This Is How You Design a Lasting Brand — An Inside Look at Gusto's Reinvention

This Is How You Design a Lasting Brand — An Inside Look at Gusto's Reinvention

Gusto CEO Josh Reeves reveals the months-long process the company used to change its identity for the better without losing customers or momentum.

Last September, ZenPayroll’s employees streamed into their San Francisco office at 6 a.m. And then, regardless of their role, hopped on the phone with customers to explain what had just happened: They were now Gusto employees. The company had rebranded, and the change extended much further than the name and logo — they would now be going after the competitive health benefits market in addition to outfitting businesses with payroll software. This could have been frantic and stressful. But their voices lighting up the phones were bright and celebratory instead.

The switch happened fast, smoothly, and got a plum round of press coverage. But it was far from the overnight effort it appeared to be. In fact, CEO Josh Reeves and his co-founders had been plotting the pivot since the company’s incipient days at Y Combinator. They knew their aspirations transcended payroll and that years down the line they’d need to overhaul what they had already meticulously built — a daunting prospect.

Rebrands are not easy. As Reeves readily admits, they knew they were going to a lose a handful of prospective customers in the transition. A name change can throw off search results. A direction change can alarm employees. But in the nearly six months since its debut, Gusto has only grown stronger and faster. In this exclusive interview, Reeves goes into detail about how they approached and executed their rebrand to gain momentum — offering advice to both startups that are just now shaping their identities and those that want to shift course.

Structure is Strength

Every branding process will automatically have two parts: The internal, employee-facing component, and the external, public or customer-facing component. Both need to be taken into account throughout planning and execution. They are two sides of the same coin, and while they require different approaches, they’ll intimately impact one another’s success — and it’s a delicate balance.

This is the number one reason structure is so important for building a strong brand, whether you’re starting from scratch or midstream. In Gusto’s case, they already had hundreds of employees to engage in the effort and thousands of customers to take along for the ride. To cope, they made their project timeline the strongest signal in the noise. Biasing toward structure made a big difference.

“As soon as we knew we’d be able to launch the new health insurance product in fall 2015, we decided to announce the rebrand at the same time,” says Reeves. “We try to avoid releasing news that is purely about us if we can. We want to focus on stories that show how we plan to help our customers more.” (An instructive idea for startups looking to use a funding announcement or the like as a news hook.)

They then proceeded to create what many call a “work-back” schedule, where you backtrack from a chosen launch date, estimating the time each phase of a project will take, to designate milestones and deadlines. Gusto’s founding team staked out discrete phases of the rebrand process, including renaming, design of visual properties (like the logo, website, etc.), launch prep (press briefings and marketing materials), and measurement of success following the release. At each step, a different selection of people would be involved in the decision making.

“It’s very easy to fall into this trap where you have too many opinions, potential directions, unconstructive conversations,” says Reeves. “The way to combat this is checkpoints. Points where you stop and ask whether you’re on target to hit your ultimate delivery date, whether everyone in the room really needs to be there, and alternatively, whether you’re doing a good job keeping everyone else in the loop.” The only way to be this thoughtful is through rigorous upfront planning.

At the same time, the reality is that startup life will never be completely predictable or accurate. But this shouldn’t derail planning. In fact, it reinforces the need to be thorough and realistic in your planning, buffering your timetable just enough to account for wrong turns, human error, and distraction. “The only way you’ll be happy with your outcome is if you run a tight process that doesn’t tolerate subpar results.” You don’t want too much time to elapse between checkpoints — but you don’t want to hold on to arbitrary deadlines if the work is low-quality either. You must hold these opposing forces in your head as you proceed.

The most important puzzle at any startup is prioritization.

Firm prioritization has largely dictated Gusto’s roadmap as an organization. The founders started with its payroll product even though they already had the health insurance solution in mind. And, as Reeves says, a third rollout is coming in the next 18 months. It would have been impossible to pursue all of these products at the same time. So when they kicked off the rebrand, they followed a similarly strict prioritization of steps — although the first one might surprise you.

Step 1: Imagine the world the way you want it to be.

Gusto is a bit of an odd duck when it comes to its brand. Reeves and his co-founders chose the prior name, ZenPayroll, only a few days before Y Combinator’s Demo Day in 2012, and the thinking went a lot like this: “We’re about to pitch. We need a name. We’re building a simpler payroll product that will bring customers peace of mind.” The domain name cost them $7. It was a clear winner. But they always knew it was temporary. It didn’t fully capture the range of products they already had planned, but the mistake would have been stalling. When you need to get the ball rolling, it’s much better to do something over eventually than to get it right the first time.

“Having this really long-term roadmap had an interesting byproduct — we were constantly thinking about what our business would look like years from now, and that got us to focus on how we wanted the world to work for our customers,” Reeves says. This allowed the team to think much bigger than the company’s current values (though they were instrumental) when the time came to make a change.

Sounds good, but seeing into the future requires some light structure too. Sure, you can popcorn brainstorm how you want your industry to change and what you think customers will need 3, 5, 10 years out, but it’s imperative to tie those predictions back to your company and why you’re in the best position to deliver on them. Gusto defined two areas where it wanted to impact the future:

  • Bring Clarity to BusinessReeves and his co-founders were motivated to start ZenPayroll after witnessing close family members and friends struggle with payroll, taxes and complex paperwork at their own small businesses. “We saw how many people were doing these things by hand and how much pain it caused when things went wrong,” says Reeves. If someone doesn’t get paid correctly, that has a huge influence on their life. If a company doesn’t file taxes correctly, they could be shut down. The stakes are not low. What plug-and-play tools could simplify and expedite these processes?
  • Make Work More Delightful“If you’ve ever seen the movie ‘Office Space’ you know reality isn’t too far off — companies too often treat their employees as ‘resources’ rather than people,” says Reeves. “This happens even if they don’t intend to because it’s how their systems are set up. How they track them, pay them, onboard them, etc. It’s dehumanizing.” Accordingly, Gusto wants to build tools that turn workplaces into communities and take human experience into account. “We want our software to be about bigger things like, how can you give someone a great first day on the job? How can you not only process the paperwork for a new teammate, but also celebrate them joining your community?”

In order to create a new, long-lasting brand, you need to project your company into the future. Relying on the same values, attributes, adjectives that you always have won’t get you there.

If you asked someone from 120 years ago what they wanted, they'd probably tell you a faster horse, when really they wanted to go faster.

That’s how you invent the car. But it’s very hard to see beyond what already exists unless you push yourself. How can you help your customers or users beyond the way things work today? This type of brainstorm should be the first phase of your branding exercise, Reeves says.

Step 2: Pick a name that will drive everything else forward.

“Choosing your name is the major inflection point of the process. It will power everything else forward — the visual design, the way you message it to the team, the way you talk about it with customers. So if you’re going to sink your time and energy into anything, it should be this.”

Getting to the name Gusto could not have been more different than the way they pulled ZenPayroll out of the air three years ago. There were serious logistics involved, and each moving piece played a significant role.

To start, they put their two visions of the future next to the five “values” they had been using to describe the company to date: peace of mind, calm, warm, trusting, vibrant. And they knew immediately that they had to drop “payroll” from the name. “It just has so much baggage attached to it,” says Reeves. “It’s a chore, a hassle. We wanted people to feel the opposite of those things.”

Lastly, they thought about the end “consumers” of their new brand. Not the businesses they were selling into, but the actual employees at those companies whose lives would be better or worse depending on their product. “With the demise of lifetime employment at the same place, more and more employees are asking: “Do I feel appreciated where I work? Do I feel valued? Do I feel like I have an impact?” he says. The team wanted the new name to connect with these questions on an emotional level. “We wanted to capture our emphasis on the people doing the work.”

At the same time, they wanted the name to inspire their own employees to break through inertia, get excited about pursuing new products, and make them believe in its longevity as a 50 or 100-year company, not a “typical” startup.

Your name might just be a vessel for how you serve your customer. But you want to choose a good vessel.

Then there were the practical concerns: They wanted something easy to say, to spell, and most importantly, to remember. Gusto ended up making the cut for these reasons, and then connecting very deeply with the more abstract priorities — the desire to create delight, the pull toward clarity, and the need to inspire trust.

Gusto (n.)\ˈgəs-(ˌ)tō\ enjoyment or vigor in doing something; zest.

“When people love their work and being good at their work, that’s gusto,” says Reeves. “When someone starts a business from scratch or has enthusiasm for helping someone else, that’s gusto. And, as a guiding light for our workforce, we want employees with gusto. Our customers are more likely to trust people who are passionate, committed and talented at their work. And that will give them peace of mind.”

In hindsight, Gusto sounds like an obvious choice. But it wasn’t.

Branding Pro-tip: Build consensus in waves.

The rebrand conversation started with the founders who broadened it to the other members of the executive team for the purposes of yearly planning. But it didn’t stay under wraps for long. They also wanted to have the timeline and guiding principles locked in before sharing it with the rest of the company.

The first time the leadership team talked openly about the shift, they officially kicked it off at an all-hands meeting — which Gusto holds twice a month. “The objective was to say, ‘Look, everyone here is a stakeholder in this process.” The session focused tightly on the new product launch driving the rebrand and the core values and ideas they wanted the new look and feel to convey. Instead of opening up the floodgates to feedback right there, they underscored that everyone would have a chance to offer ideas and opinions through a round of surveys.

“We sent out multiple surveys to the staff and even some customers asking really light, fun but also insightful questions like, ‘If the company was an animal, what would it be?’ ‘If the company was a person you met at a party, what would they be like?’”

One of the things Reeves came prepared for was pushback, and he got it. People disagreed with parts of the process, and the need to change the name. They doubted the ROI of the time spent on the project, or questioned why it was important now. The most effective response was continually explaining the ‘why’ behind the actions they were taking, and acknowledging others’ ownership in the company.

“One of our core values is that everyone should have an owner's’ mentality about Gusto. Everyone is here building something they are part owner of,” says Reeves. “When we reminded them that the new name wasn’t just for the customers but for all of us who wear the T-shirts and talk about our work and take pride in our work. Seeing their co-workers as part-owners who were excited and energized about the rebrand made a difference.”

After the surveys came back, jumpstarting lists of ideas, the company moved into more focused brainstorm mode, allowing anyone who wanted to participate to volunteer, and anyone else to opt out.

The communications team, spearheaded by Steffi Wu, held a number of workshops where they’d run exercises designed to elicit ideas. They invited everyone across the company to generate adjectives that described the company and customer experience, related nouns, those same words in different languages, combined into hybrids, and more.

“We would come prepared with company attributes to really dig in and discuss why it was important for us to be calm or warm, how to talk about trust,” says Wu. “What does it mean to be vibrant and what does vibrancy look like? What are things people associate with being vibrant? The first session was honestly a lot like slam poetry.”

At the next session, they split the larger group into teams of 2 and 3 and asked them what they liked and disliked about the name ZenPayroll. A lot of people were attached to the word ‘Zen’ and how natural and organic it sounded. The teams were then encouraged to generate words that evoked the same natural imagery, like forests, the ocean, a still pond. “People got really into it,” Wu says.

They ended up with thousands upon thousands of words. But there was another outcome too — everyone who participated in the workshops seemed to come away with new respect for the rebrand process in general.

“Before we started getting people engaged so directly, they were confused about why we hadn’t just picked a name already. Once they saw how deeply people felt firsthand, they appreciated why the company was investing so much time and energy,” Wu says.

A smaller group, consisting of executives and marketing specialists, honed the onslaught of options into a shortlist of 15. Uniquely for a CEO of a company in hyper-growth, Reeves was active in every single conversation, and he still believes it was worth every moment of his time.

As a leader, you're the steward of what the future of the company should look like.

The short list was presented at the following all-hands meeting for another round of feedback. Not many companies would have done that given the peril of forging consensus among hundreds, but Reeves found that continuing to involve everyone was actually a rare opportunity to underscore their values of openness and ownership.

“One of the most important things I learned from this whole thing is that people don’t automatically know how they’re going to feel about a word or an image. You have to take some time to let it settle in,” says Reeves. “So when we got any negative feedback, we’d give it some time. We wouldn’t react. And we’d notice people coming around to things. It’s a huge piece of advice I’d offer founders, even when it comes to just making big decisions. Let things marinate.”

As you might guess, Gusto was on that list, having garnered fans during a general workshop with employees.

“We picked that name ourselves — we didn’t bring in a firm to do it for us,” says Reeves. “We could have, but the people who work full-time for us are the ones this name has to represent.”

Once they had selected Gusto, they found that much of the copy for the website’s ‘About Us’ and ‘Careers’ sections came quickly and naturally. They were able to adapt much of the language that had come up during their naming brainstorm sessions. As the prime example, the homepage looked like this on launch day, complete with a poetic statement about what the company believed in. Gusto Co-founder Tomer London was able to write that in 15 minutes because it flowed so directly from conversations he had been having for months.

Step 3: Infuse your visuals with meaning.

Pinning down the name also kicked off the next phase of the process — finding a visual that would pack the same emotional punch. Working with design firm Nelson Cash, Reeves and a smaller group of stakeholders ran through many iterations starting with broad directions and then refining the ones they liked.

Initial directional brainstorm for Gusto's logo.

“The logo was definitely our biggest challenge throughout the entire process,” says Reeves. “There were so many choices and so many opinions on every choice.” To keep the discussion reined in, they compiled a creative brief of the ideas they wanted to communicate. Then, when they saw the options come back from Nelson Cash, they compared each one with the words they had used to describe what they wanted.

“We wanted something simple that would stand out on different backgrounds, would look good at all different sizes, that would be easy to understand from a distance and close up,” he says. “We also didn’t want it to be so abstract that people would see no connection between Gusto and the image. All of that is what makes something memorable. Memorability was the big point.”

They gravitated toward their final choice because it resembled a power symbol, which was very reminiscent of a lot of the verbiage on the brief — when someone does work they love that they’re good at, they’re powerful. The ‘G’ for Gusto was easy to see, and the arrow pointing up and to the right evoked energetic growth. The red color connoted the company’s warmth and approachability.

Experimenting with final color schemes.

This might sound like a lot of meaning for a relatively simple visual to carry, but it’s important that your logo has a backstory you believe in, says Reeves. Putting this degree of thought into the symbol that represents you and everyone you work with is what gives it its influence. If you want people to feel something when they see it, you have to first imbue it with feeling.

Step 4: Get your launch playbook in order.

When you have your assets locked in, it’s time to move into tactical execution mode. You want to make a list of all the ways your rebrand could impact your business. They’ll be more far-reaching than you think.

“Changing your name is a big deal for how current customers understand your product and for how future customers find you,” says Reeves. “Everything will be super clear to you since you’ve been thinking through this rebrand for a while. You have no idea how confusing it might be for others. And you certainly don’t want them to think something went wrong or that your standard of service has changed.”

He suggests listing these concerns for each of these three audiences:

  • Employees and internal stakeholders (including your investors and advisors)
  • Current customers
  • Prospective customers

How can you make your rebrand the best possible experience for each of these categories?

For stakeholders and your immediate community, their happiness will depend on how well you’ve communicated during the lead-up to the new brand, how well you’ve listened to their ideas, and how you rally their positive energy around the change (more on this later).

But when it comes to current customers, you want to keep things steady and familiar. “Our goal was to not rock the boat,” says Reeves.

While the engineering and design teams worked on a new look and feel for the Gusto website, the only change made to the actual product was the addition of a small ribbon next to the ZenPayroll logo saying the name had changed and linking to a letter from Reeves explaining the change.

“Other than that, nothing changed — not even the green color scheme,” he says. “Our customers use our product every day, and keeping their trust starts with preventing confusion. We made all of the changes to the product experience extremely gradual, over the course of a few months.”

The approach to prospective customers was two-fold:

  • PR: In the days leading up to the launch, the team reached out to reporters, targeting those who were already familiar with the company and aware that their ambitions transcended payroll. Their goal was to work with journalists who would tell the full story about the motivation and meaning behind the rebrand, not just the fact that it happened. That way, whenever prospective customers found them through search or looked them up purposefully, there’d be a thorough explanation that also reinforced why Gusto is a thoughtful, trusted partner to work with.
  • The homepage: On launch day, the company didn’t optimize its homepage to drive visitors toward conversion or a call to action. Instead, they focused all attention on the key values represented by the rebrand (you can still see what it looked like here, preserved for posterity). That way, prospects landing on the page would see the humanity and heart in the company’s decision.

­­­­­We Believe ...

We believe it’s time the world stopped treating people as resources.

We believe people are beating hearts, aspirations and passions.

We believe employees are first and foremost, people. We believe managers and colleagues are people.

We believe work, business and life itself are all about people. We’re on a mission to change the way the world works.

We’re here to help every business in the world put people first.

At the same time, remains up and functional so that anyone who lands there can easily find their way through to the product without needing to understand the name change.

All of this was decided and ready to go before the release. They just needed to pull the trigger.

Step 5: Launch with energy.

The day started with a fairly long, detailed email in everyone’s inbox from Reeves announcing the rebrand, once again digging into how the new name and logo emphasize not just the best attributes of the company but point to a successful future. It was an opportunity to hit on all the points that hardly ever get airtime: That the leadership wants to build a lasting company. That everyone should strive to be customer-centric. There are few moments at startups where there’s a chance to pause and reflect on these types of cultural touchstones. When you change your brand, you have the ability to use it to get everyone realigned, Reeves says.

“We very intentionally wanted everyone to come in early that morning to make customer calls,” says Reeves. “It was really loud, really exciting, really high energy. People were making calls in their pajamas, we were eating cupcakes for breakfast. The fact that it was fun struck the right tone.”

Everyone on the phones was equipped with a high level script that simply relayed what had happened, a quick explanation about why the rebrand was important, and an offer to answer any questions.

“The goal was the keep it really short and succinct, very clean and breezy,” he says. “It doesn’t happen every day that everyone in the company gets to interact with customers.”

It was an excuse for everyone to come together for a shared purpose, driven by making customers happy.

On top of this, launch day also served as a forcing function for people to work cross-functionally. It demanded incredible synchronicity between the marketing and communications teams releasing announcements, the engineering teams throwing the switch on the new products and website, customer care jumping on the phones immediately to head concerns off at the pass. Everyone had to work as a united front to pull it off.

There was one point person anointed to pass out call lists and make sure everyone knew what they were doing. The result: Walls breaking down between teams that had become silo’d and everyone feeling renewed excitement to be working as part of one team.

Step 6: Measure your success (and never stop).

No matter how small your company is, or if you’ve only branded it once, you want to collect data on how you’re perceived and whether it could be better.

“To gauge whether the rebrand worked, we looked back at those three buckets: employees and stakeholders, existing customers and prospective customers,” says Reeves. “We applied different mechanisms to get their feedback and respond.”

Uniquely, Gusto often surveys its own staff to generate what is essentially an employee net promoter score. They’re called G-Pulse surveys, and they’re circulated regularly, about once every other month, to see how people are feeling about recent developments and in general.

“We asked questions like: Did you feel like you were looped into the rebrand process enough? Are you confident that the company is making the right progress?” says Reeves. “We didn’t ask them, for instance, whether they liked the name Gusto. Their experience was the most important thing.”

They were happy to see high scores across the board on the surveys following the rebrand. In particular, having people state categorically that they understood why the name Gusto made so much sense given the culture, was very promising.

To gauge customer sentiment, the company made note of all of the courtesy calls made to alert them to the name change. That way, they were able to capture reactions, including questions so they could identify areas of confusion or needed improvement. That data has been funneled back into the product and marketing teams so they can A/B test product features and messaging accordingly.

Gusto also gives its customers NPS surveys pretty often. Since the rebrand, these scores have stayed over 75, which is relatively high. For context, the average NPS for B2B providers and technology companies is 60.

In many cases, these surveys were pegged to the staggered product changes they rolled out over several months. If they did a color update in the app, for instance, they’d see if it caused any dip in satisfaction.

“It was really important that we not interpret the dip in organic traffic as failure,” says Reeves. “Any company changing their name or even the core language they use to describe their product should expect this. When you have years of SEO built up, you can’t transfer that over night.”

What you can do is monitor social media sentiment. Most of the people sharing, tweeting, and writing about you through social channels will be existing customers or leads. If you’re going through a big change, this will probably be a better bellwether than traffic for a couple months.

For now, Gusto is still leaning on the traffic going to ZenPayroll’s landing page. When traffic direct to Gusto starts to shift meaningfully away from the other website, they plan to turn into a straight redirect to “We see this movement happening in the right direction,” says Reeves. “But as with everything current and future customers engage with, we want to be very deliberate.”

For any company unwilling to take a hit in traffic for the sake of an important rebrand, Reeves has some advice: “The opportunity to tell your story that a strong brand or rebrand process gives you is worth a predictable dip in organic discovery,” he says.

“You have to have the confidence that you’re on a long-term journey and that getting your narrative out there will fuel that journey. Was the change painful for us those first few months? Yes. But we’re not here to optimize those months. We’re optimizing for the next ten years.