More than at any time, we live in an age of brands and branding - from ‘traditional’ product and service-based brands... to digital and e-brands; lifestyle brands; political brands; and branded personalities and individuals.
Yet, despite the multitude of propositions, positionings, names, logos, campaigns and social / digital marketing activity that confront us on a daily basis, they’re all linked by one, similar ambition... to generate greater value for their owner.
And the big question that everyone wants answered is... how?
Perhaps disappointingly for those hoping for a ‘silver bullet’, there’s no single solution to this simple ambition. Rather it’s a mix of one, or more initiatives that the corporate affairs’ lead, communicator, or marketer needs to take; each of which - individually, or collectively - can build brand strength and ultimately realise greater value.
Sounds fairly obvious; yet customer and stakeholder expectations are never static. They’re constantly influenced by changing lifestyles and tastes; shifting societal, or generational norms; updated products and services; increased choice from new market entrants, or ‘challengers’.
Brand owners must track these shifts and map their market landscape to ensure they remain their customers’ No.1 Choice, both now (‘Are we delivering against our promises?’) and in the future (‘What do we need to do better, or differently to stay ahead?’)
Research is key, be that quantitative, or qualitative.
Quantitative can help with providing statistical support to dimensions behind ‘the what?’: brand awareness; understanding & appreciation; favourability, preference & loyalty; satisfaction and willingness of stakeholders to recommend a particular product, or service (e.g. Net Promoter Scores).
Qualitative can help with answering ‘the why?’, providing rich insights and understanding behind: perceptions and perspectives; brand image strengths and weaknesses; values’ attributes and associations; meaningful appeal; and competitive differentiation.
Many companies fall into the ‘We-know-our-clients-sufficiently-well-not-to-have-to-do- research’ trap... which works fine until one day they realise that someone else has got to know them better!
As one client recently said: ‘90% of what you found, we already knew... which was reassuring. The other 10% was worth its weight in gold.’
Brands don’t just happen, they’re a result of careful management; and that begins with having a clear idea of what it is they should stand for and ‘be’. A statement that precisely defines where and how it will be positioned in its market relative to competition e.g.
While these may already exist, they often need to be revisited to ensure that they remain relevant. Or to assess if they need to be evolved, or refreshed; or perhaps expressed in a new, or more motivating way.
Again, research can play a major role in gathering insights from both external and internal audiences to produce a ‘fully-rounded’ brand definition.
As another client mentioned: ‘We’d never thought about formally defining our brand before, which meant our story didn’t hang together as a coherent whole. Worse, we were often saying different things to different people.’
Brands tire, if not regularly maintained. They change strategy and often need to communicate a new direction, or narrative. Frequently, they evolve - organically,
or via acquisition - from one organisational structure to another and need to reflect new operating roles and relationships across the business.
How do they communicate change: succinctly and meaningfully?
It’s in circumstances like these that brands often take the opportunity to review how well their visual identity and identity system support where they’re going:
Identity is much more than just design aesthetics; it’s about reflecting strategy and helping senior management set a direction, or make a statement. As one CMO put it: ‘There’s
still no more powerful a way to communicate change than via your visual identity’.
Nor is branding just about creating logos, design systems and guidelines.
Of course, at its most literal it’s about ensuring that any identity is applied consistently and coherently across the full suite of corporate / brand applications and marcomms’ collateral.
But at its most effective, it’s about creating an integrated marketing and communications’ programme that extends across all stakeholder ‘touch-points’ and communications’ channels... brand ‘moments of truth’.
This may well include the creation of a set of new brand assets: perhaps a new corporate strapline, or campaign theme that encapsulates whatever (new) defined positioning, or proposition has been agreed (see earlier). Or a refreshed visual and verbal language, with supporting narrative and content that takes its inspiration from the visual identity itself, thereby making the overall brand presentation that much more unique and ownable.
Ultimately, the brand should translate into a complete experience, both on and offline. At its most effective, this will influence and extend across the very mechanisms and processes used in support of how the product, or service is delivered.
Significantly, the real test of success will lie in how well the programme helps ‘win over the hearts and minds of all stakeholders’.
Market-leading brands start from within; and regardless of whether it’s a large-scale change that justifies a rebrand, or subtler shift in strategy demanding more of a modification to the brand story... your people are integral to its success.
To that end, they not only need to understand what’s behind management’s thinking, but also be committed to and inspired by it.
The first step is to be clear about what’s happening: e.g. What’s the new strategy? Where is the company, or brand going? Why? (Hopefully using something more exciting than a Powerpoint presentation!)
The second is to explain what it means in terms of the likely implications for their daily life - at its most extreme, change may impact on the company, or brand’s values and, hence, their own behaviours. While many people are scared of change, they will accept it more readily if they understand the realities, presented in an open and honest way.
The last step is to give them as clear, or complete a view of the future as possible.
Engagement is key, be that face-to-face (always best), or arms’ length. Town Halls, or team Q&As help generate discussion. Events, or interactive sessions (frequently app- based / supported) provide opportunities to explore ‘the future’ in depth. And there’s always social media, plus on-and off-line communications such as intranets, Brand Books and more.
A subject that almost certainly justifies its own bespoke article, as mergers & acquisitions pose particular challenges to brand owners. As Nuno Fernandes states in his book ‘The Value Killers’: ‘Between 1980 and 2001, mergers and acquisitions by large companies destroyed $226bn in shareholder value”, and “....one commonly cited estimate is that 70- 90 per cent of deals fail.”
Suffice to say that, of the ‘Five Golden Rules’ for success that he goes on to explain, one of them is communications... the need to ‘move fast’ and be ‘transparent’.
To which one could probably add the need to address the majority of the issues raised in the previous five sections... made more challenging by the fact that M&As often involve cross-cultural (corporate / national) deals. In turn, increasing the need for clarity around where the ‘new’ organisation, or brand is heading.
Which really only leaves one final thing to say...
The ability to unlock value from a brand offers significant returns for owners, but only if they nurture their asset over time, giving it the appropriate level of attention and support.
So to that extent, this particular lock doesn’t require a single key... it’s a combination.
The real test of success is to win the hearts and minds of all stakeholders