Clearstory Rebranding: One Firm’s Creative Journey

Read Time: 6 minutes

SEGD member firm Clearstory recently won a 2021 National Marketing Communications award in the category of “Rebrand” from SMPS (Society for Marketing Professional Services) for the rebranding of their own company. This included the renaming of the 25-year-old design firm from Kate Keating Associates Inc. to Clearstory. Learn how the leadership and staff of Clearstory launched a creative journey involving more than simply the design of new logos, but included introspection about the identity and goals of the firm itself.

In January 2020 the design firm Kate Keating Associates Inc. officially changed the company’s name to Clearstory. The renaming was done, in part, to celebrate the firm’s 25th anniversary, but also to reflect a change in leadership after the retirement of the firm’s founder and principal Kate Keating. The San Francisco-based experiential design firm is known for wayfinding and placemaking projects for several prominent clients, including the California Academy of Sciences, Netflix Corporate Headquarters, and The Presidio of San Francisco.

On the surface, renaming might sound like an easy task, but to be successful, it requires a lot of introspection on the part of the firm’s leadership from the very beginning of the process.

“A rush to the renaming without a true understanding of the firm’s DNA could yield a name that doesn’t truly reflect the firm,” says Liesel Wallace, Business Development & Marketing Director at Clearstory.

“With Kate retiring and no longer being the face of the firm, it was clear we had a rename in our future,” says Julie Vogel, President of Clearstory. “This presented an opportunity to re-energize and become more of who we want to be.”

How did this rebrand process work for Clearstory? Here are some of the milestones in that process:

Internal Conversations

After making the decision to rename the firm and re-energize its brand, the leadership of Kate Keating Associates took this moment to evaluate what they represent, who they are in the design market, and where they want to be in the future.

“This is not really a pivot but a crystallization,” says Julie about the earliest stages of the rebrand process. “We did some strategic work to solidify who we are as a firm.”

This included hiring a consultant Kacey Clagett of Appleseed Strategy who collaborated with the firm to develop a framework to solidify their identity and map-out their aspirations. Kacey led a series of workshops and distributed “homework” assignments—including questionnaires and worksheets—to better understand what the firm does well for its clients.

“Through this process we were able to refocus our position within the marketplace and define targets,” says Julie. “Kacey helped us to better understand what we do well and what our clients really want from us in terms of problem solving.”

Renaming + Redesigning

The firm’s leadership then presented the “bones of who we are” to staff and scheduled a brainstorming session to generate ideas for a new name. The result: a list of potential names that resonated with everyone, but none that actually said “This is the one.” So, the firm hired a naming company, A Hundred Monkeys, who helped generate even more potential names.

Only one really hit Julie as being “the one.”

“When ‘Clerestory’ came up on the screen during A Hundred Monkeys presentation, I was like, THAT’S IT!" remembers Julie. “But it's ‘clear’ as in ‘crystal clear’ and that was like the ah-ha moment. 

Clearstory has both architectural references, as in “clerestory,” a window illuminating the way, and “clear story” as in making the firm’s intentions and mission clear to both clients and the design industry.

Next step: representing this new name in a visual way through a new logo and design elements.

“The design of the logo was inspired by the promise that we're going to bring clarity to our work and in the stories we tell,” explains Julie. “And so the logo needed to have a crystal clearness to it.”

The rectangle is a nod to a clerestory window, and the spaces knocked out of the rectangle are a nod to a floor plan. The letterforms are based on proxima nova, but have been redrawn to create a balanced and elegant logotype.

“It's all based on the backbone that we're striving to make buildings and places more legible and our process as a firm straightforward and understandable,” says Julie.

Trusted Advisors

From the earliest stages of the process, Clearstory assembled a group of “Trusted Advisors” who weighed-in on the new name, new logo, and even an animation created for the launch.

The members of the Trusted advisors team included Kate Keating, Appleseed Strategy, and other marketing consultants the firm had worked with in the past.

“We did these little focus groups with the advisors periodically.” says Julie. “We had check-ins to validate where we were headed, and that was really helpful.”

“We were very cognizant of the fact that, given that we were doing our own design, we were working in a little bit of a vacuum,” says Liesel. “The advisory team was a good reality-check for us.”

Legal Stuff

Changing the name of a firm includes all kinds of legal work, including updating legal documents and registering the new name. This ranges from federal, state and local taxes to copyrights and trademarks.

“When you change your name, you have every place in the universe where your company is registered, so there's this huge legal life,” says Julie. “We assembled spreadsheets to make sure we understood every single place in every state and county agency. ”

“We did trademark the name,” continues Julie. “You can choose not to trademark it, but we actually in the end decided to trademark ‘Clearstory’ to protect our investment.”

Find the Time

The challenge for many firms in the rebranding process is to find the time to develop a new brand while simultaneously working on projects for clients.

“It's having the discipline and the time to keep everything rolling when you are also keeping clients satisfied,” says Julie. “It's finding that balance.”

“I think it's important that at the start of the process you create a calendar and schedule internal deadlines and structure the rebranding like a project in your office,” continues Julie.

Pushing the Button: Launch Date

Up to this point, the rebranding process happens largely behind the scenes. None of the changes—including the new name and new logo—are unveiled to the public until after the “button is pushed.” At that point, the new website goes live and the announcement emails are sent to clients, professional organizations and the press.

But then, the hard work begins: an extensive roll out of the new look and new brand.

“Many firms get to the finish line of launching the brand, but that's when the real work starts,” says Liesel. “The constant creation of content is a must to continually get the name out there." 

“We did Linkedin postings, client gifts featuring our logo, and email campaigns,” says Liesel about the rollout. “Unfortunately, due to COVID, our plan to sponsor and attend events didn't happen.”

“We brought in a writer,” says Julie. “She writes beautifully and helps us to simplify the language on our website and our marketing materials and speak in a more vernacular language. She makes the content more approachable.”

Results

At the end of the day, design firms are businesses, and one of the goals of rebranding includes increasing a company’s profits. In the case of Clearstory, more than a year after the launch of the new name and new brand, the firm’s win rate is up by 267%.

“I think our win rate went up because our proposals were not only more visually modernized, but also because the content was intentionally more clear,” says Julie. “It is more clear about what we bring to the table and the problems we solve.”

Happy?

"We have been so thrilled with the positive feedback we have received from our colleagues (many of them SEGDers), clients and friends,” concludes Julie. “It has really made the long journey worth the effort. I would do it all again!”

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