By Myles Ritson, CEO and founding partner at Fusion Learning
In this age, smart companies understand that their brand is no longer theirs to define. For decades, marketers have worked on what message they would give their target audience but the audience have left the building. Consumers have been given the freedom to trawl the net, to explore digital media, to share through networks that deny geography and what did they do with it? – they chose who to listen to, how to value what they heard and when to dip in and out of conversations with and about the brand.
Organisations need champions of brand identity like never before – not just to create a stunning brand identity model but to champion its translation into consistent, coherent, compelling behaviours, aligned to a heartfelt purpose. Companies need those individuals whose passion for their brand is infectious, within the company and beyond.
Jeremy Bullmore, a renowned advertising guru and non-executive director of WPP, one of the biggest multinational advertising companies, prophetically and heretically said over a decade ago: “There is no such thing as a global brand.” The reason Bullmore said this was because a brand only exits in the mind of any one consumer. That of course has always been physiologically true – the brain is not a tape recorder. It chooses what to acknowledge and what to embrace and then it attaches value to that thought.
However, if a brand taps the water in the US, it ripples through Europe in the blink of an eye. If the brand behaves inconsistently in local geographies, the world knows. Brand schizophrenia is a growing disease. A company’s brand identity champions can play an important role in ensuring that the business executes brilliantly in local markets and that the melodies sung in each market combine to create one deafening, consistent chorus.
Service industries are the most prone to brand identity crises. Unless there is a very clear identity model, converted into crystal clear operating principles that people can understand and implement, the ink remains on the page rather than flowing through people’s veins. To understand why designing a clear identity model is so important for businesses, look at Jack Astors, a casual dining restaurant chain. The company needed a brand identity model which it could then translate into a brand culture that everyone from boardroom to kitchen could understand. The chain has developed from one restaurant and the vision of its creator, Peter Fowler, into one of Canada’s largest restaurant chains but it could only grow further if the brand understood the spirit and culture of its founder. The day the brand identity model was developed and launched Peter said “I’ve had jack in my head for 20 years and now he’s out on paper”. The business grew 10% over the next two years in a fiercely competitive and falling market. That’s the power of identity.
So when should companies change their brand’s identity? Sadly, the answer is for the most part, too often. Consumers’ brains store long-term information based on repeated exposure to like stimulus – they get hardwired. Can you remember your grandmother’s bedroom? How it smelt, the ornaments, how the bed was to lie and jump on? So many of the businesses who need help repositioning their brands find themselves in trouble because each successive brand manager has been incentivised, on top of their inbuilt zeal, to fiddle with the brand identity to sell a few more boxes.
The time for companies to actively change their identity is when consumer sentiment, technology or competitive context has mutated significantly causing the brand to slip down the consumers’ Brand Premier League Table. Skoda had to change its identity because the car industry fought for survival through an arms race of innovation, leaving the brand exposed as a butt of many a joke. Fortunately, Skoda managed to do it brilliantly. Ryanair had to do it, because the spirit of the millennials condemns all those who denigrate others and feign generosity -but did it with a change of rhetoric but no true change of heart.
For many of the global FMCG brand owners, the identity of their myriad of brands, with different consumers and competitive threats, will not mirror images of the corporate identity, but they should be concordant with the organisation’s purpose. For service brands, the synchronicity is critical – humans are not good at pretending to be what they are not so the brand identity must be clear, inspiring and actionable for everyone. During my time at a hotel once, the hi-tech entertainment system (TV) wasn’t working – it took 50 minutes for someone to arrive and declare their inability to do anything. In contrast, in Denver, during my stay at Hotel Monaco from the Kimpton Group, the maid noticed my toothpaste was low while I was out and replaced it with a new one. No note, no request for thanks, no bill. That’s the owner of a clear and empowering brand identity.