In an era when stakeholders watch businesses with a hawk’s eye focus on their social and environmental behaviour, and when the countless causes of the social sector strain to stand apart, a strong brand is a vital strategic asset.
Every organization has a ‘brand.’ Some think of it as nothing more than a memorable logo. Others expand their definition to include the rules or ‘graphic standards’ that specify fonts, colours and photographs to be used in marketing materials. Both of these definitions are incomplete, and miss the opportunities to use brand as a tool of strategy. So how should you be thinking about brand? How can you use the discipline of branding to enhance your organization’s performance? And how can you measure the success of your efforts?
Junxion has spent 20 years developing, testing and refining an approach to brand strategy that’s been used by dozens of organizations on four continents. What began for us as a response to the collapse of the dotcom boom has evolved to become a powerful and distinctive approach organizations of all sizes can use to build their position in increasingly crowded markets.
Defining Brand: The Expectation of an Experience
Think about your favourite restaurant—one you’ve visited often, perhaps with friends or your spouse. Was it recommended to you by someone? Or did you read about it in an article? Do you remember why you tried it that first time? And what keeps you going back? Is it your confidence that the food will always be great? Is it the comfort of being in a place ‘where everybody knows your name?’
Now consider this: If you returned for a meal tomorrow, and nobody acknowledged you as a regular, or if the food wasn’t good, would you never return? How bad would the experience need to be to erase all the goodwill that restaurant has built up over the years you’ve been visiting? And if you went back again—’just once more, for old time’s sake’—and the service was splendid again, would all quickly be forgiven?
Branding isn’t just for marketers, nor product developers; it’s a strategic issue that crosses and connects all departments.
Framed this way, a brand is all about perception—it’s your expectation of the experience you’ll enjoy (or endure, as the case might be!) when you interact with the brand. Brand builders must realize that establishing a strong brand is not about what they say, or about what they control; it’s about what they do and what they can influence. If brand is all about perception, then it’s an asset that moves around in customers’ heads. And every interaction with a customer is an opportunity to build a positive brand.
If you’re building a brand, your work involves defining the tone and tenor of the experiences you want your customers to enjoy, and then enabling your organization to deliver on that commitment repeatedly and consistently. The myriad touchpoints every brand has with its customers make this a complex job: It doesn’t stop at the edge of the marketing department, nor product development, nor the customer service group. It crosses all departments. It’s a strategic issue….
Building a brand: The Public Face of Strategy
A strategy without a brand is just an idea. A brand without a strategy is just bluff and bluster.
At Junxion, we define a brand as the public face of strategy. It’s a framework and a methodology to convey the purpose and intentions of your organization to stakeholders—customers, suppliers, employees present, future and past, and friends and competitors in the marketplace. Successful brand-builders make their organizational strategy and their brand walk hand-in-hand: A sound strategy without a communications and engagement framework is little more than a thought exercise. And a brand that’s disconnected from strategy is merely creativity for its own sake. At worst, it’s the foundation for green-washing and PR disasters.
To develop a strong brand—to integrate organizational planning and stakeholder engagement—requires careful attention to four key pillars that we defined nearly 20 years ago, and that have stood the test of time through dozens of brand and strategy engagements. We call it the AVID Brand Architecture System™:
A is for Authenticity. Since we started using it, ‘authenticity’ has become a buzzword, to be sure. Bandied about by many as a stand-in for an honest personality, we define authenticity very precisely: An organization’s consistent adherence to its stated values through time. Most organizations take time to develop values statements or guiding principles for behaviour inside the organization. Fewer manage to embed those values in their strategic planning processes, or in their market engagement. And fewer still build brands that align with the reputation their owners hope them to have.
Authenticity: An organization’s consistent adherence to its stated values through time.
To develop an authentic brand, leaders must not only define the values, but also dig deeper to define the representative behaviours that will indicate those values are being expressed fully and correctly by the brand. And they must define ways to measure the consistent implementation of those values. It may sound simple, but it’s far from easy. Brands are complex, and they operate in the dynamic space of competitive markets, consumer expectations and the rise and fall of organizational performance. As it turns out, authenticity is very difficult to achieve!
V is for Value. In the past few years, the lean startup methodology, the Business Model Canvas, and more recently the Value Proposition canvas have emerged as reliable approaches and tools to define an organization’s value proposition. Each of them recognizes that ‘value’ is rarely a simple, financial, transactional equation. The perception of value can certainly rely on financial questions, but also on accessibility, pride, recognition, a sense of shared belonging, and so much more.
Value isn’t about transactions; it’s about relationships. And those are built on deep understanding and trust.
To develop a valuable brand, leaders must engage deeply and frequently with customers and potential customers to understand their motivations, their values, and the connection between what drives them and what their brand can deliver. Great brands connect product or service features and benefits with customers’ needs (stated or not) and priorities.
I is for Inspiration. The essential, emotive aspects of making a brand appealing have for too long held branding in the marketers’ domain. The compelling characteristics of a brand that make customers want to engage, inspiration is certainly necessary, though not in its own right sufficient, in development of a great, enduring brand. In short, if the brand itself isn’t a compelling story, nobody will pay attention.
Tap into the science and art of storytelling: it’s part of what makes us human.
To develop an inspiring brand, leaders must tap into the science and art of storytelling—a topic we’ve lectured on and workshopped for years. Fortunately for them, we humans are naturally built storytellers; it’s quite literally in our DNA. Nonetheless, effective storytelling that inspires action, conveys value, and stays authentically on-brand isn’t a simple proposition.
D is for Distinction. Ask any business school student: it’s become a truism that every brand must differentiate from its competition. But it’s insufficient. To be different is one thing; to stay relevant to customers wants, needs, goals and aspirations is another. Combine differentiation and relevance, and you’ll build a distinctive brand.
Differentiation is no longer good enough.
To develop a distinctive brand, leaders must know not only what drives their customers today, but what’s likely to drive them in the future. Great brands anticipate what’s coming, separate fads from ongoing trends, and stay a step ahead of their customers. They might be selling exactly what customers want today, but they’re simultaneously developing (and in some of the most influential cases, defining) what customers will want next.
The Role of Responsibility
One final point—and definitely a ‘last but not least.’ Globally, influences on brands have expanded to include questions of environmental sustainability, social responsibility and good organizational governance. Driven by the interweaving symptoms of the climate emergency, by technology-driven human connectivity, and by the demands of the millennial generation, every brand is being pushed to behave responsibly. But more than that, brand leaders are learning that building an AVID brand begins with defining a grand purpose—an aspiration to legacy that is itself authentic, valuable, inspiring and distinctive.
To build a responsible, AVID brand, you must Shift Your Thinking™ about what your organization can achieve.
Mike Rowlands is President & CEO at Junxion. Along with Junxion’s international team, he helps leaders to see a greater purpose for their organizations, and define the strategy and brand to achieve it.