Brand and comms

The brand platform balancing act

I blame Simon Sinek. Not that I disagree with him about the importance of the ‘why’; I’m a passionate believer that brands with a clear purpose are more likely to connect. But getting positioning, personality and principles right is also vital for sustained success and differentiation. These elements are like the characters in a book, woven together to create a rounded story that people build emotional connection with.

Do it on purpose
A brand purpose is a reason for being. For a purpose to be effective it needs to guide everything a brand does, not just what it says. When a brand lacks a clear purpose, it lacks direction. And a lack of direction is not good for engagement. Like any trends that rise to the fore quickly, there is always a downside. Brand purpose has come in for some criticism recently, with articles in ‘Creative Review’ even asking, ‘Is this the end of brand purpose?’ Cynicism rightly comes from mistrust in businesses jumping on the ‘worthy’ wagon. It’s interesting to look at the purpose statements of many FTSE 100 companies. ‘To make sustainable living commonplace’, ‘To live a better today and build a better tomorrow’, ‘To use the power of communication to make a better world’ and ‘To invest for a better future’. I question how many are credible or truly embedded into the culture of these big businesses.

When recently attending a workshop defining brand purpose for a FTSE 100 company, it was clear there was a passion, both internally and from external brand strategists, to come up with something inspiring that employees could ‘get out of bed for and rally around’. The issue was that the company wasn’t really in the business of saving the world. It had influence, but it didn’t make the kind of difference that was being suggested. Luckily, the client understood the importance of authenticity, and freely acknowledged that if the narrative over-promised, people would see right through it. We ended up in a better, more meaningful place.

Although purpose might seem like a recent trend, it’s been on the corporate brand agenda for many years. I read recently that when David W Packard, the founder of Hewlett Packard, spoke to employees in the 1960s, he said, ‘Purpose should not be confused with specific goals or business strategies (which should change many times in 100 years). Whereas you might achieve a goal or complete a strategy, you cannot fulfil a purpose; it’s like a guiding star on the horizon – forever pursued but never reached. Yet although purpose itself does not change, it does inspire change. The very fact that purpose can never be fully realised means that an organisation can never stop stimulating change and progress.’ Purpose is something that you can’t just pay lip service to. It has to come from within. Get it right and you have a powerful engagement weapon for your brand armoury.

Assuming your position 
Getting the second ‘P’, positioning, right is vital, as effectively identifying where your brand is positioned amongst your peers is the first step to true marketing success. Even armed with a powerful purpose, being part of the crowd means you have to work harder to be seen and heard. An effective brand positioning will optimise relevancy, distinctiveness and ultimately brand value.

Let’s define brand positioning as the place you want to own in your audience’s collective mind – setting out the benefits you want them to think of when they think of your brand. It means creating associations inside people’s heads, so they perceive your brand in the way you want them to. Of course, every customer will have their own idea of what you are, so positioning is not a one-off; it involves ongoing reinforcement and dialogue with customers. Understanding customers’ perspective on your brand is vital. It’s all too easy to assume you know what they think of you.

When rebranding FTSE 250 strategic outsourcing group Mitie, management were confident they were already well on the journey in customers’ minds from ‘blue-collar deliverers’ to ‘white-collar strategists’. After a series of external interviews, our brand strategy team presented insight to the client that, in reality, customers still viewed them as yet another contractor in a crowded sector. To change this perception, the new brand needed to leave the past firmly behind, and the creative brief changed from evolution to revolution. In a world of social dialogue, the key challenges to sustaining brand positioning are relevance, distinctiveness and immediacy.

The benefits you present must be meaningful to the customer and you need to be able to positively reinforce your unique benefits. Any competitive advantage that takes too much effort to explain and communicate is not worth pursuing. With so much ‘noise’ out there, the attention span of audiences is shrinking. You should be able to quickly explain why your offer is better.

Of course, purpose and positioning can overlap. When creating a new brand position for liquefied petroleum gas specialist Petredec, we saw the opportunity to tell a credible story and own a territory underpinned by purpose rather than profit. Our ‘Fuelling Progress’ theme captured a wider story of societal benefit, as well as the pioneering culture and entrepreneurial spirit of a business that consistently seeks out new opportunities. The positioning stood out in a sector that often comes under fire for its activities, and drove powerful connection with responsible partners and customers.

Making it personal
Apple. Virgin. Red Bull. Every brand has a personality, a set of characteristics attributed to your 
business. Getting the right personality – the third ‘P’ – allows you to make an emotional connection with your audience. How do you start to define personality? Our strategists use workshop tools that divide personality into five overarching categories: sincerity, excitement, competence, sophistication and ruggedness. Most brands own one of these territories. Some may even overlap all five.

As with all of us, your personality can evolve over time. When we first rebranded media group Informa, the brief was driven by the vision of new CEO Stephen Carter to flag change and make a bold visual statement to get the company noticed in the City. Four years later, having moved into the FTSE 100, a ‘disruptive’ brand personality has been replaced by more of a ‘quiet achiever’ voice. This in turn has driven a different approach to the brand style – a more self-confident, pared-down experience.

Brand values or bland values? Let’s be 
more principled
A colleague tells a story about brand values that always brings a smile to my face. Within the same week he hosted two workshops, one with a bank and one with a condom manufacturer. It turned out that four of the five values of each business were 
the same. We constantly see the same old brand values used by businesses trying so hard to stand for something that appeals to everyone that they settle on something meaningless. For values to stand out and excite, they need to be real, from the heart and not just a collection of buzzwords.

Values are often isolated words printed on walls and ignored. That’s why we prefer to adopt ‘principles’, the fourth ‘P’: a set of guiding behaviours that are easily actionable in the real world. Expressions that can be easily remembered and shared on the ‘shop floor’. With the best brands being built ‘inside out’, getting input from employees as part of the development process is vital. We recently created a new set of guiding principles for NASDAQ-listed 
L.B. Foster. A period of acquisition activity had left the company with a number of siloed businesses around the UK, and it needed a new set of common 
behaviours to align and unite the disparate teams within the group. Our brand strategy team undertook a series of workshops with over 95% of the company’s employees to define the core brand behaviours at the heart of ‘L.B. Fosterness’ – the cultural ‘glue’ that would bind the group together and move siloed thinking to open-mindedness. The new guiding principles (‘The joy of movement’, ‘Show initiative’, ‘Never giving up’ and ‘Infectious enthusiasm’) avoided corporate language and were written with empathy for the employee.

Platforms for growth
I opened this article by stressing the need for balance when building a brand platform. Your brand will have clarity, distinctiveness and meaning when purpose, positioning, personality and principles work in harmony. People who understand your story will also understand your advantage and connect with you emotionally. When this happens, brand success can snowball and build long-lasting traction.

If you would like to discuss how we could 
help build a stronger platform for your brand, 
I’d love to chat.

[email protected]

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