Branding is evolving and today is far more critical than at any time in its history. Building, supporting, and driving a strong brand image that connects with the consumer of your goods, services, or products in a manner that supports the consumers needs is critical to long term brand success. We need to evolve. We need to be flexible. We need to understand innovation, but not follow it blindly.
What Makes Branding Different?
by David Srere
Co-CEO & Chief Strategy Officer
“It’s something you do to a cow.” That’s what Roy Disney—Walt’s big brother—said when asked for his definition of a brand.
- When built properly, a brand serves as the core operating philosophy for everything that’s said and done in an organization.
- Strong brands start and end based on a well-articulated, holistically implemented purpose.
- A brand endures over the long term because it adapts over the short term.
While I see it a little differently, at least Disney had a clear point of view on the topic. Most people, including many who make their living in the world of marketing communications, don’t. Maybe it’s just easier to group branding with advertising and public relations, crisis communications—and everything else that’s even obliquely related—into one mushy pile.
But branding is not like the rest. In fact, there are at least three significant differences:
1. Brand sets the stage for everything else: When built properly, a brand serves as the core operating philosophy for everything that’s said and done in an organization. The purview of a strong brand goes beyond marketing communications. It guides everything from how the organization on-boards new employees, to how it rewards top performers, to the partners with whom it chooses to work.
A simple metaphor for this is the hub and a spoke. The brand—the core operating philosophy—is the hub, and everything else that the organization says and does are the spokes. In this way, the hub becomes the center that unifies and stabilizes all other activities—including advertising, PR, and other marketing communications.
For brand-led organizations, passing through the hub of the brand to a spoke is akin to passing over the Bridge of Death in “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” (“What’s your favorite color?”). Every time an initiative—whether it’s recruiting or customer experience or CSR—tries to cross the bridge, it must answer to the brand to ensure that it aligns with and supports the core philosophy of the organization. If it does, it gets across. If it doesn’t—well, you probably saw the movie.
2. Brand starts from the inside: The origin of a strong brand begins with the distinctive truth of the organization. What does it stand for? How is it distinctive? Why should anyone care? This differs from other marketing communications activities, which are driven by outside forces, such as market opportunities and trends. Strong brands start and end based on a well-articulated, holistically implemented purpose. Then it’s up to the employees to support the purpose and, most importantly, deliver it in everything they do every day.
Without a clear, credible, and compelling purpose, a brand runs the risk of losing its moral compass and being buffeted by the constantly changing and often powerful marketplace forces. Well-branded organizations certainly must adapt to these forces but within the context of staying true to whom they fundamentally are. Apple makes Macs and iPads and, most recently, watches. All of these products, however, emanate from Apple’s purpose of delighting people with simply elegant, customized, and user-focused design. That’s non-negotiable, and it starts from the inside.
3. Brand is like bamboo: A powerful brand must be strong and flexible at the same time—just like bamboo. It endures over the long term because it adapts over the short term. If a brand is inflexible, it will eventually snap because of its devotion to old, outdated notions of what it is supposed to be and how it is supposed to act.
For example, VICE, originally founded as a counterculture print magazine 20-plus years ago, was guided by two principles: speak in the voice of the audience, and always provide free content. It did not say it was committed to publishing in only print or to writing on a particular subject matter. These commitments have allowed the company to develop into what is arguably the fastest-growing digital media company in the world, adapting to the evolving tastes of a new Millennial audience and digital formats.
With some notable exceptions, most marketing communications tactics tend to be more moment-in-time events, and therefore don’t need to navigate between the challenges of balancing flexibility and endurance. They largely exist in the present moment. Brand, however, must be built like bamboo—endure for the long term by flexing in the short term.
So what’s my own definition of branding? Simple: It’s the sum total of an individual’s experience with an organization. A brand is built—or not—every time a candidate walks into an organization for an exploratory interview, every time a customer returns a product to a retail store because it doesn’t work properly, and every time a Millennial browses an offering on a website or digital device. A brand is what happens to you when you touch a company. Strongly branded organizations align those experiences to reinforce the brand promises they make in marketing. And that’s a job that never, ever ends.
Within the context of my definition, Disney’s articulation of branding is technically correct: It is something you do to a cow. And from the cow’s perspective, it’s undoubtedly an experience that’s not soon forgotten.