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Shawn Parr: Why Brands Are Like People

Shawn Parr: Why Brands Are Like People
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The idea is complex and multi-dimensional just like human beings.

Shawn Parr, Bulldog Drummond
  • 20 january 2013

Brand is misunderstood, underappreciated and very often underutilized. When brand comes up in a meeting, it often means different things to different people, and many executives speak the language of brand the way some of us speak Spanish: with a limited vocabulary and rotten accent. And while being fluent in another language is helpful, not understanding the definition, and differentiating value and places to deploy it properly can be highly problematic. Despite the excellent books, many courses, and conferences dedicated to brand there’s still confusion surrounding its meaning and how it should be operationalized even within the most sophisticated companies.

At Bulldog Drummond, one of our key practices guides a wide range of organizations, from multi-billion dollar internationals to passionate startups and not-for-profits, to define and unlock the power of their brand (whether it’s refreshing or repositioning tired brands or building new-to-world brands from scratch). We are most often hired by the executive team, venture firm or private equity group driving the business to help explore and define the brand’s relevance and reason for being—and we’re often asked to explore the permission that brand has to stretch or expand.

After working with so many leadership teams to develop and refresh brands, I’ve come to the realization that brands are like people and people are like brands. They are complex, and like great people great brands are dimensional; they have a soul, personality and behaviors that differentiate them from others. They leave an impression and invite you to engage with them. Great brands are interesting and make it clear why people need them, and it’s from this vantage point that I’d like to offer a few key areas to help you think about the power of brand.

Brand is the sum of many parts

Why do so many executives who talk about brand not understand its full potential as a business asset? Many see it from a single tactical dimension instead of its entirety. Many mistakenly see brand as the logo, an ad campaign or what’s on product packaging. They don’t understand the strategic power that a fully articulated brand platform holds when deployed across all areas of the business.

Take a minute to think about a friend who stands out from the crowd, who has made an impression on others. Now think about why they’re memorable? The impression we create when we meet other people is formed by the way we behave, the way we look and dress, the way we communicate and the value we deliver. In the same way we form opinions about people, we form opinions about brands. Brand is the impression we have of a product or a service and is based on the sum of our experiences and interactions with it. Everything a brand does matters.

Brand is rational and emotional 

Like people, brands have two sides: the rational and the emotional. Both sides need to be clearly defined and deployed for a brand to unlock its full potential. Think of a brand like a person living with purpose, adding value to people’s lives and operating with a set of guiding principles. Start with being clear why your brand exists and what it’s trying to accomplish and then think about how it should behave to ensure it’s relevant and memorable. The rational side is built on the passion to solve a problem or meet an unmet or unrealized need, and this informs and fuels the brand’s purpose or reason for being. Just like a person who operates with integrity, a brand should have a clearly defined set of principles or values that guide how it behaves. The principles form the rational building blocks for the brand, and combined with a clear mission (what you intend to do to achieve your purpose) and a clear strategy (the immediate actions you will take to deliver on your mission) a working platform is formed to guide the brand’s actions so they are relevant, coordinated and consistent.

The brand strategy should guide and inform the brand’s personality and behavior, working together to inform the emotional connections it makes with the people it serves. The strategy should inform everything the brand does, the actions it takes, the places it appears and how it engages, educates and entertains. The emotional side of the brand is brought to life by all forms of memorable and relevant brand expression across internal (company culture) and external (consumer-facing) touchpoints. These touchpoints include the experience design of the product or service, visual, written and dimensional communication, advertising, outreach, customer service and the overall experience before, during and after purchase.

Brand differentiates

Just like memorable people, brands that stand out from the crowd do so because they intrigue people, are memorable and different. Compelling brands are relevant, engaging, entertaining and more often than not, courageous. They take a stand for or against something and have the confidence to stand apart from the crowd. People remember compelling brands and know what to expect from them.

Your brand is one of the most important assets you possess to drive and differentiate your business—if your brand is not clearly defined, understood and embraced by the entire organization it will never realize its full potential to impact your business. It’s important to ensure that there is understanding and clarity around what brand means in business terms and what it can do to drive innovation, communication and differentiation. And then it is imperative to have complete alignment on your brand platform with your entire executive team. Your brand is one of the most powerful drivers for engagement and performance across all areas of your business.

Brand does not belong to marketing 

Every CEO must be the leading brand ambassador and ensure every department head understands how to bring the brand to life at their level of the company. Because finance experts or lawyers lead many corporations, they often rely on the CMO to own and champion the brand. But just as culture isn’t the sole responsibility of HR, brand is not the sole responsibility of marketing. While the execution of many dimensions of brand, specifically expression and communication, traditionally sit with marketing the entire executive team has the responsibility to ensure they understand and champion the brand through their words, actions, and behaviors—and bring it to life through their function of the business. Every department in the company has a role to play in bringing the brand to life and to ensure it is alive, vibrant and maximized.

Brand needs love and attention

Just like people, brands need to be carefully nurtured and managed, and like people, they get old and tired and need reinvigorating. Every CMO should perform a regular health check on their brand. I don’t mean looking at brand awareness research, but fully understanding the health of your brand internally. Do regular refresher sessions on brand for all key leaders. Starbucks just spent $35 million to make sure their staffers are passionately connected and understand who they are and where they are going as an organization.

Brand clarity drives confidence and performance

We’ve spent the past eighteen months working with the CEO and executive team of a national brand that needed to redefine its reason for being and its place in the world. The business was in significant danger with sales down by 8% year-over-year, stock prices at a 52-week low, employees operating with an unclear business strategy, and a languishing culture. One of the most significant issues holding the company back was the lack of alignment around brand and what it meant to the business.

After working collaboratively with the executive team to develop a new brand platform and mobilize their organization of 60,000 people around it, same store sales increased by 11%, their stock price hit a 52-week high and their employee engagement significantly increased. This turnaround took courage, commitment and patience to drive change, and the single most important catalyst was brand clarity. Like confident people, brands that operate with clarity generally deliver more consistent results.

–Shawn Parr is the CEO of Bulldog Drummond, an innovation and design consultancy headquartered in San Diego whose clients and partners have included Starbucks, Diageo, Jack in the Box, Adidas, MTV, Nestle, Pinkberry, American Eagle Outfitters, Ideo, Virgin, Disney, Nike, Mattel, Heineken, Annie’s Homegrown, The Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research, CleanWell, The Honest Kitchen, and World Vision. Follow the conversation at@BULLDOGDRUMMOND.

[Image: Flickr user Adam Foster]

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