We’re up to our eyeballs. This time of year, advertising
seems to be as much the focus of attention as the television
programs on which it airs, be it the Grammys, Oscars,
the Super Bowl, or the Olympic Games.
As a consumer, you can tweet your comments to friends, review your
favorite ads on YouTube, or vote in online polls for the best and
worst contenders. But, if you make your living in the business of
marketing as I do, you may also ask yourself “So what?” While many
spots are quite entertaining, the most important criterion for
bottom-line success in any advertising initiative is whether the
idea is connected to the business strategy and whether consumers
feel compelled to open their wallets as a result. Any company can
create an engaging brand campaign. But doing so without a deep
understanding of what the brand stands for in the minds of
consumers is one of the most common reasons brands get into
I bring up this topic for a couple of reasons. First of all,
I’ve spent my fair share of time watching and rating ads using the
“so what?” meter. Second, I recently had the pleasure of speaking
with Randy Golden, who spent over 20 years as a senior staff member
with IBM’s corporate brand architecture and design group (he’s now
preparing to set up his own consulting company). We talked at
length about the integration (and lack thereof) of brand and
business management systems. If anyone can impart some wisdom on
the subject, including lessons that IBM learned over time, it’s
Randy. What follows is part of our discussion.
Allen Adamson: Let me go back before I go
forward. In 1993, IBM was on the verge of a breakup. Its stock
price had hit a 20-year low. It had posted an $8.1 billion loss,
and more than 100,000 employees had been let go. The company
struggled under the weight of a management structure that created
independent business units with redundant processes and
disconnected information systems, not to mention the fact that it
used more than 70 advertising agencies, each projecting the image
of the brand in its own way. It was at this point that Lou
Gerstner, former president of American Express and CEO of RJR
Nabisco, was brought in. Some thought it was to help accelerate the
breakup of the company into smaller units that could move more
quickly and compete with the rising tide of nimble entrepreneurs.
But instead of pulling the company apart, he turned it into a more
streamlined and integrated company. He understood that IBM’s
inherent strength was its ability to provide total business
solutions for its customers. This was what the brand stood for. If
you ask most people to talk about this incredibly successful
company turnaround, most will refer to the ad campaign, Solutions
for a Small Planet. While the advertising was an important tool, it
was actually the behind-the-scenes blocking and tackling that
propelled the company to its current leadership status in the
Randy Golden: The challenge for big
companies is to act and behave across the business in a way that is
consistent with the core brand. So often in brand building, or
rebuilding, the focus starts with the advertising concept.
Management becomes enamored with it and sees it as a way to extend
the brand message across the business. IBM needed to take the time
to understand the brand at a deeper level. Management knew that the
brand and its values needed to guide all organizational behavior.
It had to be the infrastructure around which everything else was
developed. Advertising needed to be an integrated part of the
overall brand presentation, but not the driver.
AA: After a major ad-heavy event, it’s
clear that consumers may like or even understand what the ads are
trying to convey. But the sentiment doesn’t always come through
when they actually deal with a given company. It’s got to work both
ways—transporting the message to the business and transporting the
business into the message. That said, IBM is huge. How do you
connect a brand idea to behavior that touches the consumer?
RG: Let’s go back to that Lou Gerstner era
when IBM began the process of realigning the business strategy—the
“one IBM” idea. The brand team first did an analysis of the
disparate brand presentations and the myriad disconnected agencies
we used globally. I’ll never forget the presentation we created to
share the findings of this analysis with senior management. Up
popped a logo for IBM Texas. Mr. Gerstner jumped up and said, “What
is IBM Texas? We’re one company!” For the brand management group
this was a critical and positive turning point. Executive support
was essential if we were going to be successful.
AA: It’s integral in any branding work,
especially as tremendous an initiative as undertaken by IBM. Senior
management needs to understand the value of the brand as a business
RG: That’s what followed this initial
work. It was actually Lou’s business strategy—the promise of a
globally integrated enterprise with integrated solutions—that
became one of the foundations for this early brand work. It was the
responsibility of the brand team to identify, prioritize, and build
integrated systems for presenting the IBM brand across all of the
global business units and their numerous departments, products, and
programs. We started with detailed identity guidance about how to
use the logo properly across all applications. We also created a
globally integrated system for things like sales collateral and
business presentations. We did the foundational work to develop and
articulate the core brand attributes and values, things that help
truly differentiate the brand.
AA: If stakeholders and employees can’t
understand how the brand character and messaging should be deployed
in their individual areas of business—how this allows them to
differentiate the brand in the minds of consumers—no amount of
advertising can help. You have to get them to internalize it, act
on it in their world. Obviously, this is not something that happens
overnight, or with an email.
RG: We continued with brand integration
for some time, but it was in 2006, with the consolidation of
marketing and communications, that we really started the deeper
work to understand the IBM brand DNA, the brand character. This was
the basis for the IBM Smarter planet agenda and the work
developed to communicate and promote the IBM centennial of 2011.
After developing a strategic framework, we started to train all
employees on how IBM should look, sound, and be, not just in
marketing and advertising, but also in the day-to-day work across
all of the businesses. This management system and tools it
encompasses have helped foster a community of brand champions and
quality, on-brand work.
AA: It can’t be one shot and you’re out.
Given the changing market, cultural and social dynamics for IBM,
for any brand, you need to think of it as a journey.
RG: Absolutely. This is not a
launch-and-leave development process. It’s an interactive,
never-ending journey. More than that, you have to build it in as a
continued practice. A brand is like an ecosystem. It must be
continually nourished and fed.
AA: Looking at this from a business case
perspective, it’s an investment that not only reaps improvement in
the brand experience, but in the efficiency of the business, as a
whole. People are not spending a lot of time working on things they
don’t need to be working on. The brand is guiding them to do the
right thing for the business.
RG: Senior management sees brand systems
and management as key to improving the bottom line. And, because
the company is so big, the market is so fast moving, it’s essential
in our work to get different points of view from different areas of
business at different points in time. When internal teams feel they
are part of the development process, they are more willing to adopt
and adapt. There’s easier buy-in.
AA: You need to stay flexible, for sure,
but you need to stay close to your brand DNA to be seen as
credible. It becomes a rallying point for an organization. It
shapes the culture. And, it shapes business decisions.
RG: To do it right, you need to understand
your enduring brand idea, not just an idea developed for a
60-second television commercial. Going back to the notion of the
evolution of the IBM brand DNA, the current iteration of the IBM
brand, A smarter planet, is a natural extension of what
has been a part of IBM for over 100 years—helping to make the world
work better. Having a very strong brand, and a strong commitment to
the investment, is key for climbing the peaks and minimizing the
valleys over the long haul.
Post originally published on Forbes.com.
Image courtesy of International Business Machines
Corporation. Unauthorized use not permitted.