Recently I received a Holiday card from a friend and colleague of mine in Spain, a connection I made over 10 years ago. Her card led me through a series of digital connections and I discovered an interesting blog that got me thinking about brand and the power of connections.
The author of the blog Tom Asacker, an insightful, articulate writer and savvy observer of business was bemoaning the general lack of understanding of brand in the business community.
“…for the vast majority of people the words “brand” and “branding” will never take on the strategic and unifying significance that we preach. Rather than suggesting a business philosophy and systematic approach to creating happy customers and increasing profitability, brand and branding will continue to evoke naming, logos, design and other aesthetic and mnemonic concerns.”
In a video clip Tom went on to say that “Only a handful of people know about brand and they are not telling anyone!” I can understand Tom’s frustration, but I don’t share his cynicism.
Frankly I believe, based on my experiences, that many, many executives understand what is necessary to create the core of a strong brand and they understand the everyday benefits. What I also know is that too many marketers and consultants have created their own language to make brand a special and proprietary concept. The rub has come about when those folks have tried to cajole executives to force fit their intuition and everyday reality into a quadrant-like, business book, framework of impractical language.
I have learned through my 30 years of working with clients on brand-related assignments that when you help executives make the right connections about brand they readily understand it. The first connection is between culture and brand. Strong cultures that are aligned to consistently deliver distinctive value to customers are the power behind great brands. What really makes these cultures strong is the connection each employee has with the distinctive quality of the organization (its brand ethos) that inspires and guides them to do what it takes to make a difference for a customer.
Building a strong brand starts with discovering and communicating the unique quality of the organization that has proven to be the driver of its successes. This ethos is used as the standard and guiding principal in leading the company. I came across two examples in my Holiday reading. Samuel Palmisano, recently retired CEO of IBM recounted in an interview in the New York Times how shortly before taking over the reins as CEO he read through the corporate archives to discover that IBM’s commitment to excellence was at the core of what made it successful and respected by their customers. In the article he recounted how he challenged the culture of IBM to demonstrate excellence by answering four key questions as key drivers to delivering distinctive value to customers. Delivering excellence in all facets of their business is the “IBM Way;” its brand of making a unique difference for its customers.
Making a connection between who an organization is and how it makes a difference helps give a brand meaning that can matter to employees and customers. Palmisano recalls learning from his monthly lunches with Thomas Watson Jr., (former chairman and son of the founder of IBM) that “The Watsons, he says, always defined IBM as a company that did more than sell computers; they believed that it had an important role to play in solving societal challenges.” It may be no surprise that IBM’s long-term vision, inspired by Palmisano, is encapsulated by their global initiative known as IBM’s Smarter Planet.
Another example came to light for me when reading an interview of Wal-Mart’s CMO Stephen Quinn in Fortune Magazine. Quinn and his staff looked back to the philosophy of Sam Walton for the wisdom to “re-launch” the Wal-Mart brand. They found inspiration in Walton’s ethos of “Working together, we’ll give the world an opportunity to see what it’s like to save and to have a better life.” The Wal-Mart brand is now being anchored by its new tag line “Save Money. Live Better.” Creating such a strong connection between the ethos of the retailer and the re-launch of the brand has elevated the Wal-Mart brand identity by adding real meaning to its historical promise of low prices.
Savvy marketing professionals know that it is important to be the advocates to help employees make important connections between the promise of the brand and the actions that impact customers. Quinn addresses this important connection between employees’ understanding of the brand’s purpose and their daily actions. “Fundamentally, this is a brand that has a purpose, and our associates are very committed to making sure we can save people money so they can live better… the brand has been critical to getting everybody on the same page about who we are and what we do…” He goes on to say “Way too many marketers get focused on the advertising and the communication messages … and they don’t play enough of an activist role inside the company to get the company to do the things we have to do to be successful for the customer.” Now that’s making the right kind of connection that builds strong brands.
Brand building starts with strong leadership, a culture that is based on an authentic differentiator and is turbocharged with a marketing department that knows how to make all the right connections. Effective leaders can build strong customer-centric cultures. With the help of skilled marketers the organization will receive all the credit it deserves – becoming the brand of choice.
So I am optimistic about brand building as long as more folks are willing to make practical connections between brand and the things leaders understand and relate to in their everyday world. Let leaders do what effective leaders can do – build strong customer-centered cultures. This will enable marketing professionals to do what they do best – make connections between customers and the unique strengths of an organization. Working together leaders and marketers can help employees understand their connection to making a difference for a customer. When all that comes together the most important connection takes place – the lasting, authentic connection between a customer and a brand.