Managing employee anxiety during a rebrand

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During a rebranding, it can be a delicate challenge not to alienate customers who for generations have done their banking at an institution with a local identity.

But the real test may be dealing with internal strife over the name change, said Alison Dowe, chief communications officer at Synovus. The Columbus, Ga., company recently underwent an ambitious multi-year effort to unite its 28 individually named banks under the same Synovus banner.

"You can have a lot of emotion surrounding a brand," Dowe said. "Our historical model had been to acquire smaller community banks and leave them intact. When you have brands with 100 year-plus histories, you have team members who are married to that brand. When you tell them you are going to change it, it can cause anxiety."

Despite all of these challenges, Synovus joined the Best Banks to Work For list this year.

The last of more than 3,552 signs were converted in June, and Dowe reports that the transition came and went without major drama.

Dowe credits meticulous planning, transparency throughout the process and efforts to constantly check in with employees with making the transition as smooth as possible.

What employees were saying about the rebranding, positive or negative, was likely to filter through the community much quicker than any official statement from headquarters. That can be particularly true in small towns like the ones where many of Synovus’ banks were based.

Because of that, the $31.4 billion-asset Synovus involved its entire 4,500 employee base early in the process.

The grassroots phase of the conversion began more than two years before the decision was made, when the bank started talking internally about the idea. The final decision was made in the fall of 2016 but rebrandings did not begin until a year later, giving company leaders time to continue the conversation with employees about what was, and what wasn't, changing.

"Getting our team comfortable so they would be excited, confident, reassuring brand ambassadors was critical," Dowe said. "We told them we want them to go out and talk about it. We wanted their customers to hear from them that the relationships, the faces, the person inside is not changing, just the name."

Dowe said that Synovus never issued a press release announcing the brand transition, though there was information contained within the bank's annual report and it was discussed during investor presentations. Synovus was not trying to hide the plans but rather was allowing the news to spread organically, she said.

The conversions were staggered from November to June, and in the lead up to the big event workers were inundated with swag kits full of branded items. During the process, Synovus did monthly surveys of randomly-selected employees to track the pulse of the workforce and head off any potential issues or causes for anxiety before they spiraled out of control.

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Even after employees became more comfortable with the concept of the rebranding the bank took steps to make sure logistical issues went smoothly. That included everything from assisting employees with ordering new business cards to changing email signatures.

There were even designated point people responsible for dealing with any damage done by the sign company to make sure branch employees weren’t left feeling unsure about what to do.

When the last sign was converted earlier this summer, it was marked with a week-long celebration thanking workers for their efforts.

Dowe believes the rebranding was a success because the bank proactively started with feedback internally and paid close attention to details as the process played out.

"We're not going to claim perfection, but I think we were able to avoid cringe-worthy experiences because we started early, we knew what the potential hot spots were going in, and we worked to address them,” Dowe said.

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