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B is for Brand

Saturday, May 1, 2010 - 08:58

Reg Bryson says that organisations must look to brand themselves by what they stand for and do, not just by what they say or sell. By Jason Day

Oh for the silver bullet. Want your workforce's tenure to go up by a 12-month average? Silver bullet. Want a brand makeover that will lead to a 15 per cent jump in sales? Silver bullet. Under pressure to sort out your electorate's unsightly tagging graffiti epidemic? Find that silver bullet.

Of course, there is rarely such a thing. It must pain many managers to realise that improvements to pressing problems most often come incrementally and require the hard work of research and planning.

Problems don't often disappear just through the alteration of one factor. A business's survival and success hinges on so many things that it is tough just to get a handle on everything, much less identify where the rot/green shoot is and what to do about it.

Take another 'b' word, 'brand'. Traditionally thought of as something you can call in the consultants to help create - a new pitch, palette, logo (ah, that silver bullet) - brand is increasingly a trouble zone for organisations, as well as trouble's good fairy-queen sister, opportunity.

Why trouble? Because the way in which consumers interact with your brand has changed; a lot.

Consumers are increasingly assessing company brands by who they are, what they stand for, and what they do, not by what they sell. Today, you as a consumer are just as likely to 'brand' a company for them. Think of it as our little way of saying "this is what we think of you". A free gift that can be good (Apple), that can be bad (Tiger Woods).

Going, going, going are the trappings of incumbency for such things as a guarantee of repeat business; the "that's what dad used". Loyalty is shifty in an era of too much choice for consumers.

Reg Bryson runs Brand Council, a branding agency in Sydney. Previously CEO of The Campaign Palace, a heavy hitter for over 30 years in the advertising game, Bryson was voted one of the living legends of the industry in 2001, and in May 2005 was awarded the industry's highest honour, the AFA medallion. Bryson knows a thing or two about brand; where it's been, why it's where it's at today and how companies can work with it.

A new brand interaction

"People interact with brands in a different way to five, 10 or 30 years ago," Bryson reasons. "I use the year 2000 as a dividing point.

"It was during this period when an awful lot changed: business used to be one thing, society was another, and people were another. They didn't merge and blend, in fact, we all actually treated them as separate areas of life. The you who went to work would almost be a different person to the you who came home; this was accepted behaviour.

"But business isn't separate to society, it's not separate to individuals, and it's all coming together in a way not seen in history before," Byrson adds.

"I don't think too many organisations have actually looked at how the blending of these elements is happening and what they need to do about it.

"We have made big changes in terms of how individuals see the world, how society sees the world and how businesses that lagged behind are only just starting to see the world."

Businesses have lagged behind because of the commercial imperative, believes Bryson. This works on two fronts. One, because the profit motive still drives so much of corporate behaviour (more on that later) and two, because competition has been so successful at creating success.

One of Bryson's favourite quotes is the rather prophetic one by Edward de Bono about how business could no longer compete by being competitive; de Bono said that while competition is essential for survival, it had run its course as the driver for success.

A new brand interaction

So, where's the link to brand? According to Bryson, it's to do with brand as guiding philosophy that provides a point of difference.

"When I was at The Campaign Palace, if we were going to do good work we felt we had to be able to defend it, if necessary," says Bryson. "That led us to try to think ahead of the normal client horizon; beyond sales and just surviving another week in ad land.

"What we found was that the world of products and advertising was diminishing. You had saturated marketplaces, totally commoditised, where even quality was no longer the differentiator. All the effort spent on marketing - which had for decades driven product improvements and new sales channels - wasn't working anymore, and everyone knew it, except for a few great brands who had really distinctive images.

"So what was the future? Where did you go to set yourself apart, to compete with something unique? The corporation itself. It has to be the final point of differentiation," says Bryson. "If you focus on the corporation, nobody can copy that."

And brand, but not the shiny logo type of thing, is the key to leading your organisation to a new place.

How did the future get here and what's it got to do with brand? Bryson says that through big changes in business, technology, retail, marketing and media over the past decade, companies must transform their approach to business.

If the 1980s was materialism, the 1990s individualism and the 2000s was collectiveness, Bryson says that the 2010s is going to be about spirituality. A decade where, in an ageing and more mature society, to be exceptional at a corporate level will be equated more with 'humanistic' performance, where today's 'financial' organisation will move towards being a more 'humanistic' one.

New brand thinking that puts a company and its people front and centre, believes Bryson, can allow it to lead rather than be led by its market.

Philosophy-led branding

For Bryson, the way to this is philosophy-led branding, an approach for companies to work out who they are, what they do, where they are going and what they stand for. It also works to correct what Bryson sees as a lack of alignment that has crept into many organisations between those at the top and those at the bottom.

"A Gallup poll once indicated that in the average company, 55 per cent of employees are tuned out and 19 per cent are actively sabotaging it. Another study of 23,000 workers found only 30 per cent had a clear understanding of what their organisation was trying to achieve and only 20 per cent saw a clear line of sight between their tasks and the organisation's goals. That's abysmal.

"The whole company is brand; every single thing you do and how everyone acts in that organisation is brand. That's why everybody has to have an understanding and a sense of what the organisation is all about."

Bryson takes issue with the notion that organisations can continue to exist solely on the 'for-profit' basic.

"Milton Friedman's comment that a corporation's sole responsibility is to shareholder value is totally wrong," he says. "Look at when Westpac raised interest rates above competitors. They probably spent about $30 million last year telling us they're nice people/wear factor 30/safe in a storm and I should like them… and "bang!", on the other hand they go out there and demolish all of that in one go.

"Companies must realise that as a way of making sense of saturated marketplaces, consumers are increasingly making decisions around disqualifiers - things that turn people off a brand or company - rather than the qualifiers such as product positives."

Blending business and society

"What Westpac did tells me here's a company that does not understand what's happening with the blending of business and society; that to go too far risks people deciding to move away from your business. They think brand is what you go out and tell people: it's not that at all. Brand is now everything.

"It is almost like people are going to teach companies like that a lesson because they're saying you've got to be authentic, you've got to be true.

"There's no silver bullet for brand. Indeed, clients who take a philosophy-led approach to defining what it is they're about are in for a long haul, and one that needs to be embraced at the highest levels of the organisation," he concludes.

The right questions

So today, brand - understood for a long time as a very important component of a company's make-up - is not the province of the marketing department: they've lost control of it.

A school of thought that says brand is not what you go out and tell people may be frightening because it's now less easy to hold and keep control of. And it requires an organisation asking questions to find answers of itself when it may not even know what the questions should be.

"Most companies don't know how to do this," says Bryson.

"Most don't know who they are. The business of business is no longer just about being a business, you actually have to work out what you stand for, what's your reason for being.

"If you didn't exist who would miss you? For some people, Westpac could disappear tomorrow and it wouldn't matter because there are three clones.

"When you start to look at helping companies transform to meet their future - by helping them find who they are, what they do, what they stand for, where they're going and how to get their people to want to go to work - it's about putting meaning into companies and helping them to discover their own."