Of History, and the Brand Consultants of Today part 1 of 2: History

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Of History, and the Brand Consultants of Today part 1 of 2: History

My old colleague and friend Jeff Swystun recently published a post titled The Ideal Brand Consultant – an insightful one, as everything that Jeff writes – which examines the characteristics that a good Brand Consultant should have today. I thought to add the other half of the issue – who actually is a ‘brand consultant’ today. I started writing, and just by chance had a conversation about the topic with a former colleague who entered the field of branding in 1999, at 23 years of age. I recounted a bit of the history of ‘corporate branding’ and she marveled at it – saying “I had no idea”. She encouraged me to add such history, as “it would be helpful for people my age to know how things came about, because that’s not what one typically hears”. Yes, maturely modern (Corporate) Branding is a ~15 years old teenager, and the recounted lore of branding firms today is indeed a massaged version of history. And so here’s a trip down memory lane, a relevant one because today’s brand professionals are the result of a evo/revolution that started three decades ago.

Up to the 80s we lived in a highly discipline-segmented industry: Corporate Identity firms, general Design firms, Packaging firms, Annual Reports firms (yes young(er)friends, believe it or not there was such a thing), Naming firms, Editorial/Publication firms, etc. – in addition to the PR, IR, Promotion, and Advertising agencies. The Corporate Identity business and the ID Programs it created consisted of some business & competitive review, a good deal of communications auditing, the very basics of Verbal Identity, and then a whole lot of systematic graphic design – a balance which was in fact reflected in the fee percentages for each of the parts. In all this, there really was no ‘brand strategist’ per se – as the combination of skills made up the outcome: ‘the Identity’ (not ‘the Brand’). Generally speaking, the Creative Director played the central role of translating the key notions of business strategy into visual elements; he/she was a larger-than-life persona in the office and in presentations, and someone clients rarely argued with. As much as the business-based context was present, the Corporate Identity business was mostly Art — Art with a fuzzily-defined beneficial business outcome.

Then in the early 90s two things happened – independently (in fact, different firms led each charge): the advent of a strategically-crafted Brand Platform which systematized the function and componentry of a Corporate Brand through a business-oriented lens (thank you JohnD & Co.), and the coming of age of the methods, and related credibility, of Brand Valuation which gave the discipline of Branding a factually measurable outcome (thank you, NoelP & Co.). And all this happened in the context of the internet and digital revolutions, the new dynamics of global businesses, as well as – and importantly – the buying up of all leading brand consultancies by communications conglomerates. 1992 to 1997: five pivotal years during which Branding started to morph into a Science (made then visible, yes, by the Art of Corporate Identity development).

As Branding became more Science and less Art in order to address the more strategic function of Brand, it acquired additional breadth, depth, and definition, and the contribution and insights of a wide range of professionals from different disciplines became necessary. The late 90s saw Branding as a discipline becoming fair ground to professions who historically didn’t do it – management consulting, PR and IR and Advertising, business operations, internal communications, change management, and anyone with an MBA or data analytics experience. All these left brains flooded the established brand consultancies, new firms were founded based on the new and more scientific tenets, others were forced to expand or contract, and many others closed, merged, or were acquired. The industry was in a bit of a turmoil: the historical Identity consultants fighting for their hard-won experience (no, they didn’t exactly welcomed the newcomers) vs the new entrants with new and different perspectives (and no, they weren’t exactly respectful of the old-timers). Some of the Identity professionals evolved and assimilated the new perspective, while others didn’t and were swept away by the tide – in addition to an underlying generational changeover. A partnership between left and right brains made up the executive ranks of the large firms, and it was interesting to see how programs were run: if a program was led by a now-evolved Identity specialist the work was done mostly on feel and insights supported by a decent amount of facts, and if it was led by one of the new left-brained professional it was run in a highly analytical manner. Looking back at the CI/Branding programs of the 90’s and early 00’s, I can’t honestly say which outcome was ‘better’: they both ‘worked’, somehow – and we all got paid for the work.

It is now 2000-2005 and the historical Corporate Identity knowledge settled into the new thinking, and the ‘modern’ brand consultancy was a reality. It needed to happen – the industry needed to evolve and the influx of different minds was necessary.

Today, the industry and its philosophies are undoubtedly led by left brains. There are exceptions of course, but it suffices to say that the phrase “MBA preferred’ is a constant in large firms’ recruitment ads for brand consulting positions. The way the work is generally done is with the left brains studying, analyzing, and mapping realities and trends and plotting a contextual business future, with then Verbal Creatives crafting beautiful words that excite the minds and get the heart beating faster and Visual Creatives painting memorably gorgeous visual landscapes. Left and right brains sit at the same table along the process (at times with the client and its customers). The core spark of inspiration can come from any of them, and it’s then expanded by the contributions of all. This left+right brain team-based approach, and its outcomes, is an important issue in brand consultancies today – and one that can be seen in different ways.

Santiago Iniguez, Dean of IE Business School, just posted a great article on teamwork and group-think: “Insanity in individuals is something rare, in groups, parties, nations and epochs, it is the rule” wrote German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche”. He would have been unaware of the term, but in part, what Nietzsche was talking about was groupthink, a dynamic that’s been variously defined as what happens when group members trying to avoid conflict reach a consensus decision without properly evaluating other viewpoints, whether by isolating themselves or suppressing dissent”. Conversely, a recent TED paper stated “collective creativity creates Innovation” – a view which by and large I agree with, with the personal caveat that not every team member is or is able to be ‘creative’.

The partnership between left and right brains is not easy, and as much as our industry speaks of a seamlessness between the two types, it’s not quite there yet and I’m not sure it’ll ever be: they are two different animals, operating according to different drivers, thinking in different ways, and with different priorities. I’ll expand on this issue in Part 2 of this note, but for now let me just say that I don’t have an MBA, and while I welcome the MBAs’ intellectual rigor to map facts and keep ideas in check, I believe that data and its experts are not able and willing to dream, and that the mass, weight, and influence of the analytical content and its fact-based extrapolated futures has today overshadowed the creative thinking that used to be the engine of brand development. (E.J. – I’m very much with you here).

Brand consulting firms’ management, left brains by and large, seems to believe that they can take bright MBAs and teach them ‘the branding process’. Get pragmatic people and teach them the soft side, the nuances, the non-factual aspects of ‘brand’? Well, I wish it were that easy. Business schools have trained them in the mechanics of a business, of a company, of its audiences, of its marketplace, of its competition, not in a Way of Thinking and certainly not to dream. No wonder the churn of young MBAs in brand consulting firms is so high: they either get fired because they can’t deliver ‘Brand’, or quit because they get tired of the business-light approach (compared to their other employment options in other field of Business and Management Consulting).

There you go – my two-cent 35-year summary. Now, let’s get back on point: who is ‘the brand consultant’ today? Or better, who ‘does branding’ today? I’ll share my opinion in Part 2, in a few days.