The agile brand

To borrow a famous opening line, for today’s brand specialists, this is the best of times and the worst of times. Brand has gone from a rarified marketing concept to an essential component of business strategy. No organisation discounts the importance of brand—it is discussed at board meetings, is as relevant for B2B as B2C, and is key to business valuation. Only a short time ago, Landor spent a great deal of time explaining what brands were and why they were worth spending money on. But today these conversations almost never happen. Branding has gone mainstream.

Today everyone has a brand. High-school students are encouraged to develop their “personal brand” for college applications. LinkedIn is viewed as every working person’s brand platform. Political analysts don’t discuss the Obama presidency; they discuss the Obama brand. This is brand’s golden hour, its triumphal moment. Never has the concept of brand been more relevant. And yet, at the same time, the traditional practices of brand development and management are undergoing profound change. What was long held as sacrosanct to brand is now increasingly anachronistic. Simply put, we need to reinvent our approach to what we do.

In the 20th century, the primary challenge of branding was making the inherently abstract real. Brands were careful constructions intended to convey attributes such as reliability, friendliness, premiumness, trustworthiness, and seductiveness. The earliest and perhaps most recognized component of this abstraction was a logo. It symbolised the brand promise and all that it stood for. But brands were also embodied through advertising, packaging, marketing collateral, business cards, point of sale, product design, websites, and more. There were seemingly innumerable places where a brand lived, and success meant ensuring alignment across all touchpoints.

The brand manager’s dream was that whether you were a potential employee applying for a job in Topeka or a customer buying a service in Sydney, things would sound the same, look the same, and feel the same. Most touchpoints were manufactured, expensive things such as signage, packaging, printed communications, television advertising, and uniforms. The greatest challenge for brand managers wasn’t defining the brand but managing the brand. Above all else, successful brand management meant exerting control over all the places the brand lived. Great brands didn’t change. In fact, variation was a weakness. To execute effectively meant coordination across geographies, business units, external agencies, and manufacturers.

It meant detailed guidelines, structured decision-making, and command and control management practices. Building a brand was like building a cathedral. Teams of artisans worked together crafting and carefully evaluating each element. And like a cathedral, brands were built to endure forever, to rise above and withstand the vagaries and vulgarities of the marketplace.

Not anymore. Today, brands must live in the rough-and-tumble of the streets. We live in a hypercompetitive and rapidly evolving marketplace in which the pace of business is exponentially faster. Transparency in everything from pricing to hiring practices is the norm. Every business operates in a global context with new customers, competitors, and business models. Disruption is everywhere. For even the most capital-intensive businesses, barriers to competition are rapidly being lowered. Just think of three travel category essentials: car rentals, taxis, and hotels. Just a few years ago, no one would have anticipated how rapidly Zipcar, Uber, and Airbnb would disrupt the foundations of the traditional business models.

The speed of modern day disruptions means we must create and manage brands in an entirely new context. Today’s brand managers face perpetually evolving business strategies with shifting categories, customers, and competitors. Coupled with this is the equally rapid evolution of marketing practices. Today, brands are marketed through online, mobile, environments, resellers, and partnerships. Where once we were broadcasting to many, today we are engaged (if we earn it) in a conversation with our customers. For brand management, this means adopting a new mindset that is almost heretical to 20th-century brand best practices. It could be said, in fact, that many of the most important practices of 21st-century brands are the opposite of what made brands successful in the 20th century. Today we are no longer building cathedrals. This marketplace demands a new approach. Today’s brands must be agile.

The agile brand

So what is an agile brand? We see six essential characteristics:

1. Adaptive

Above all else, agile brands are willing to change and change quickly. They understand that success requires being both nimble to risk and responsive to opportunity. Purposeful evolution is inherent to how they are managed.

Nike is perhaps one of the best, and earliest, examples of an agile brand. What began as a track shoe sold out of the back of Phil Knight’s car became the leader in its category. The company also became a leading fashion brand, a maker of technology applications and hardware, and an innovator in marketing. Nike’s core has remained fairly consistent, but where and how its value is expressed has gone, and continues to go through, dramatic evolutions.

2. Principled

At first glance, principled seems to be the antithesis of adaptive, but agile brands must also be very clear about what they stand for. They seek new ways to deliver value and ensure relevance, but at the same time are guided by an enduring promise. It is this interplay between standing for something and yet never standing still that makes agile brands successful.

Old_Spice_103

The recent reinvention of Old Spice speaks to being principled. Old Spice was very well known, and yet in rapid decline. What was powerful about its revitalization was that it wasn’t a reinvention, but a return to the underlying principles of the brand. Old Spice picked up new steam by reasserting its core (manliness) and rearticulating it in a contemporary way to a new audience.

3. Networked

We live in a world of co-creation. Agile brands are sustained and shaped by ongoing conversations. Through a network of customers, employees, partners, and communities, they invite collaboration to ensure they have vital relationships and ongoing market relevance.

Salesforce.com has, from its beginning, built a conversation with its customers. Despite being a software company, it sees the value in building personal direct relationships. Through a series of user conferences and communities, both physical and virtual, it is able to gain insights to shape its offer, build peer networks that support consumers, and form a community around its brand. Salesforce puts its marketing dollars where its mouth is and has from the outset.

4. Leading

Forward-facing, agile brands constantly seek new possibilities to increase value and refine priorities. This means being active rather than reactive. For too long, brand management held to a certain passivity, thinking that the cathedral must be defended. Today, if we don’t seek new ways to define the brand, we risk being defined by others.

Virgin Media’s irreverent ad campaigns include animal archetypes, like Ed the Sofa Bear, that celebrate the different ways people watch TV.
Virgin Media’s irreverent ad campaigns include animal archetypes, like Ed the Sofa Bear, that celebrate the different ways people watch TV.

Virgin has long been clear about what it stands for—having fun, challenging the status quo, being irreverent. And to keep this fresh and relevant, it knows it must lead rather than be led. Perhaps no brand is better at defining its own future, changing and challenging itself before anyone else does.

5. Multichannel

Agile brands work meaningfully across media, experiences, and platforms. Over the last 20 years, the evolution of digital has shown us that we must do two things for certain. The first is to assume change will continue. The second is to assume we probably have no idea what that change will be. Effective brands learn to adapt to the context of the medium—whether Twitter, Facebook, or pop-up retail—while remaining true to whom they are.

Tiffany & Co. may be the most surprising online success story. There are few brands as storied, with such deep historical associations and specific, strongly held brand associations. (Think of the blue box.) And yet, while never undermining or diluting its brand, Tiffany has built a successful e-commerce business that is widely recognised for its innovation. The physical retail experience and the online experience are completely different, and yet completely true to Tiffany.

6. Global

Today, every business is a global business and with that comes opportunities to learn and reach new customers. Even if limited to a local market, nearly every business can face unexpected competitors, innovations, and insights from outside their region. Given this, brands must be able to learn from the global marketplace and ensure they are relevant to the needs of local markets.

Johnnie Walker’s Keep Walking campaign is an excellent example of having a clear promise (in this case, personal progress) that is adapted to 120 global markets. Diageo was able to return Johnnie Walker to greatness by tapping into a refreshed and modern concept that is both universal and adaptable to cultures and markets, showing that it is both principled and adaptive.

Necessary changes

What is the biggest obstacle to building an agile brand? We are. Brand managers and their agencies need to change their habits.

From consistency to relevance

For many of us in branding, consistency is viewed as the guiding principle. Nirvana is reached when the brand is the same everywhere. This needs to be rethought. No, it’s not that consistency is wrong; it’s just that it has been given far too much importance. Viewed properly, brand consistency is hygienic, but not the main goal. The marketing equivalent of flossing. Too often, “consistency” is given an elevated importance at the expense of value. Too many brand mangers are called “brand cops.” Consistency is great, just as long as we don’t pursue it into an oblivion of irrelevance.

From launch to transform

In the past, new brands or revitalized brands were “launched.” It was as though once they had made their way through the brand factory, the assembly line delivered them to the world finished and ready for consumption. “Launch” reveals an outdated mindset. Today, we must view every brand as in beta. A brand is never launched and a brand is never finished. To launch a brand is to imply completion.

From logos to experiences

Abstractions are increasingly less relevant and, though this may be a shock coming from Landor, there is no greater an abstraction than a logo. There are many ways to define “brand experience,” but we view it simply: It happens whenever and wherever a brand delivers its unique value.

It is easy to limit our understanding of this value to just the offer itself, when in fact that value can be delivered in a customer service call or the packaging or even the billing statement. The mistake is viewing the brand experience—logos, color palettes, and more— as an extension of consistency. Great brand experiences are built through a series of actions that deliver on a brand promise. That is the focus of the agile brand experience: delivering on a brand promise across platforms, geographies, and audiences.

From passive to active 

If we accept the brand-as-cathedral metaphor, we accept a very defensive mindset—the brand as something that must be preserved. An agile brand is one that must continually improve, and this suggests a different footing for brand managers. Rather than being brand cops, brand managers lead change. They look for new opportunities to evolve the brand and create value. They are helping push the organisation or offer rather than letting it be pulled.

From guidelines to principles 

Guidelines are the brand cathedral’s blueprints. They lay out, often in laborious detail, the dos and don’ts of the brand. The problem with guidelines is that they assume every situation is known. Thus, by definition, they stifle innovation, they are intended to eliminate flexibility, and they reduce the brand to a set of rules and procedures.

Increasingly, we see success when a brand is governed by principles. Yes, brands need guidance, but given the nature of today’s fast-moving marketplace, guidelines quickly become obsolete. A clear set of principles is a powerful platform for action. They offer support in unexpected situations and inspiration for new opportunities.

From no to yes 

At its simplest, an agile brand is one that says yes more than it says no. If we must accept that brands must change and evolve to be successful, then we must adopt a mindset of openness. We look to the future, we listen to the marketplace, and we meet change not as something to manage, but as something to embrace.

To borrow another famous quote: We have met the enemy and he is us. The greatest challenge to building an agile brand is ourselves. It will require branding specialists at companies and agencies to give up some of the long-held habits and practices from which the craft of branding was invented. Next, they must create a new set of habits and practices that will build the great brands of the future. Landor, as one of the companies that founded branding, looks forward to participating in this reinvention.

 

This article was originally published in Admap (October 2014).
© 2014 Warc.