Brands have become complex creatures and creating or redefining your brand is not as simple as some may think. If you consider the brand of an organization something that the leaders of the organization act in line with, something that people in the company live out in everyday practice as well as something that decides how marketing, communications and sales are done – well, then the process of developing and delivering the brand demands interdisciplinary skills and resources.
I’ve been developing corporate brands since the mid-nineties and there are a bunch of issues I think you should consider when you begin your branding journey. If you are serious about building a successful corporate brand, the questions the branding process raise will be relevant to discuss with your board or the owners of your company or organization before the venture. The experience of the brand that both customers and employees will join at the end is closely connected to business strategy, what your promises and competitive advantages are, development of products and services, how you consider the competition and your positioning, who you hire and how you train people, how you deliver digitally and so on.
A branding journey with six legs
Approaching the process bit by bit makes it easier to cope with. Besides, some of the decisions and processes have to be done before others in order to arrive safely at the final destination. If you want a coherent expression of the brand, the overall purpose, focus and values have to be decided before you develop concepts and implement across different types of platforms and areas of responsibility in the organization.
- Discovering your unique DNA
Understanding what is fundamental and unique to the company is crucial if you want to create a corporate brand that will differentiate your brand from others. Where the marketing discipline has historically been most concerned with analyzing the market and consumers, the actual values, competencies, the culture, methods and technologies of the company is often forgotten. But if you want to define a DNA that is both true to the organization and relevant to the market, you’ll have to look at both; the cultural identity of the organization and the needs of your users or customers. I’ve had good luck looking into the heritage of the organization, understanding the passions of employees and leaders as well as understanding the dreams and aspirations for the future in the organization. When we worked with the IT consultants ChangeGroup they had strong ambitions about working as a “high-performance team”, which could give them both internal engagement and edge in the market in the future. When I was rebranding the 150-year-old foundation Hedeselskabet, founded by Enrique Dalgas in 1866 his ambitions about developing the rural areas of Denmark and his ideas about making “good tracks in the landscape” could be translated into a meaningful purpose today. The new Social Enterprise VOKS develops the skills of vulnerable people by working with plants that are distributed to local companies.
Sometimes these new truths about the identity and purpose of the company are found inside, sometimes there is an outside view on the organization that tells a new story about the value creation. You’ll have to consider what method you use, who does the research and how serious you want to come about the process. Will three interviews in the street (or in the office) suffice for “analysis” and “insights” or does it take a more serious approach to rediscover the purpose of your company? Where do you see unique values and competencies or practice that could become your new advantage? In the city of Kolding, we discovered the potential of “design” as something unique, but the vast majority didn’t think of design processes in schools, companies and at the local design school as something significant or valuable. If we had only used a day or two on research I think we might not have understood the possibilities hidden in the design practice happening in the region when we first began our Kolding identity and brand project.
What are the unique characteristics of our company? Are we utilizing the heritage and culture of our organization? How can our organizational identity be translated into a relevant purpose in the future?
- Business and brand should be one strategy
Where “branding” was once seen as part of what the marketing department did with the long term positioning of the products or services of the company, the development of the brand is now connected with the very identity and existence of the company as a whole. While there are still companies who see their (product-)brands as separate from the organization, most companies now link the values, leadership and accountability of the company to the services and products they deliver. The increasing demand for authenticity, identification, sustainability and social commitment means that more and more businesses are linking their beliefs and attitudes on social issues into their operations, production, services and delivery practices. That’s why branding is no longer only a marketing or communication practice (if it ever was) but a holistic strategy discipline that includes every aspect of the organization.
The purpose of the company has to answer not only “why” the company exists, but also a core narrative that will answer how the company creates value and delivers that value to relevant stakeholders. The purpose and narrative which forms the basis of the corporate brand have to be compelling both for customers and for the members of the organization – and it has to differentiate from others in the market. That may sound simple but in reality, it’s quite difficult to create a meaningful purpose and truly stand out while connecting to the authentic identity of the company – “who we are” – so that the heritage of the business is continued in a new and interesting manner.
If everyone in the market for color printers talks about price, speed and formats – then how about talking about the looks of printers? They sit in your office or home looking ugly (mostly grey plastic with buttons and a display) and how about distributing them through a channel that talks about decor, design and style? That’s what we did with OKI Printing Solutions and it turned into something very different from the ad campaign our client had imagined, as we presented their printers in 32 different vivid colors to make them fit into every type of reception, office or home and to sell them through interior and style shops. If everybody in the IT consulting industry is talking about having the most experienced IT consultant, then talk about the best team. Or talk about humans when everyone else is talking about tech, as is the case with ChangeGroup.
When defining your new business strategy and brand purpose make sure you think both inside-out and outside-in. How will you differentiate the company in the view of the public? And what unique way of being a company will you develop that can engage the most skilled employees in the future? So many strategies talk about the market but miss the important point of engaging a team – small or big – in the everyday delivery of that new experience.
Do we have the necessary knowledge to develop a purposeful brand strategy? How do we find useful perspectives on user needs, organizational uniqueness and advantages? Do our business strategy and brand strategy point in the same direction?
- Living the brand – leading change process
If the delivery of your services and the experience of your company is to be a success it has to be delivered by people who believe in the purpose of the brand and who want to contribute by living that brand purpose. One of my favorite examples of a brand living its purpose actively is the outdoor brand Patagonia. I have heard of few brands who practice their beliefs to the extent founder Yves Chouinard and CEO Rose Marcario do together with their team. From letting their people go surfing to supporting nature preservation campaigns, publicly bashing President Trump and trying to get more people to reuse, repair and recycle. I think the most interesting brands are the ones who practice their brand at the core of their business rather than talk about it. Those brands are also the ones who not only enjoy having customers but are blessed with fans. At LEGO they call themselves AFOLs. Those of us who love riding our Ducati motorcycle call ourselves “Ducatisti”.
One brand that didn’t have many fans when I first got to know them was the bus drivers in Copenhagen. The bus industry in Denmark (as in many other countries) is composed by the public transportation body and many private companies who actually have the busses and bus drivers. Everyone involved talked about cost, timetables, efficiency and enough resources. The last bit being busses and bus drivers getting those busses from A to B. When we spoke with customers everyone talked about relations with passengers and the bus driver. A completely different focus than the companies. Our efforts changed the industry significantly by focusing on training leaders and bus drivers as well as communicating. By changing the attitudes and behavior of the bus drivers we could activate a different attitude among bus passengers lifting the everyday experience bit by bit.
There are at least two important levels to think about when you want your organization to live the brand. The fundamental (but sometimes abstract) is how you as a leader (formal or informal) act on the values and the purpose of the brand. Do you make decisions based on the core beliefs of the brand – also when it’s not convenient or causes additional cost? The more practical level is how you meet your customers and users every day. How do you want people to be met at the front desk, when they enter your store and meet your staff or when they call to get help? If you want the brand experience to be a great one, your brand depends on the organizational culture and the leadership that rules the behavior of the staff. As all other change processes, translating the conceptual brand values that have been agreed on into actual behavior in different locations and settings is not as easy as it may look in the PowerPoint slides.
When we helped the bus industry of Greater Copenhagen change the image of the bus ride, it was a new understanding of the importance of the bus driver that led us to design an organizational change program rather than what most would expect of an image project. Through a brand school called “Movia Academy” we trained directors, managers and a selection of bus drivers to lead and act from a service and experience perspective rather than a “move people from A to B”-perspective. And by helping bus passengers share positive experiences to appreciate their bus drivers we underpinned the positive development of a service culture.
If you develop a new, better version of the brand it’s going to demand change in action. That change may be big or small, it may be the services you are delivering, the way you lead the company, or how you make decisions in C-suite. But a brand strategy or business strategy that doesn’t call for physical and systemic change is hardly a strategy at all.
Do we live our brand in terms of culture and service? How do the leadership of the company show who we are? Are we leading our market or field of work in a way that is admired?
- Conceptualize and design your brand identity
People often talk about the tangible and visible signs when they talk about brands. Visual expression is part of our way of understanding identities – no matter if it’s a personal brand (think of Donald Trump’s hair) or if it’s a sports brand like the Nike swoosh. We instantly recognize and differentiate people, personalities and brands by how they look and how they move. That’s why the embodiment of the brand is fundamental to the first impression of the brand as well as the long term identification with the brand identity.
Creating a nice looking visual expression of your brand is not very difficult. What’s difficult is to create a visual identity that expresses the unique DNA of the brand in an intelligent way. The first two steps of your branding process should help you be quite sure of what you want the brand to express as those steps informed you about the unique characteristics of your organizational identity and defined the purpose and strategy of the brand. If you formulated a compelling core narrative and an ambitious vision you will have a great brief for graphic designers to work from.
What divides excellent visual design from average design work is an extraordinary visual idea. A new visual identity has to convey the meaning of the brand and at the same time contain an idea that surprises or adds value to the experience of the brand. If that concept or idea can be unfolded and transformed into other forms across different platforms. When I started working as an art director and graphic designer in the mid-nineties we were mostly concerned with different forms of print and how our work would function across different sizes and perspectives from outdoor billboards to small stamps and business cards. Today, the logo, the visual identity and the imagery have to work on digital formats; from email signatures to PowerPoint presentations, Instagram and app icons and the corporate website. It has to integrate with different formats set by digital platform providers and give opportunities for animation and variation over time.
The defining characteristics of the organizational identity and culture doesn’t just serve as inspiration for the core definition and narrative of the brand as mentioned above. The things that make a brand stand out in terms of the founder, history, place, unique technologies and ways of acting can also inspire the graphics and imagery of the brand. If you look at the logo we designed for ChangeGroup it shows a group where one person is the change agent. Or look at Hedeselskabet where the logo is redesigned from Per Mollerups original design from 1984 where the landscape, the horizon, trees and visionary thinking are elements. That visual identity has now been unfolded to include signs from maps and patterns from elevation maps as well as infographics with trees, growth rings and birds. The universe of the organization can inspire a graphic language that becomes unique to the corporate brand.
What is the primary characteristic of our identity? Does the visual identity express who we are – and maybe even add – something to meeting us? Does our visual corporate identity help us stand out in our market?
- Drive your digital transformation through your online brand
The transformation from delivering your value to users physically to digital and virtual services has become a key driver for many commercial companies and organizations. That means lots of companies start their branding journey as a question of digitalization and business development to compete in a world where users expect interactive online services. Where the corporate website used to be a part of the organizations brand communication it is now a primary element of the business, which means the service delivery or buying experience and building the brand image in the mind of the customer is two sides of the same token. The user experience, tone of voice, visual expression and economic exchange are all elements in the same interactive user journey.
You may start your brand project with the question of delivering services or goods digitally or even virtually, but in my experience, the questions raised in the above four steps will arise in the process. What are your promises and your key identity when your brand is (only) digital or virtual?
For companies who depend on transactions – no matter if they are sales of goods or small donations to an NGO – the digital strategy has become essential to building their business. If the strategy doesn’t explain how you build your customer/user base, how they get involved and interact digitally and end signing up or buying your offering – all combined with the brand universe you are creating – then it’s not really going to transform your business into something bigger. In other words, the digital brand journey has to involve both the hard side of business and the emotional side of a brand you can fall in love with (or at least get involved with).
When I started working with the foundation Hedeselskabet who had 148 years of history behind it, there was no digital strategy. There was a website of course, but no expectations for the digital presence to deliver on any business goals. After our journey working out the brand identity along with the digital strategy the website had to deliver new members, let existing members renew memberships digitally as well as automatically every year, give new knowledge to specific target groups and help all of them use relevant owned communication channels like social media and newsletters. In the case of the IT consultants ChangeGroup our goal was to communicate the products and services much clearer, redesign the customer journey and increase the conversion from website users to actual requests for meetings and quotes.
Does our digital brand deliver business and what are the goals? How does the brand talk and act in a digital world? Can the brand become a participatory place online?
- Bring your brand to life through communication and campaigns
Ad campaigns with everything from billboards and tv commercials to newspaper ads and post on social media have been the primary driver of the way most people think about brands. And the ad industry has been effective at associating their work with the idea of “branding”. If you ask designers they would think more of the logo as the brand and PR people would claim that setting the right agenda in the press and within the right political or business arenas is what makes a brand. Management consultants may see leadership and organizational change as the most effective means to building a corporate brand. None and all of it is true.
Bringing the brand to (public) life through some sort of public campaign gives the brand an audience and a connection to customers or users which might even touch them at an emotional level and lift a brand from commodity to household friend. Some brands are not only liked but even loved. Some of my personal favorites over time would be Apple, Patagonia, Ducati, LEGO and Absolut – not only for their physical products but for what they stand for and the way they’re communicating (even if their ethics can all be debated). What is interesting about these brands – and many others – is they do not only have customers, they have fans. Fans of LEGO call themselves AFoLs and fans of Ducati call themselves Ducatisti. And while their communication and ad campaigns are not the only thing building their brands, they all have iconic communication that has earned a place in brand communication history.
When we helped the Bus Industry of Copenhagen build a new image and reputation it was greatly through leadership change but a campaign inviting the passengers to share their best stories about bus drivers helped drive that change in internal focus – and show passengers that bus drivers are mostly heroes. Where the activation and communicative campaigns used to be a one-way story directed towards the potential buyers or audience, most successful communication is now based on a form of dialogue. As the very word “communication” implies, it’s about “commune” rather than monologue. Good communication that aims at building a brand tells a compelling story about the brand that somehow lives out the very essence or the values of the brand. Like Copenhagen Business School who needed to show how attending their executive master program would help change both the mind of the participant and that of the organization. We developed a participatory campaign where managers could participate in a day of lectures or meet professors online. If the messaging of the brand can actually involve the service and let people experience the brand you’ve come a long way in bringing all of the elements of your brand journey together.
Do we know the characteristics of our brand well enough to develop a compelling communication concept? Can we communicate our brand promise without saying what it is? How do we let our audience participate in the brand?
Transform your brand
Would you like to know more about how your brand transformation journey might look and how we can help you move your business from A to Z? Read our cases, subscribe to our newsletter or meet us for a cup of coffee and we will give you our honest opinion on the possibilities for strengthening your brand and business. Give us a call or write an email to Nikolaj Stagis.