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Week #02

Which person or group at work is most effective at sabotaging your brand?
Week #02

The most common story we hear when we meet a new client is that their brand is undermined by a general lack of understanding at a grassroots level. Consequently, most briefs focus on developing a precise definition of what the brand is about, based on robust insight into its current strengths and failings, married with a clear vision from the organisation’s leadership that builds this insight into a clear direction for the future.

Who usually gets the blame for this? Often, this situation is presented as the inevitable result of putting sophisticated marketers in an organisation staffed by people with only a basic grasp of marketing and branding. As in Cool Hand Luke, the root cause of the problem is “a failure to communicate,” but the opposite is often true. Only in a rare set of circumstances are employees starved of communication. Over communication is a more frequent cause of misunderstanding: either because a clear direction has been developed, but with too much detail; or because a lack of direction results in a set of messages that often contradict one another. In both cases a sort of communication fatigue sets in. It seems universally true that the quantity of communication a company delivers is inversely proportional to its quality – this is true of internal communication as well as external communication.

So, who is really to blame?
Does your brand team use a framework such as a pyramid, onion, wheel, keystone or bridge to communicate the brand internally? Does this framework deconstruct your brand in painstaking detail: values, personality, benefits, reasons to believe, distinct memory structures, vision, mission, purpose and promise? If so, then your brand is being undermined by an overly prescriptive brand or marketing team. Their intention is honourable: to deliver the level of detail and precision that every serious organisation should expect from a professional brand or marketing function. However, the detail is usually counterproductive. An excess of information dilutes clarity of direction: the organisation can’t see the wood for the trees. And although this form of High Definition brand model is supposed to set clear guidelines for agency partners, the reality is that the more words and ideas a brand model contains, the more likely it is that agencies will cherry pick the three or so words they like the most and focus on these – regardless of how central they are to the core brand idea.

More is more, but less is better
The brand team needs to learn to kill its babies. More is more but less is better. Colleagues can realistically be expected to remember three values (provided they are sufficiently memorable) and one over-arching direction (provided it is sufficiently meaningful). This is more than enough to create a coherent brand. Rather than being spoon fed the detail, people across an organisation should be encouraged to fill in the blanks for themselves. Subtext is a powerful and underused tool in branding. Give people an opportunity to read between the lines – to put a little of their own intelligence, interest and imagination into their interpretation of the brand – and it becomes a more powerful and more persuasive force for organisational change. Without subtext, a brand is too easy to dismiss as hot air emanating from the marketing department bean bags.  The lack of subtext that arises from the impulse to over-explain makes the brand unspeakably dull – like visiting an art gallery where the works of art are replaced by frameworks that explain the thoughts, feelings and ideas that the art was created to express.

Big picture doesn’t mean forget the detail
What if the problem is more fundamental? It’s a big ask to expect brand and marketing teams, sales teams, internal communications, and Human Resources to align unless they have a common point of view and an agreed set of messages. Ultimately, this must be the Chief Executive’s responsibility. “Less is better” also applies in this case – better to set a broad-brush direction and then rely on talented leaders to fill in the detail for the parts of the business they direct than to micro strategise. Broad-brush strategy can be ambitious, all-encompassing and uncompromising. It is necessarily big picture. It sets a challenge for the rest of the business to live up to. Unilever’s Sustainable Living plan is a decent example of what this looks like in practice. It lists three big goals: improve the wellbeing of a billion people; halve its environmental impact; and enhance the livelihood of millions of people as it grows the business. Not very specific, but certainly ambitious. Paul Polman launched the strategy to great fanfare in 2010 and it’s certainly had a big impact on how investors, the sustainability community and members of society perceive the brand. But there’s detail too: through a collective process, these three goals have been broken down into around 75 manageable, measurable targets. Based on the company’s latest progress report, 14 of these targets have already been achieved, 57 are on plan or nearly achieved, while only 4 are off-plan for their target date. A broad-brush strategy does not mean that the detail isn’t looked after.

So, which person or group most undermines your brand? It’s easy to blame the rank-and-file, but if you are a CEO, a CMO or a Head of Brand and you find that colleagues either don’t understand, don’t believe in or don’t act upon your brand strategy, the chances are that you are the most likely culprit.


What are Wild Cards?

The Clearing have been working with The School of Life to develop 100 questions designed to help you see your brand from new perspectives. We think great conversations begin with a great question. Each week, we’ll share another question and our response to it. Email us with your own answers on – we’d love to know what you think.