This is the second in our series “What Leading Brand Thinkers Really Think.” Our objective is to dig into the principal perspectives of some of the most influential forces in the branding industry, particularly by examining the “marquee content” that often encapsulates a consultancy or agency’s philosophy. Our hope is to get past the marketing aspect of the content and determine the essential meaning and importance of thinking that seeks to lead and shape brands.

For this edition, we sat down with Stuart Sproule, President of Landor North America, and asked him to describe the thinking behind “The Agility Paradox,” which is both the name of a research report and the moniker for one of Landor’s principal points of view.

Brandingmag: Stuart, can you give us a little help here. What was the genesis of the Agility Paradox – and what exactly is it?

Stuart Sproule: Historically, brand management was largely about consistency and constancy – but the marketplace couldn’t be more dynamic, couldn’t be more disruptive than it is right now. With increasing competitive pressures and technological impacts, the landscape is so rapidly changing that we’ve begun to evolve our thinking as a branding agency and have started to counsel our clients differently in terms of how they should be managing their brands.

Bm: Differently how? How did that first manifest itself?

SS: Again, in the past brand management was all about building the “brand cathedral” as it were. We identified what a brand stood for and then built it almost as a fortress, ensuring that it was solid, ensuring that it wouldn’t be challenged. In that mode, brand managers almost became like priests, with their brand guidelines bible. If there was an issue or a challenge to a brand, they would open the book, turn to page 16, paragraph C, and there was the rigid and assured answer to that brand challenge.

In today’s world, brands need to be much more responsive, so we’ve had to evolve, to change the paradigm, the outmoded thinking, tools, and attitudes of brands and brand management.

Bm: So how exactly did you arrive at the Agility Paradox? What is it as both a study and a concept?

SS: As I said, we’re starting to consult and advise clients about the need to be agile, because the idea of rigidness, constancy, and absolutely consistency doesn’t seem to be the way to move forward in terms of assuring success. We decided, however, that we needed to validate our thinking, so we turned a database [of ours] called the Brand Asset Valuator (which has actually been around for 20 years). It tracks 50,000 brands across 51 countries on 48 attributes annually.

We turned to that tool to look at the brands that are most successful today in terms of growth and revenue.

What we found was that there were two dimensions that seemed particularly relevant to the success. The first was the need to be “true,” that is, that brands need to be … authentic, reliable, high quality, high performance. Then the other dimension was the need to be “leading,” that is progressive, innovative, visionary.

Agility requires a very different way to think about how to manage brands and how to be willing to move brands – again, versus a model which was historically about fortification, about standing still.

Bm: You don’t mean leading just in terms of literally leading in sales?

SS: No, no, no. In fact, what we would say it is the other attributes like being progressive, innovative, and visionary, that ultimately result or help to result in brands being leading and successful.

Therein lies the paradox: we believe that brands absolutely and firmly need to be true, and more than ever they need to have a clear, differentiated positioning message. But at the same time, they have to be willing to evolve.

Bm: On face of it to me, being true and being a leader, particularly if we’re talking true as authenticity, versus leader as visionary, aren’t necessarily in conflict or don’t necessarily have the friction of paradox. Can you dig a little deeper into why that is a paradox? Because a paradox also suggests some sort of difficulty in managing it.

SS: Well, first off … as we’ve seen the evolution of brands and brand management, this idea of needing to be nimbler and needing to change is relatively new. The thing to really emphasize is the need to be agile. The paradox component of our message is just an acknowledgement that it’s not a clear and simple path that a brand needs to go down.

Bm: So are people just too comfortable with driving their brand stake in the ground and not moving from it?

SS: Well, that’s a piece of it. Agility requires a very different way to think about how to manage brands and how to be willing to move brands – again, versus a model which was historically about fortification, about standing still.

I’ll give you an example, too, just as reinforcement of the dynamic landscape. Think about the car rental category. For years it was all about Hertz establishing and proliferating and extending its brand — and the same with Avis. Now, suddenly, enters dynamic change in the marketplace [with new players] such as Zip Car or Uber.

Then layer on top of that changes in attitudes, especially among millennials [who are comfortable with] the idea of the sharing economy and aren’t as inclined to rent or to buy. [This requires] that brands like Hertz and Avis be more willing to evolve and less rigid in terms of how they present themselves.

Bm: It’s interesting, as I talk to people in this series and others, that the same sort of examples keep coming up, particularly Uber disrupting the taxi industry. Is there any type of industry that you don’t think is in need of agility? I mean, there are some that seem ripe for disruption – but are there more prosaic or static industries to which the need for agility doesn’t apply?

SS: I would venture that that would be, at best, a cavalier attitude, to not think that a brand needs to be agile. Let me talk a little bit more about agility and this paradox.

Bm: Wait – would you find it cavalier or arrogant or both?

SS: Well, I would find it stupid – and I would find it very dangerous at the end of the day.

[Consider] another validation of our thinking around agility. We took a deeper dive with millennials, given their growing importance in terms of purchasing power and influence in the market. In addition to the quantitative work that we did with the Brand Asset Valuator, we also assembled a panel of millennials globally — 140 millennials across the US, Europe, and Asia – and we spent three weeks with the panel, through daily interactions, asking them about what makes a brand successful today.

Some of the things we heard back included: an emphasis on the need for brands to be authentic; the need for brands to evolve; the need for a brand, if it’s going to be successful, to have a sense of the greater community. Then an important additional point was the need for brands to be personalized, but at the same time to be inclusive.

Bm: The study seems to have a millennial skew – or is that not how you see it?

SS: I don’t – our intent was to tackle the quantitative research as a source of validation, which was not skewed towards any demographic. But then we recognized the value or the importance of millennials, and the interest that so many clients have in millennials, [and so we] layered that on.

Ultimately we identified six behaviors that we believe brands should pursue in order to be agile and to succeed in the dynamic marketplace that we find today.

Bm: Could you address those in order?

SS: Certainly. We believe, now more than ever, that it’s important for brands to be what we’ve termed principled. This is to have a very clear, compelling reason for being– but, as discussed in terms of paradox, that doesn’t mean that they should be building a fortress around these principles.

In fact, we think to be successful today, brands need to be adaptive, to have a willingness to change, to evolve, depending on the various influences to a category or market they find themselves in. A third behavior that we think is critical for brands is to be open. Gone are the days where brand as a one-way exchange of information – it absolutely has to be a dialog. Brands need to look for ways to collaborate and in some instances co-create.

I mentioned [our new research with] millennials and this is definitely in forming the fourth behavior. We think it’s really critical for brands to be responsible, to be perceived as being responsible and to demonstrate their commitment to the broader community.

The fifth essential behavior is for brands to act and consider themselves within a global sphere. That even for brands that may not have products or services that extend beyond a particular border but, just because of the world we live in, because of the communications that exist, because of the competitive pressures that could exist tomorrow if they don’t exist today, we think it’s absolutely fundamental for brands to be considering themselves within the global spectrum.

The last behavior is the importance for brands to be multi-channel. An interesting example is Delta (Airlines]. Think about the place that Delta finds itself in the hearts and minds of its loyal customers. There are dozens of airlines looking for ways to leverage a variety of touch points with customers, and no one would argue with the success that Delta has had with its app. I mean, the Delta app is the intimate, warm, personalized touch point that I think most Delta customers would point to as to why they differentiate and prefer the brand. It’s a reinforcement of the need for brands to constantly be thinking in a multi-channel way.

Those are the six behaviors that we’ve identified and that we’re working with our clients to ensure that they’re moving against. [These are necessary if marketers expect] to be successful in a world which is, as I said, very transitional and very dynamic and very disruptive.

… this idea of demonstrating responsibility is not exclusively an outward behavior — there is a fundamental need to demonstrate that this sense of responsibility exists with their employees.

Bm: A quick question on the six points which seem to be, at least as posited, very externally facing. How do you see them impacting your internal brand audience, your employees who have to deliver the brand experience? I mean, does it apply in equal measure to being open and principled and responsible with your employee workforce?

SS: Absolutely. I think that an area of brand strategy and brand management that we’re particularly active in currently and have a pretty robust practice is this whole area of brand activation and brand engagement. To go down the list of the behaviors, the “open” behavior doesn’t exclusively apply to the relationships that brands have with their customers. It absolutely applies to the relationship they have with employees. Similarly, this idea of demonstrating responsibility is not exclusively an outward behavior — there is a fundamental need to demonstrate that this sense of responsibility exists with their employees.

Bm: We’ve covered a lot of the “what” and the “why” so far. How much into the “how” of doing this, of achieving a mastery of the Agility Paradox, do you really get into now with clients?

SS: We’ve definitely been getting a lot of traction and interest with clients to hear about the Agility Paradox. What we’ve found is that our senior-most clients have been very interested to bring us in, to share this thinking with the broad cross section of the people in their marketing staffs. What they’re hoping will happen and what we’re trying to help them make happen is really a sea change in terms of the mentality of brand managers.

Bm: Can you think of any specific clients right now, yours or others, who are really starting to operate on this more agile basis and are able to handle the paradoxical nature of it from a brand standpoint?

SS: As part of the Agility Paradox study that we did, we identified the top ten most agile brands globally as well as the top ten most agile brands in a number of markets. Let me use an example: earlier, when I mentioned Uber, you said, “Oh, that’s sort of the stereotypical example.” I want to choose an example of a very different brand.

One of the brands that was identified within the US as a top ten agile brand – and I’ll be curious to hear what your reaction is – was NPR [National Public Radio]. Here’s why: NPR has been around for a while. It’s news and culture programming, tied very closely, historically, to radio. It stood every likelihood of becoming irrelevant in the digital age – and yet how brilliantly they have navigated podcasting and every form of communication that people now turn to and which are relevant to new audiences like millennials.

[That’s agility, things] like Serial, a true crime story distributed by podcast. It’s had at least 75 million downloads.

Bm: Is that agile or is that just really creative? I mean, to me, creativity is what has to be at the core of a brand’s ability to adapt.

SS: Absolutely. I mean, I don’t want to speak ill of any brand, but where’s Reader’s Digest in your world?

Bm: It’s in my grandparents’ bathroom, somewhere in heaven.

SS: Exactly. Can you not imagine that NPR might have only been on your grandparents’ radio? But they’re not, and that’s agile …

Bm: So, how have your clients reacted? I mean, is there any marketer specifically that has said, “We have to go all in on this agility thing,” or is this an incremental awakening for people? Incrementalism doesn’t seem to work at an age of disruption so that’s the genesis of the question. But incrementalism really works well with organizations in terms of what they’re comfortable with.

SS: Well, I think our clients, CEOs, CMOs brand managers, routinely talk about it. Their jobs are so much more difficult today than they used to be … so giving them some behaviors that they can use as rallying cries for their departments and within their companies has been extremely well received. We are, as I mentioned, being called upon on a regular basis to lead seminars and discussions with a broad swath of marketing professionals to help make this a rallying cry [in our clients’ businesses].

Bm: Thank you, Stuart!