Of Brands, Guesses, and Diamonds

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Of Brands, Guesses, and Diamonds

We all recognize, study, dissect, and talk expertly about Global Brands needing to evolve, adapt to, and operate differently due to the increasing complexity, intricacies, multi-faceted expressions, and delivery channels of the changing world. It’s a multitude of different slants, angles, and perspectives from different professionals rooted in different disciplines, offering insightful examinations on how we should think about and handle the subject matter. New professional definition/perspectives are being created (Demand Generation Advisors, Growth Consultants, etc.), as well as new context monikers (Age of Insight, Age of Me, Mecosystem, etc.). Me, I’m satisfied with Brand Consultant In An Evolving World. Promoting one’s own views and label them in a differentiating manner is fair, we do need to market our services as much as any other profession, and it goes to say “hey, I really really really – no really, I mean it – know what’s happening and as a result what’s needed, and so I can help you (client) deal with it”. Fine, yes, I get it, you convinced me of your expertise and thank you for your perspective (and I’m not being sarcastic, I am a firm believer in defining the problem being half of the solution). But regardless of who’s more right than others, and personally I think that we are all right in this fuzzy discipline of ours, it is a fact that all this WhatWhenWhereWhy constitutes 95% of the brand-related talk here on LinkedIn and on similar platforms. Now, can we talk for a moment about the remaining 5%, which is, ahem … doing the actual work? How does that need to evolve to keep pace with this deeply-examined and sharply-defined changing world? Let me take it from the top.

We worked hard for months and months, and then Launch Day finally comes: we hold our breath, join our hands, and take a giant (albeit planned) collective leap of faith – because if we are honest with ourselves we know that what is about to get launched is based on a giant (albeit cleared by research) set of educated guesses, and that the client is placing a giant (albeit calculated) bet on its future. We won’t really know for another couple of years whether we did the right thing, and in those couple of years a thousand things can go wrong and a thousand things will change in the client company and in the/ir world – and so whether we were originally right or not can’t never be fully assessed anyway, as many of the original foundational assumptions and parameters may have changed.

Whereas in the mostly-linear past we could reasonably guess the future, and while analytics can now help us justify and defend that guess, the context for our clients’ brands is changing far more often, far more quickly, far more un-linearly, and in far more unexpected ways than ever before. Which begs the question: how can we increasingly eliminate (most of) the guesses, bets, and leaps of faith from our work? I see four interrelated and interdependent aspects of the branding work that we should re-examine and evolve – in general, and then on a client-by-client basis:

1. The function of Branding. I’ve never been an advocate of Branding yielding miracles (poor salesmanship or [pat on the back] intellectually honesty?), and as such am not a fan of phrasings like “‘great brands change the world”, which I’d rather phrase as “great companies can contribute to change the world, and Branding plays a central role in letting them succeed in doing so”. But I do understand the need for an aspirational soundbite. Back in 2001, I had made this my firm’s manifesto: Branding exists to translate a business strategy into terms that are understandable and valued by the intended audiences. As a result, I made the outcome of my work a Well-branded Business – not ‘a brand’. And today I’m happy to report (to myself) that Branding as Translation is fully in tune with the new dynamics, as the sudden changes that an enterprise may need to make are much more easily and quickly addressed by adjusting the brand’s channels and expressions than by modifying the brand’s fundamentals.

Which brings me to Diamonds (for full disclosure, I do spend quite a bit of time in Amsterdam). Think of a business enterprise as a rough diamond, extremely valuable in and of itself, but not as valuable as it could be; it’s the diamond cutter who makes it brilliant – not by adding anything but just making it shine brightly. A well-cut Diamond is very much analogous to a well-branded Business, and we – the brand consultants – should be the diamond cutters. We should plan how to shape the rough, then cut a large and clear Table (the brand’s Positioning) to allow an unobstructed view of the inside; then we should cut facets into the Crown (the brand’s offerings architecture) in such a way as to create accessible and correlated perspectives, which can be arranged and angled as needed; finally, we should shape the Pavilion (the brand’s Content) to provide depth and expand refractions. It’s the considered combination of every one of the facets, which changes the light’s plane of travel, that gives the diamond its brilliance and unique beauty. And all is transparent, visible, inviting, appreciable – while ever-changing according to how one chooses to look at it. And so that’s the brand-building equation: the diamond rough’s intrinsic value plus the cutter’s insightful and highly planned work equals the viewer’s control in appreciating the diamond’s brilliance however and from wherever he/she chooses.

2. The nature of Brand Positioning. Brand Positioning or Core Purpose or Brand Idea or Brand Essence – to me they all mean the same thing – has always been the historical soul of a brand, influencing business strategy and at times even dictating it. We generally craft Positioning in one of two ways: with a tight purview, which favors consistency but makes expansion and/or course corrections difficult because of its built-in boundaries; or with a broad perspective, which favors multiple expressions but impairs granular relevance and applicability because of its lack of specificity. There’s no good solution to the limitations of a tightly-focused Positioning, as it almost gets in the way, but there is a solution to the shortcomings of a broad perspective (it’s #3 below). And, importantly, a broad but meaningful Positioning (plus #3) can simplify the construct of a Brand Platform – which today gets to be complicated with Value Proposition and Mission and Vision and Values and Personality Attributes, etc.

3. A proactive Brand Architecture. A while ago I had written “due to the revolution in the push/pull balance between brands and the customers they need to serve, Brand Architecture (1990ish) can no longer be only about rationalizing relationships within a portfolio and then (2000ish) optimizing them to create pathways through which Brand travels and is accessed. It now also needs to make those pathways connected and interrelevant, so that they can allow open and transparent interactions. Within a holistic Positioning, I believe that Brand Architecture can become the core of a Global Brand – as a pulsating control center emitting micromessages which in the aggregate will surface the business intent and its worth to its users”. In other words, we should use Brand Architecture to break down the Brand in a granular and orientable manner so that it can be interpretable by the individualities in the marketplace. This way, the seemingly impossible goal of making a Corporate Brand personal can be feasible – and reachable because of a level of technology that is able to communicate with, listen to, and serve its individual users, letting us anticipate or at least respond quickly to their needs: the social platforms, the personal devices, the IoT advancements, Accenture Interactive’s notion of “‘Living Services’ which will tailor themselves in real-time around shifting end user needs and expectations”, as well as tools such as the recently-expanded Google Trends allowing “‘data journalism’ made possible by virality prediction – determining what stories and social media trends are about to go viral”. It is Brand Architecture’s cumulative effect, not a segmentation of Brand Positioning, that will permit a global enterprise to talk directly to each member of its various audiences.

4. A redefinition of ‘Relevance’. Relevance has historically been a valuable boundary for keeping a Brand focused – but a boundary nevertheless. As the world has changed, we should redefine ‘relevance’ and relax its boundaries, which in turn will expand the possible breadth of the Positioning. Lose Relevance and replace it with Permissions, and the brand opens up: we are seeing this approach quite often already: Durex Fundawear and its virtual (and very safe, I might add …) y’know; Philips and its subway station’s musical staircases; Heineken and its turnstiles sounds, which have nothing to do with beer but are ancillary to it as additional entertaining and surprising traits; or Carlsberg’s use of its recognized competency to expand into shampoos and conditioners. And by the way, redefining Relevance as Permissions also radically redefines the term ‘consistency’: from ensuring uniformity of expressions to yielding homogeneity of impressions.

These four points will align our branding work with what’s happening in the world, and their combined dynamics will allow us to be ready to respond to the changing conditions of our client’s businesses.

All in all, our historical way of working has been to take a business, imagine a future, coat it with a ‘brand’ to match, and let that influence and permeate everything the business does; it was Predetermined Desired Perception – the eventual ‘brand’ (if we were lucky) being almost a self-fulfilling prophecy. Going forward, we should take that business, define a broad but meaningful purpose for the accurately-guessable short-term future – framing the desired perception, not dictating it – and stop arguing about whether the brand should be build from the inside out or from the outside in: the Brand will take shape and then live at the intersection of the characteristics of the business, the nature of its customers, the inside (controllable) intent, and the outside (uncontrollable) perception – and get life breathed into it from each of them; and Brand Architecture will be the mechanism that would let us control the interactions.

Very recently, Robert Jones from Wolff Olins wrote: “… for a lot of leaders, brand is the effect of what they do, not the cause. … And externally, the maturing of web culture has exposed an important truth: it’s not companies who create brands but consumers. More than ever, brands are defined by, made or destroyed by, shared by, interpreted by, expressed by consumers and what they do and say. Companies can’t control this: they can only indirectly nurture it. And the eventual consequence can’t be a closed or defined or controlled brand, but something consumers can adopt, adapt and do things with. It’s an open purpose inside the organisation, which in the end creates an open brand out there in the world.” Thank you Robert for such an accurate and concise 115-word summary; you managed to say in 115 words what took me 1847 words to say.