeting you with their own thoughts and feelings about family-owned businesses – before they even interact with your family-owned business.

On the plus side, family-owned businesses are often perceived to be:

  • Authenticity
  • Friendly
  • Genuinely caring for customers and employees

On the other hand, they can also be perceived to be:

  • Behind the times
  • Slow to adapt to new technologies
  • Struggling with family conflicts that affect business

Building a strong brand based on the beneficial aspects of being a family business can be a powerful tool to take control of your story and overshadow negative perceptions.

Sutherland has found that leading with being a family-owned business has humanized their brand in a highly specialized and regulated industry.

“When we introduce our company, we always say we’ve been family-owned in business for almost 70 years. It establishes us right away as a tried and true business. If we’re still here, we’ve obviously weathered plenty of economic downturns and global crises and we’re going to weather this one, too.”

—Andrew Crouse, President, DH Sutherland

Honoring Legacy and History in a Family Business Brand

When being a family-owned business is a key part of your brand identity, updating the brand means finding ways to preserve the family legacy without getting stuck in the past. Find the pieces of your legacy that are vital to your brand’s soul, and leave behind the parts that don’t serve you anymore.

For Sutherland, the logo was both the catalyst for their brand update, and the most difficult piece to change. The company was founded by Mary’s uncle, and her mother designed the original logo. Although Mary recognized that the original logo needed to be modernized, it was an emotional process because of its connection to her mother’s legacy.

"Using my mother’s original design as the foundation for our new logo not only honored her legacy, the continuity reassured our customers and employees that we were still the same great company they rely on."

— Mary Sutherland Crouse, CEO, DH Sutherland

Figuring out the role of the family legacy in your company’s brand can be the hardest part if the company is central to your family’s personal identity. Whether you’re running a company that has been in your family for generations, or you built it on your own blood, sweat and tears, remember this: your brand is not your family, and your family is not your brand.

Paving the Way for a Smooth Rebrand Process

Does the whole family need to be involved in the rebrand process? Absolutely not. In fact, involving too many people is a surefire way to get a result nobody loves.

Having now worked with many family-owned businesses, we encourage our clients to identify a core team of three to five people to the rebrand process – and make sure at least one of them is not a family member. Even better, empower that non-family member to lead the project and make decisions when the family can’t reach a consensus. Sutherland made Drew their project lead and in retrospect are so happy they did.

That said, there are definitely opportunities along the way to bring the rest of the family into the process and make them feel heard. Company values are my favorite area to have the family contribute their thoughts, ideas and voices. Choosing an initial direction for the color palette, logo and web design are also great milestones to invite a broader perspective.

This is Hard – It’s Okay to Ask for Help

If thinking about this stuff makes your head spin – or your ancestors spin in their graves – you’re not alone. Rebranding a family business takes vulnerability, and it takes courage. Getting an impartial third party involved to help guide you through the rebrand can bring an important perspective and transform this very personal and intimidating process into something that’s effective, efficient and fun.

If your family business is considering a rebrand, we’d love to help.

Schedule a free consult call.