Your structured and disciplined approach to brand management is killing you

The times have changed and brand owners must manage their brands differently, or lose relevance entirely, says Nick Davis. Here’s four insights he’s uncovered about flexible brand management.

For many years now, academic folk and agencies have been developing scientific models to measure the strength of the brands we build. This based on the prevailing wisdom that a
good brand is one that grows in equity over time. This gives us a (very rewarding and ingratiating) sense that the brands we build have intrinsic value in the world — and on
company balance sheets.

The story about building ‘brand equity’ has served us well to this point. There’s some good logic to it that we’re not about to challenge. However, there is something here that’s worth
shaking up. It’s the style of brand management practice that has evolved from this prevailing wisdom.

Growing equity in brands has historically involved building brands steadily and carefully, with preservation-at-all-costs firmly in mind. We build brands as fixed propositions and
fastidiously govern their presence in market. This way, we never risk misattribution or misperception. We gain and retain consumer trust (people aren’t keen on change, so conventional thinking tells us) and thus we safeguard future ‘brand equity’.

This kind of practice developed at a time when markets and consumers were more static. There were fewer seismic shifts to navigate on an annual  –  let alone monthly, weekly or
daily  –  basis. Being structured and disciplined fitted with rigid organisational structures, industrialised ways of working and the business rhythms of the day.

But the times have changed

Markets are now constantly in some kind of flux, consumers are a perennial flight risk, products and services can be de-positioned in an instant or rendered obsolete overnight. In
this setting, all brand owners have an obligation to manage their brands differently. To enable them to evolve, adapt and insulate themselves from disruptive forces. The conclusion we’ve reached at Landor is that brands as they’re managed today can be a handbrake on progress, or worse, a liability for their owners. Any brand that doesn’t show agility in the face of shifting external dynamics is a brand that can lose relevance in a moment.

And a brand that loses relevance rapidly becomes fairly pointless if not worthless. See that over there? It’s your brand equity turned upside down in a ditch. So, what now?
Is brand management a redundant discipline? Is the brand guideline an obsolete tool?

Should we give up on building brand equity altogether?

No, no and no. Brand equity is still a good metric of value  –  but we must see it as more fluid and less fixed. The brand guideline still has a role to play but should only be one way of guiding a brand’s expression. Brand management isn’t a redundant concept  –  it just needs a change in practice.

 

So, how exactly does brand management need to change?

We recently asked exactly this of brand leaders from various organisations. All spoke of a changed world where brand fluidity and flexibility is fast becoming mandatory. And where strict direction around visual assets has become a futile exercise, or at least one of hugely diminishing returns.

Together we have uncovered some key insights:

 

Stop policing, start evolving

Brand used to be – and often still is – directed and policed by the marketing department. It was cast in stone and enforced thereafter. However, your brand is evolving faster than your guidelines can be updated so strict policing is no longer effective.

Instead you need to guide its evolution with a more flexible framework. This could involve ensuring alignment with your purpose over and above adherence to guidelines.

Suzy Nicoletti, managing director of Twitter Australia, says alignment to a strong and clearly communicated purpose allows Twitter to develop and evolve while maintaining its
integrity and intent. For Nicoletti, this encourages expression rather than restriction.

Etsy leans on its brand vision in a similar way. Country manager Paul Hoskins tells us that brand management at Etsy is focused on commitment to the company vision and values.

If everyone is acting and creating brand expressions with these things in mind, it’s on brand.

Strive for coherency not consistency

Brand and consistency are peas in a pod. Consistency has long been desirable for brand owners because it drives recognition, creates a sense of reliability and builds consumer
trust. But, in an agile age where brands have to be shape-shifters across channels and contexts, consistency is not the holy grail it once was.

Coherency, which places a greater value on relevance, is the new high bar. Today, if you’re not relevant, you’re dead. So, we’d suggest you make that your mantra and curtail the focus on consistency.

Jessica McCartney, head of brand at Deakin University, embraces this approach. “We’ve consciously freed our brand up in certain contexts so it can connect better with our
audiences and not present as a corporate badge. Not everything you do has to be an equity driver; sometimes it’s okay to create value in some other way.”

 

Let go and embrace risk

Branding has become an inflexible practice in a world where flexibility is essential. It’s time to take the shackles off. Free your brand to be the dynamic, living, breathing asset it needs to be.

Allow different people to express it and experience it in different ways. Define what’s sacred and preserve it; define what’s up for exploration and make it a platform for
expression. It’s time to take some risks.

Derek Oliver, global marketing director for Jacob’s Creek, shares how he encourages flex to be built into the brand so it can optimally serve individual markets. This brand flex informs ranging, communications and future product pipeline. Brand owner Pernod Ricard has aimed to genuinely empower local markets whilst maintaining core integrity at a global level. For Oliver, the core brand story that cannot change is the heritage and product quality.

 

Engage everyone, build brand as a community

Most brands today are shaped by many people across multiple channels and experiences. These people include employees, partners, agencies, third-party influencers and customers
of the brand. These aren’t passive audiences but active participants to be engaged. They can help you build a better, agile and future-proofed brand than your marketing department.

But we need to give them the tools. Consider who plays a role in your brand’s community and how you can empower them.

Sam Moore, head of brand and marketing at product design company Knog, believes your internal brand community is most critical to engage. “I think the most important thing is to properly engage your employees. If all you give them is a guideline they won’t understand the brand; they’ll just know where to put a logo. You have to embed brand in the psyche.
You need to get your people to understand and respect it. If you can achieve that with your employees, you’ve engaged your most important community.”

 

Let’s evolve the thinking

We believe brand management needs to change. We need to build brands in different ways, with different people. What’s most important though is that, in this agile age, we don’t stop here. The key will be to keep moving and keep evolving.

 

Nick Davis is managing partner at Landor Melbourne.