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Questionable identities: how adaptive instability can help brands during recession


Questionable identities: how adaptive instability can help brands during recession


Anticipating and mitigating the dramatic impact of organisational inertia on transformational brand programs can help companies better cope with a constantly shifting economic environment. Just ask the US car makers.

It’s a key finding from a recent study by Harvard Business School’s Mary Tripsas on the interplay of  Technology, Identity and Inertia at a new technology company.

While there is a wealth of knowledge around the brand dynamics that contribute to forming identity, Tripsas believes the specific relationships between brand, change and technology and the impact of inertia remains unexplored.

Tripsas’ study challenges the existing zeitgeist by arguing broader brand identities impose fewer constraints on how people view organisations. She believes those with more generic brands are better able to weather a range of changing external conditions because they can align with our wider expectations of what their brands mean.

Broader brand identities and brand architecture create flexibility for a company since they enable a form of adaptive instability.

Adaptive instability works when the external labelling of a company’s brand is fairly constant but enables an internal self label which can reflect internal shifts in a brand. BHP Billiton might be a mining company to all of us but it currently self identifies as a global leader in the resources industry, reflecting a dynamic strategy. Often it is no more than rhetoric but if a brand is internally viewed as both instable and adaptive, it is able to better respond and adapt to external environmental shifts without having to make major brand changes.

While Tripsas doesn’t say how this can be achieved, there’s been plenty of evidence to support how I believe a robustly formed brand identity supported by broader purpose and positioning statements can. For example, News Corporation has been able to better adapt to the changes wrought by the internet by positioning itself as a diversified global media company, rather than as a single media source company.

The same approach has been taken by oil companies such as BP and Chevron in the past few years as they moved away from external oil company to more generic energy company labels. Conversely, the American car makers such as General Motors (self label: the worlds largest automaker) and Chrysler (self label: we build cars and trucks) would have done well to think about how they could be morphing their brands from their focus on pure manufacturing labels to offering broader transport options. The prescient Honda already self labels itself as a mobility company.

However, Tripsas warns if a brand is too diverse it also runs the risk of not aligning with external stakeholder understanding. It’s why the UK’s EasyGroup is such a great example of what NOT to do. Unlike the diverse Virgin group of companies, which operates against well articulated brand values and personality, I struggle to understand the fundamentals of the Easy brand beyond its ability to apply an Easy prefix to any business category from rental cars to pizza. Does anyone think Coles‘ owner Wesfarmers actually has a brand? As an agricultural company it probably did but now its ambit stretches from retail supermarkets to coal mines, its even rendered label-less by its own description as a diversified corporation.

Even the brand essence of a company can direct and constrain action and generate inertia. Tripsas defines essence as a company’s “routines, procedures, information filters, capabilities, knowledge base and beliefs” but I call it core self belief.  So when an economic downturn challenges an organisation and when pursuing change to meet that challenge violates core brand beliefs, organisations often pull up short rather than face the need for what Tripsas calls “systemic, major reorientations”. You only need to look at Woolworths bungled rebranding to see this in action.

But brand and strategy are not mutually exclusive. Unfortunately most firms have aligned brand to their marketing rather than to their strategy and subsequently have limited capacity for change. If a firm’s brand is expressed through elements of its strategy, does this mean a change in strategy necessarily then implies a change in brand and vice versa? Tripsas concludes brand is not just one more factor to consider when unravelling sources of internal inertia during changing circumstances. A brand is a guidepost. Where a new dynamic such a global recession requires changes to the brand, simply altering routines, capabilities or beliefs without acknowledging the broader implications can be problematic and, in some cases (back to the US car makers), devastating.


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