The Biggest Branding Challenge
by David Lemley
Hands up if you are sick and tired of hearing about branding. Me too. Brands, branding, and branded everything are everywhere. The pinnacle of oversaturation had to be when Tom Peters wrote The Brand You. Now we live amid a marching mass of billions of branded bipeds. And how about the brand books and brand gurus? It seems you can’t swing a dead cat at a Chamber of Commerce luncheon without clubbing a branding expert in the back of the head. When did it all become so ubiquitous and meaningless?
Way back in The Beginning, branding used to refer to the searing of cattle with a permanent, prominent scar that claimed said cow for life and helped keep it out of the hands of thieves. Then, as a byproduct of the Industrial Age, it became a cluster of 50-cent words co-opted by the American Marketing Association to say in 100 words what could be said in four: trademarks for corporate property.
Now the term branding sits in the pot with all the other buzzwords. Creative agencies are largely responsible for the confusion, as they quickly trademark everything under the sun to develop proprietary branding processes. We have branded branding.
Somewhere on our journey from burning live leather on the range to prettying up the logo, color palette, and form factor, we forgot something: We forgot to deliver. You can make promises all day long—explicitly, through your product claims and advertised messaging, or implicitly, through tone and manner—but to be seen as real in an increasingly unreal world, you need to deliver on the experience you promise.
To Truly Fuel Success
Our society has become extremely fragmented. We do less as families, groups, and neighbors and more as individuals. And yet, the fundamental condition of humanity is our need to connect and belong. I agree with approximately 68,000 design firm Web sites in proclaiming that design creates emotional connectivity and that it may just be the thing that makes the difference.
However, design style and clever imagery can be copied with ease, and true vision can’t be imposed on a company; it has to grow from the authentic, mutual purpose and passion of its people. True vision leads to commitment rather than compliance, confidence to create goods and services in a bigger picture—a brand people will love.
Think about it, The Home Depot isn’t about building materials but about empowerment: You can do it, we can help. REI isn’t about hiking gear; it’s about inclusion in a club that loves the outdoors, co-op values, and environmental stewardship.
David Maister, the Harvard Business School professor, author, and recognized thought leader on the service business, recently completed a study he calls “The Profit Formula.” Maister worked with 139 companies in 15 countries trying to answer this question: What makes the most successful companies in the world?
Here is what he found:
The most money comes from consistently superior client satisfaction—which is entirely subordinate to internal culture.
Businesses need employees who are engaged—not simply happy with their benefits package.
It’s about the wow factor. If your people are coming to work every morning saying, “Wow, this is exciting and fun,” then they’re feeling meaning and purpose.
It comes down to the character, not the skills, of the individual manager.
The person in charge must credibly be seen as having an ideology.
Needed: Evangelical Employees
The brand must have buy-in from employees, and employee training must be implemented to instill a clear-cut understanding of new directives and goals if it is to be successfully implemented. Aligning the employees and getting them on board with the corporate brand is the first order of business. Didn’t your mother teach you to clean up your mess before inviting company?
It’s no coincidence that Nordstrom and REI made the top of the list in the National Retail Federation’s survey of Top Retailers for Customer Service, as well as in Fortune magazine’s Best Companies to Work For. Successful companies understand that a crucial element of connecting the customer to the brand is accomplished through motivated employees who themselves understand and buy into the brand. Every employee, frontline or not, should be viewed as a “brand evangelist.”
Nordstrom encourages its employees to act “as if it’s your name on the door.” In turn, employees are empowered to make decisions that might improve customer service. REI calls its brand “a way of life.” It encourages outdoor activity for its employees by providing big discounts on gear, free gear rental, and gear grants for personal outdoor challenges.
If employees fully experience an authentic brand, see it, and believe in it, they will effectively convey it to the customer.
Collaboratively, businesses and their brand consultancies can define the unique brand attributes that have meaning for both employee and customer. These attributes, or pillars, of the brand are the elements that describe its unique qualities. Communicated across every channel within the organization, they have the ability to connect with employees and customers on a personal, emotional level.
Once defined, these attributes need to be embodied and embedded throughout the company. From the CEO down through the retail ranks, from product design to advertising, in-store communications, signage, and POP displays, one overall identity and message must resonate. (Caveat: If the CEO of the company doesn’t embrace the brand, live it, and make it a focus of the entire organization, all the revitalization efforts in the world will fall flat.) Employees who become brand evangelists are one of the most powerful tools in a company’s arsenal. Furthermore, employees, in turn, can make evangelists of the customers by embodying the brand well and by making their customer service second to none.
Behind the Brand
The big challenge for brand strategists, design managers, and brand owners alike is to accept that organizations creating and running brands are made of people. Contradictory by nature, people and their modern consumer culture struggle to find meaning in our postmodern, democratized design world. The leaders of today already know what the rest of us need to learn: People will encourage transparent, authentic interactions with the brands they allow into their lives. Our job is to figure out how to create a framework that allows them to participate.
Companies need to know and articulate why they exist (beyond profits), and that is where brand building, business strategy, and design intersect.
David Lemley, president, chief brand strategist, at Lemley Design is president of DMI, the Design Management Institute. This article is derived from Design Thinking: Integrating Innovation, Customer Experience, and Brand Value, edited by Thomas Lockwood and co-published by Allworth Press and the Design Management Institute. To learn more, visit allworth.com.