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Reclaiming the true nature of brands

Perhaps some of you might have gathered through my last post that I have a long running dispute with conventional notions of ‘brand’ which I refer to as the ‘ImageBrand’ paradigm. Through various experiences starting out in market research to leadership transformation, I am dismayed when folks start talking about ‘brand’. Let me hasten to add they are remarkable leaders or dynamic managers who have excellent backgrounds. The problem lies elsewhere. We have been collectively brainwashed to think about ‘brand’ in a narrow and mechanical way which worked just fine four or five decades ago. This deep imprint of the reductionist approach of the industrial age permeates in all our business thinking till date. Let me explain why the ‘ImageBrand’ paradigm which rules our thinking process is delusional, erodes true potential and opens to door to asymmetric risk.

The central idea behind the ImageBrand’ is simple. By segmenting customers and understanding their needs better, brand communication and campaigns will ensure that consumers are persuaded to believe in what the company stands for. Detailed analyses on positioning and competitive benchmarking accompany such initiatives and considerable work on customer drivers; category drivers and a whole range of statistical tools are used. Having done all this and thoroughly enjoyed it for years one might wonder what irks me about it! Pretty much everything that follows these strenuous efforts is reason enough. Inevitably in such ‘strategic’ discussions, the panacea which is put forth includes another communication ‘idea’/positioning platform/media vehicle to overcome the image/perceptions weakness. The ‘ImageBrand’ holds our imagination and intelligence captive in an impregnable fortress and everyone seems to think this is just fine. In countless such meetings it was obvious that the product /service had limitations or performed badly compared to competition due to factors which emanated from other business areas including strategy, sales, operations, finance and HR. And when those threads were examined closely one could easily trace back the root causes to hinge assumptions being held at leadership level. Yet no one chose to pursue this line of thought and visualize the totality of brand from thought, action and resulting perception. Simply studying the outcomes of perception and splitting hairs around ways to re position the ‘ImageBrand’ in that limited context is foolhardy in the New Normal post 2008. It might have worked in an era where business cycles were smooth for 5-6 years, disruptive innovation was unknown and transparency was limited.

If so, the way we understand and use ‘brand equity’ of any firm at a corporate level or at a product/service level has to undergo a radical shift. Brand equity is a customer/stakeholder reflection of how cohesively leadership works to deliver a distinctive product/experience. To understand brand equity in this holistic sense, one has to contextualize the image/perceptions as an outcome of a set of assumptions and actions pursued by those at the helm which cascades through functions reaching the end customer. The brand is a sum total of customer perceptions created the sum total of actions & assumptions of the leadership team. To ignore these brutal realities is a disservice to the brand and the body of trust which is reposed in it by stakeholders. In fact, it is the unconditional trust which iconic brands evoke, that is taken for granted by leadership rather than facing the difficult questions staring at their face.

Brand equity is not merely an outcome which sprung in the minds of consumers due to communication campaigns or their emotional needs. In large measure, it is a direct experiential evaluation (emotional & rational) of the thinking patterns of the leadership team, their underlying assumptions and how that is being executed through the business model. Brand in this holistic sense is a mirror for leadership to review their implicit assumptions and mental models in light of stakeholder realities and expectations. Such a brand will call for changes far beyond the realm of communication or positioning. It can extend from Purpose to strategy, the Business Model and the way functions work with each other. I call such a ‘brand’ a ‘SoulBrand’ or a ‘PurposeBrand’. Indeed this is the way the brand is delivered to the customer! It is an approach which contextualizes leadership assumptions with stakeholder value realities and all the jigsaw pieces in between. It can then lay bare the disintegrated state of other potent intangibles like values, culture, people and innovation and the lost potential and risk arising from such entropy. Once this jigsaw of “PurposeBrand led Model’ is connected to the non-linearity of future cash flows, management will be visualize the invisible knife edge on which they are situated. The fat tails of potential and risk scenarios can be visualized in light of the PurposeBrand led Model. It is able to showcase the interdependencies from assumptions to behaviour and financial outcomes in a singular context. Does this mean we need to do away the conventional tools and techniques in marketing and market research? Not one bit. Instead those tools and analysis approaches can be far better utilised in the holistic context of PurposeBrand led Model. Their full meaning and implications will be amplified, understood and acted upon.

Around twelve years ago, I took upon the task to bring such a ‘PurposeBrand led Model’ alive in boardrooms. Each time it has delivered an empathic body blow to the collective thinking of the leadership team. It took months or years for some to digest the stark realities put forth by it. In some cases, committed efforts were made to change which were spectacularly successful, while in other cases leadership lives with the brutal reality that change cannot be avoided. This journey has been greatly rewarding at several levels. The greatest satisfaction has been reclaiming the true nature of the brand from a cog in the wheel to the central orchestrator of the enterprise. It has not been easy as everyone still prefers the warm blanket of the much familiar ‘ImageBrand’. In the volatile and uncertain future we are rushing into, companies will do well to jettison industrial age practices and embrace a PurposeBrand led Model. It will bring unity of purpose, lateral agility, collaboration to free up true potential. We remain committed to lead this shift from ‘ImageBrand’ projection to ‘PurposeBrand’ introspection.

Dear readers, please share your valuable inputs and ideas as we sail into unchartered waters. I welcome your suggestions and criticism.

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Last modified: April 2, 2020