Businesses are operating in marketplaces with unprecedented international opportunities, retail channels and competition. When adapting a brand to meet the diverse and new demands of customers, leaders face a real challenge in keeping an organisation on the right track.
Professor Dominique Turpin, President of IMD and a Criticaleye Thought Leader, says: “There are some basic principles to be a great brand these days, such as a regular stream of innovation – small, regular alterations to keep yourself new and interesting. A brand that doesn’t have that is perceived as dusty and customers just won’t buy it.”
That’s why it has to be a boardroom issue. Pam Powell, Ex-Group Marketing Strategy & Innovation Director at brewer SABMiller, argues that leaders would be foolish to assume that their ability to steer a brand has diminished in recent years: “Branded consumer goods companies live and die by their brands, and the senior executives take a responsibility for the changes that are made, even if they rely on their marketing teams and departments to bring them proposals. This notion that you put a brand out there and hope for the best is just wrong.”
Nevertheless, the advent of social media means that the level of control an organisation can exercise over a brand has changed dramatically. Graham Hales, UK CEO of brand consultancy Interbrand, says: “In reality, you cannot create a brand without consumers. The number of consumer ‘spokespeople’ is far greater than those employed by a business, and word of mouth over the internet is given far more credibility than the corporate’s own branding. As a result, consumers probably have an even more important role in creating the brand than the people you pay to communicate it.”
Stephen Pain, Vice-President of Reputation Strategy, Planning & Research for Unilever, sees collaboration as the key to the future of brands: “In the world of social media, brands do not tell, they engage and invite dialogue, moving from creating a brand for consumers to curating brands with consumers through communities of interest. And never forget the importance of your employees; they are the most powerful brand advocates of all.”
The multiplicity of channels adds to the complexity, especially when targeting new territories. Pam explains: “When you take the brand international, there is always a tension between keeping the global mix consistent [...] and how much you adapt to local cultural norms or requirements. Changes can water down positioning over time, with lots of different things in various markets with no connections, shared platforms or benefits of scale.”
For five years Pam was Global Brand Director at beauty and skincare specialist Dove, where she worked on implementing the brand concept of femininity: “The cultural expressions of that notion vary hugely between Northern Europe and South America and the presentation and delivery are quite different, but knowing that, we were able to get the core message of the brand across in the same way, but in a manner that was locally relevant and culturally sensitive.”
Mark Allan, Chief Executive of housing specialist UNITE Group, says: “For a brand to make a consistent impact it must bear scrutiny on a rational and emotional level. If the core proposition doesn’t align precisely with the experience, the sales pitch or the company’s reputation with any stakeholder group, it will undermine commercial strategies quickly. At the first sign of weakness or inconsistency, that’s it for your brand.”
It’s something that holds true for both small and large companies. Ian Bowles, CEO at software provider Allocate, says: “Creating a strong brand as a smaller company is difficult, but not impossible. Our brand is evolving as we grow, but it is recognised in the sectors we are focused on. You can build a brand without huge marketing budgets, but the strategy has to be very carefully considered before you begin.”
Mark says: “Building a global brand must start with staff. As the constant living embodiment of the brand, all employees need to understand what their company stands for, how this will make customers feel, and therefore how they need to ‘be’ in order to deliver this experience every time.
“Consistency becomes more challenging across different markets and cultures, but simplicity and clarity will help, reinforced through constant measurement of brand perception, and sharing of good practice and successes.”
It’s a tough line to tread and requires substantial planning. Graham explains: “Organisations have to move into new regions with a great deal of intelligence – you have to give the brands the right degree of autonomy to succeed in their different marketplaces but design them to allow them to become, ultimately, more synergistic and more consistent.”
As the world communicates faster and more expansively, it is becoming increasingly evident that leaders must position their businesses in a way that gets the right kind of attention.
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