Brand is Everyone’s Job
But what is brand, really? And why should your organization care?
Our country has reached a critical inflection point. The jury is still out on how the United States will meaningfully respond to institutionalized racism and systemic health care failures, as well as the gaping holes that these two issues have exposed. Brands will not be the sole salve for these problems, and it would be remiss of me to ignore the ways that brands have contributed to these inequalities. But if brands want to remain resilient in this new world, they must rethink their place in it.
Where consumers and employees once required smart differentiation and hyper-personalized experiences, they are now also looking to brands to genuinely stand for something. They expect brands to invest in their communities, take a clear position on systemic wrongs, and take a leading role in addressing both individual and societal challenges.
Mounting evidence shows that these expectations impact a brand’s bottom line. According to the Reputation Institute’s 2020 Global Trends report, “an excellent Reputation Score activates 78 percent of global consumers’ willingness to buy, compared to only 9 percent when reputation is poor.” Chief among the factors that influenced reputation were a company’s commitment to authenticity and a CEO’s willingness to move beyond neutrality. Flawless products and services alone no longer suffice, and understandably so. Ethics and authenticity are a must.
With this stack of cards in hand—and with an ever more fraught and competitive landscape also considered—the question becomes: How should brands stand out and stand true?
The answer is that they must design not just for disruption, but for endurance. This is more than a pithy statement. It is a call to action for brands to think beyond faddish ways to turn heads and win dollars, and to instead build an ecosystem grounded in an ethical, authentic self. It is also a mindset and an approach that all brands, including Atlantic 57, must commit to and embrace if they hope to actually matter. It is a prerequisite for changing the cultural conversation, building meaningful relationships and, yes, achieving bottom-line ambitions.
The tangible and philosophical work of building enduring brands, grounded in this “authentic self,” requires a keen understanding of what brand is not, what it is, and why it matters. These answers may seem obvious, but I assure there’s more nuance to it—and it comes with major implications for you and your organization.
Brand is not confined to visual identity.
Perhaps surprisingly, many agencies, brands, and friends and family members who will remain unnamed, still believe that brand is a name, a logo, or a digital platform. I cannot tell you how many times I’ve had the following conversation:
Anonymous: “So what do you do?”
Karine: “I’m a Brand Strategist.”
Anonymous: “Oh, so you design logos and websites?”
Depending on the audience, I oscillate between a “smile and nod” response and an actual explanation. Of course, most brands and agencies are more deeply vested in understanding and defining a differentiated brand position, but the ways in which that brand position manifests are still fairly limited—and this makes brand authenticity a more challenging prospect.
On the agency front, we’ve seen strong conscious coupling between brand strategists and creative directors who toil together to tackle this positioning work on behalf of their clients. They then work to develop robust verbal and visual systems that communicate this positioning to external audiences, and they loop in cross-functional peers who can craft digital and in-person experiences that seamlessly convey the brand.
On the client side, we see client-spend continuously centralized among fewer agency partners who are then able to build up deeper institutional knowledge, thereby delivering on the brand promise more seamlessly and authentically across owned, earned, and paid channels. In some instances, brands are even birthing their own internal, end-to-end shops to take on this work in a more scalable way.
A brand is a promise made and a promise kept.
The approach taken by most agencies and brands is overly bifurcating. It overemphasizes external audience needs over that of internal employees: the people who are best positioned to represent and evangelize the brand. This approach does not support a brand’s ability to keep its promise; nor does it ensure brand consistency, authenticity, and evolution across all touchpoints.
Atlantic 57 believes that for brands to endure, we must look beyond external-facing owned, earned, and paid channels. We must instead use the brand promise and core values as a centrifugal force for every external and internal facet of the brand. That is to say that organizations must reconsider their…
- Products and services. Growth is important, but it falls flat when it flies in the face of the core brand or broader business ethics. Recognizing this, businesses are thinking beyond market demand and differentiation when determining growth—and product—strategies. A brand’s promise and values have risen in importance when determining which core offerings to double down on, and which horizontal and vertical spaces the brand can play in to ensure long-term resilience.
- Culture. Brands must hire talent and build culture around their core brand attributes. In many cases, this necessitates a clear articulation of the actions and behaviors a brand must start and stop doing to authentically live up to those values, and to ensure a deep commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion. Team structures, workflows, and growth paths must also ensure an environment where everyone is included, empowered, and accountable. At the end of the day, brands must make it easy for their employees to provide the caliber of products, services, and customer service that keeps audiences coming back.
- Environments. Brands need to experiment with the best ways to activate their brand promise and core values across digital and in-person environments, including a website, a webinar, and an event. The COVID-19 pandemic and the Black Lives Matter movement are important reminders that brands must constantly rethink new ways to best take advantage of technology to create memorable and inclusive experiences.
- Stories. Audiences are allergic to “marketing-speak.” A brand’s messages, channels, and tactics must support and authentically uphold the organization’s brand promise and values. To do this effectively, however, that content must be more editorial in nature, leading with value rather than navel gazing, self-serving messaging. This, in turn, requires brands to think beyond vanity metrics to better gage the efficacy of content.
In the best-case scenario, brands that underdeliver across any of these touchpoints are missing an opportunity to convert consumers and internal stakeholders into lifelong loyalists and ambassadors. In the worst-case scenario, these brands are exposing their audiences to inconsistent experiences and, therefore, an inauthentic commitment to the central brand promise and values—and this can be fatal.
In its future of CX report, Experience is Everything, PwC surveyed 15,000 consumers and found that one in three customers will leave a brand they love after just one bad experience, while 92 percent would completely abandon a company after two or three negative interactions. Consumers may forgive a single or small “mistake,” but they are unlikely to forgive and forget beyond that. Sophisticated consumers can sniff out a fake or a fad, and there are simply too many other brands waiting in the wings, ready to woo your audience with their own “unique” offering or deeper commitment to a higher purpose.
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A market where brand matters most
The imperative to stand out and stand true mandates that agencies today continue to deliver head-turning creative work across the entire brand experience; but it also requires a significant expansion of their core capabilities.
On the agency side, many are now getting smart fast on the business offerings previously owned by management consultancies. And the reverse is also true. Management consultancies are launching creative shops in an attempt to steal back market share. This may create a blurring of the lines, but the silver lining is that organizations are investing more budget and sweat equity into upholding their brand externally and internally.
On the client side, we see an amalgam of roles between experience design, marketing, brand, communications, and even HR, all in an attempt to pivot the organization toward a brand-first mindset, which centers around the brand promise and values. Most notably, we see the CMO now being outpaced by the CCO, 67 percent of whom are now responsible for managing the corporate brand and dictating how budget is spent across the organization.
All of this is to say: Yes, there’s a lot that’s expected of “brand.” But this is exactly why it’s also such an exciting time for “brand.” For a moment in time where the definition of leadership has been sorely compromised, there is an even greater hunger for brands to step up and lead by meaning what they say and saying what they mean. In many cases, there is also a call to arms for brands to stand for much more. This is the moment for brands to rise up and matter, to drive our economy forward and, ultimately, to drive our society forward.
Our audiences are far beyond being “sold.” They want to believe. The brands that endure understand this in their bones. And they deliver on it every time.
Director, Brand Strategy, Atlantic 57
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Senior Editor, Atlantic 57
SVP, Experience Strategist