Your Brand Isn’t a Logo. It’s a System.

I’ve been a brand consultant for 20 years now. That is a difficult job to explain to people. Usually when I say I’m a brand consultant, people will respond, “Oh, you design logos.” And although I have an MFA in design, I say, “No, I don’t.” They’ll then say, “Oh, you write taglines. Or advertising.” And although I started my career as an advertising copywriter, I’ll say “No. Not that, either.” I don’t believe their confusion comes from the word “strategy” (although there’s an entirely different blog post to be written about what strategy does and doesn’t mean…) I think their confusion comes with the word “brand.”

There are probably as many different definitions of brand as there are brand consultants. One that I have traditionally used is simple and clients seem to understand it. “A brand is a promise.” (Allegedly this definition was first articulated by Walter Landor, one of the pioneers in the branding industry and the founder of the firm where I cut my teeth in branding.) As a metaphor it’s easy to understand. As any promise we make, there are two reciprocal halves: the promise made and the promise kept. This duality also highlights what I believe most people misunderstand about “brand” – that it isn’t just one half. It isn’t just “a promise made.” It isn’t just a logo, or a tagline, or an advertising campaign. It must also be “a promise kept.” It must be the experience delivered. It must be both halves. That’s because brand is a system – a set of interrelated components that must be aligned and must work together in an integrated coordinated way.

Because it’s a system, it requires system thinking. This is often one of the biggest errors marketing folks make when it comes to “branding.” Getting brand right requires coordination across the 5 key components that comprise the brand system: the story, the image, the offer, the experience and the employee. Marketing departments that spend all of their time perfecting the “promise made” will fail. Disappointing customers. Resulting in a worse overall position than if they hadn’t made any promise at all. Because customers ultimately don’t judge a brand on the promise that the brand makes. Customers judge a brand on the promise that the brand manages to actually fulfill.

Frequently, most, if not all, of marketing’s time, attention and effort is spent on making the promise: on the story and the image of the brand. It’s easy to see why. Marketing traditionally has had complete control over the brand story (often called the positioning) and the brand image. It’s easier to manage something that you completely control. The story and the image are also the shiny bits. They’re often considered the creative bits. Reorienting a customer experience, reengaging employees to deliver on the brand promise, reimagining the offer to be more relevant – all of these are harder to manage and change: they take longer, they require more internal stakeholders to align, they are messy with many moving parts and lots of humans involved. Because of this dichotomy (promise made=easy/promise kept=hard), often the primary result of a “rebranding” are a new story and a new image – a new “promise made.”

And that’s usually where most rebrands end. And fail. Because customers as well as the general public have become smarter and more skeptical when it comes to brand. They no longer are happy with just a new promise, a shiny new image, particularly if there’s no steak behind the sizzle. A recent YouGov survey noted that 50% of the general public found advertising to be either “very dishonest” or “fairly dishonest.” Without following through on a new promise with a new experience or a transformed offer, without engaging employees to deliver on that promise brands will likely disappoint existing customers and fail to grow share through attracting new customers. Increasingly brands that simply tell a new story or debut a new logo without significantly enhancing their experience that goes with that story, are derided in the media for missing the opportunity, for wasting corporate assets on a “superficial” change.

Marketing and branding departments must embrace system thinking when it comes to brand. They must engage the organization to consider not just what promise to make, but what promise the organization’s systems and people can and should deliver. They must align the brand components into a coherent system, as well as align that brand system with the company’s operating model if they want to successful drive business through brand. Without alignment, among the brand system and with the business and operating model, brand will continue to be considered just a superficial undertaking… an exercise in surface, rather than substantive, change.


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