A couple of years ago The Economist asserted that “brands are the most valuable assets many companies possess.” Few executives would disagree. Yet many companies have still to fully realise the value of their organisational brand. This is particularly true of companies going through significant change – which today is most of them!
The brand itself – a clear articulation of an organisation’s purpose, proposition, positioning, and personality – should be central to any strategic change process. The brand identifies what the organisation stands for (beyond making money), what makes it different and appealing for its many stakeholders, and how people should behave and act as a common, shared baseline for all communications, internal and external. Indeed, brand is a strategic concept that should play a central role in the process of identifying, articulating, communicating, and embedding a shared set of values, common culture, and sense of identity. The brand should also define a competitive commercial proposition in the company’s chosen markets.
Managed well, with leadership commitment and engagement throughout the length and breadth of the organisation, a brand research, review, and development process can be revealing, cathartic, motivational, and inspiring. Brand can (and should) be the glue that unites an organisation around a shared view of today and tomorrow, and identifies what needs to happen to realise a successful future.
So, why are some organisations still failing to harness the full power of their brand? There are a few reasons:
- A lack of understanding about what branding is all about. It’s still seen as “logos, ads, and sponsoring an event with lots of hospitality” rather than about defining the company’s principles, purpose, positioning, and people’s behaviours to support a vision and strategy. It’s a mistaken belief that branding can somehow paper over a less-than-attractive reality.
- An absence of commitment to the brand programme at the top. Leadership has agreed to work on the brand, but doesn’t actively support it, engage with it, or give any time to it. This is often (but not always) true where the people running the organisation haven’t changed for many years. They pay lip service, but not much more.
- There is commitment at the top, but brand work fails due to middle management intransigence. The “marzipan layer” is often the level that stymies change. With one eye on retirement, they can be resistant to change and see little benefit (for them) in doing so.
- Failure to follow through. Many brand programmes start well and deliver a robustly researched and sharply defined brand. But failure happens at the engagement and activation stage – leadership loses interest, not enough time and resources are devoted, and momentum is lost. As a result, the brand isn’t embedded.
This begs the question, how does the CMO or Communications Director of a large organisation drive reinvention, particularly when there isn’t the time (or appetite) for a long internal education campaign on what brand is really about?
The first solution is axiomatic. It’s the need to engage with the CEO and senior executive team so that they understand the benefits of brand-led thinking to the business. How you do that exactly will depend on the organisation, the individuals, and their motivations. Here are some ideas that I have seen work effectively:
- Champion the added value derived from a strong brand. Share brand valuation tables or even have the brand valued. Point to the research that shows how companies with a strong brand outperform the S+P and MSCI share price indexes by an average of 10% per annum.
- Explain how brand constructs can address and resolve some of the executive team’s most pressing issues. Show how a strong brand can help the board achieve its KPIs. Identify the challenges the CEO really seems interested in – whether that’s redefining the company’s purpose, hiring the best people, retaining customers, improving relationships with regulators, reducing borrowing costs, or protecting the share price – and show how a strong brand can help address them.
- Use success stories from organisations in other sectors that are more brand savvy. Don’t stray too far from your world though – the CEO of an engineering consultancy is unlikely to pay much attention to stories about PepsiCo or McDonalds.
- Make the link between brand and reputation. Most senior executives intuitively understand the benefits of a strong reputation (and the downside of a weak one). If necessary, drop the brand word and use another label that works for the organisation – reputation is one candidate.
- Non-executive directors can also be helpful in championing the importance and impact of a well-managed brand. They often have experience from other sectors where the brand concept is seen as important. They may have seen the positive impact in other organisations and they can champion the concept in the boardroom. They are also important guardians of the company’s reputation and have a natural interest in brand-related tenets such as purpose, positioning, values, and personality.
Once the board and executive team are convinced, it’s a similar process with middle management. Play to their agendas, priorities, and motivations. Whether it’s more engaged and motivated staff, quicker sales, or more opportunities for personal development, show how a strong brand can help them. And don’t be afraid to constantly challenge misconceptions of brand as “marcomms and hospitality.”
And target specific functions. Dissuade human resources from creating their own employer brand by working with them so that they buy into the shared brand definition (and so avoid wasting valuable time and risking confusion by creating a separate brand). Talk to customer service and operations management, so that they are an integral part of any brand work – that work is then more likely to be part and parcel of their strategies, plans, and actions.
And, last but not least, follow through. The best brands from Apple and GE to Pret A Manger and LUSH understand that their brand is their way of doing business. It becomes the DNA of the business. If the executive team has been convinced, then this should not be too onerous, but do a quick mental check of “Does this support and build the brand?” If the answer is no, then “Will this actively undermine/damage our brand?” for just about everything the organisation does should always be front and centre.
Image source: Samuel Zeller