Revolutionizing the way we manage brands: The Brand Community Model
A profound shift
Brand governance. The term sounds so foreboding and severe, smacking of rules and regulations, policies and procedures. Yet the phrase is not inaccurate. The role of brand governance is to ensure that brands are presented consistently, that guidelines are properly executed, that rules are followed. Or at least it was.
That role is now changing dramatically.
Last year we conducted a study—The Agility Paradox—analyzing what makes brands successful in today’s marketplace. We found that the key factor differentiating top-performing brands is agility—the ability to remain true to the brand while adapting to a rapidly evolving environment.
Agility requires embracing a greater degree of risk, tolerating more failure, and ceding control—all behaviors that fly in the face of conventional branding wisdom. How, then, do you manage an agile brand?
To answer that question, we’ve spent the last year examining the intersection of agile brands and brand governance. We interviewed more than 20 Fortune 500 companies, identified best practices, and spoke with industry insiders to better understand the challenges facing brand governance today.
We then assembled a panel of senior executives from leading global brands. Our goal: to establish a new model of brand governance—one as resilient and flexible as the brands it serves.
Brand management has traditionally been occupied with constructing rigid edifices—polished logos, perfected environments, and carefully scripted experiences. But in today’s complex, fast-moving marketplace, the concept of control is a fallacy. Michael Kolleth, director of corporate advertising and branding at Dow Chemical Company, comments: “In today’s environment, companies have less direct control over their brands than they did 20 years ago. They have to be okay with other people influencing their brands and managing within a more complex ecosystem.”
The brand leaders we spoke with overwhelmingly agree: Standard brand governance practices are no longer effective.
“Brands are not static, but highly dynamic. They live and breathe.” —Client panelist
Brands today are shaped by innumerable people across multiple channels and experiences. These groups include employees, partners, agencies, and a wider set of third-party influencers and superfans. They are not passive audiences to be governed, but active participants to be nurtured.
To address this new reality, we need to let go of outdated assumptions. We need a new playbook.
Five challenges facing brand governance today
Brand has never been more important—or more marginalized
Organizations lack understanding about what brand does and how it should be used.
Brand leaders aren’t included early on in brand and business decisions.
The brand team is perceived as “brand cops”
Brand managers are placed in the role of reactive monitors rather than proactive leaders.
Brand leaders are not treated as part of the corporate strategy team.
The traditional brand toolkit no longer fits its intended purpose
Adherence to guidelines doesn’t guarantee being on-brand.
Command-and-control tactics make brands rigid, inefficient, and unrelatable.
The focus is on what instead of why Brand leaders are overly focused on “what to do with the assets” rather than the why behind the brand.
There is little room to experiment or take risks
All decisions are treated as having equal weight.
Brand is inflexible, unable to tolerate small inconsistencies.
The Brand Community Model
Communities are the linchpin of our new approach to brand governance. If brands must adapt continuously to remain vital, then we must encourage the involvement of those who know them best and care most about them.
Harnessed effectively, communities can be product developers, market makers, help desks, content creators, problem solvers, and more. They are the force that enables an agile brand to grow and flex according to circumstance.
What does it mean to manage brand through community?
“Learning to let go has been key to our success.” —Amy Hogan, Executive Director, Consumer Brand Strategy, Blue Cross Blue Shield Association
To start, it requires challenging two of our most basic assumptions and relinquishing some of our most sacrosanct practices.
The first assumption to debunk: treating all audiences the same. In the past, brand books, guidelines, and training materials were created with the expectation that they would serve everyone equally well. With so many people influencing a brand today, a more nuanced approach is called for.
Second, we must do away with the practice of treating all brand expressions as equally important. Some expressions define the very essence of a brand. Others do not. Prioritization is imperative.
The following framework illustrates how audiences and brand expressions come together to bring a brand to life.
Three levels of communities
Brand leaders need to know how to identify and speak to the multiple audiences within their organizations, providing the right tools and guidance for each. Broadly, we see three levels of communities that play a major role in shaping a brand.
The Expert community includes leadership, brand and marketing teams, and agency partners. Experts understand the why behind everything the brand does. Their job is to set strategy and define the future of the brand, which requires extensive knowledge of business goals and brand assets. Critical decisions—those that could fundamentally alter the brand—should be made by this community.
The second group is made up of the people who implement a brand in the marketplace. They have strong knowledge of the why of the brand, but at a more general level than Experts. This group includes product developers and client managers—and also external brand ambassadors and influencers.
Giving these players a voice in brand governance would have been unthinkable 10 years ago. But their impact is huge, and they can be powerful advocates when properly engaged. Allegra Rich, senior director of brand identity at Comcast, notes that “providing permission to explore the brand within certain boundaries is key to fostering innovation.”
Employees, the third community, represent the brand on the front lines of consumer interaction. While every employee may not require access to the full range of brand assets and technical guidelines, they must be able to speak for the brand, make quick decisions, and react appropriately to customer requests.
April Britt, director of global brand at FedEx, says, “People within the organization are our advocates. It is fundamental that we help everyone understand what is sacred to our brand—who we are and what we stand for.”
Three levels of brand expressions
Just as communities can be identified according to role, brand expressions can be categorized by priority. They fall into three main groups.
1. The sacred
These are the elements—verbal, visual, behavioral, experiential—that fundamentally define a brand, making it what it is. They are inviolable. And what’s sacred for one brand may not be for another.
For Old Spice, we consider the signature whistle in its ads to be sacred. Even when Old Spice rebranded—changing its visual identity, positioning, and tagline—the whistle remained. For Singapore Airlines it’s the scent of warm towels. Taking away or altering these expressions detracts from the essence of the brand.
2. The interpretive
For brands to be agile and responsive, there must also be room for interpretation. The elements that fall into this second group can be adapted based on context, market, or geography.
The five rays at the top of IBM’s Smarter Planet logo are sacred and remain constant. But the central icon underneath—the interpretive element—can take on almost any form, from raindrops and flowers to snowflakes and apples, as long as it’s contextually relevant.
Google invites interpretation through its Google Doodles, improvisations on its basic wordmark. Most are created by Google staffers, but fans are also invited to submit design ideas commemorating people or events. Google selects the best Doodles to appear on its homepage throughout the year.
3. The exploratory
Other aspects of a brand can be opened up for even more creativity and risk. These exploratory expressions may be freely adapted or altered, provided employees use good judgment in representing the brand’s values. Opening the door to experimentation can result in unexpected and inspired ideas.
Becky Folds, managing director of consumer brand strategy at Blue Cross Blue Shield Association, explains, “It’s about energizing fellow employees to have a common vision for a brand while also understanding that there are 36 or 37 different ways to get there.”
Take Disneyland’s water art. It was a park custodian who first drew water cartoons of Disney figures on the ground for visitors to enjoy; now the practice is encouraged among all staff. One park worker reflected, “At first I was doing it because it was more fun than cleaning, but then I realized how much guests really liked it. I cried on my last day working because I drew Minnie Mouse for a little girl who hugged me to say thank you because she didn’t speak English.”
Putting the model to work
Identifying the various communities and expressions of a brand is just the beginning. Success comes from mobilizing the communities and giving them a shared sense of purpose and responsibility.
Here are five actions brand leaders should take to develop strong communities.
1. Prioritize and delegate
Brand leaders must prioritize the most important decisions and expressions, while delegating others. This allows them to focus on major issues and emphasize strategy over tactics.
Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos explains that there are some decisions, like choosing a name or navigating an IPO, which a company cannot easily reverse. Other choices are less significant. A social media message or blog entry, for example, can be altered even after posting. These reversible decisions don’t need to be as closely supervised.
“We prioritize key strategic initiatives that support critical aspects of the long-range financial plan for the company.” —Allegra Rich, Senior Director, Brand Identity, Comcast
An organization’s Expert community should handle any irreversible brand decisions—the choices that require deep understanding of positioning and strategy. Experts should also control the brand’s sacred expressions, as alterations to these have larger business implications.
Changeable decisions can be delegated to Practitioners and Employees. These communities have enough understanding of brand values to make informed choices as long as guidance is provided. In this way brands can create appropriate spaces to take risks and test new ideas.
Ritz-Carlton empowers its Practitioner and Employee communities to make hands-on, day-to-day decisions. Through its WOW initiative, every staff member is allotted $2,000 per day to offer guests the best possible experience. Ritz-Carlton’s Experts trust its Practitioners and Employees to understand what is on- and off-brand and act accordingly.
2. Require agency collaboration
A great idea can come from anyone, at any level of an organization, at any time. The same is true of agency partners, from creative teams to media agencies to digital groups, who can cross-pollinate each other’s thinking.
Collaboration at this level will be a new and possibly uncomfortable concept for many agencies. One tactic to encourage such teamwork is to set aside a budget specifically for this purpose.
Procter & Gamble makes a point of organizing all-team, all-agency work sessions prior to the launch of new initiatives to ensure that everyone’s opinions and questions get heard. The resulting campaigns and ideas tend to be stronger and more holistic, representing multiple viewpoints.
3. Shift from what to why
Shifting the brand conversation from what (what assets to use, what the guidelines say) to why (why we use assets in specific ways, why the brand holds its core beliefs) enables deeper understanding of how the brand functions. Armed with this knowledge, Employees are better equipped to make decisions without detailed guidance from management. This creates a feeling of ownership and gets Employees personally invested in the company’s success.
“I believe in a new brand management model that embraces openness and prioritizes the understanding of the why behind the brand.” —Rich Narasaki, Director, Global Brand and Design, GE
REI’s statement of guiding principles emphasizes its values of “fresh air, taking care of our land and communities, and—oh yeah—getting good deals on great gear.” Last year, REI walked the talk with #OptOutside, closing its stores on Black Friday to encourage its workforce and customers alike to get outdoors.
4. Broaden the brand team
Specific missions and incentives can create a stronger connection to the brand. This tactic is particularly helpful in bringing untapped ideas from Practitioners and Employees to the attention of the Expert community.
Researchers at Carnegie Mellon and Stanford University, in their effort to fight disease, needed a new approach to mapping ribonucleic acid (RNA). Searching for fresh ideas, they developed an online game, EteRNA, and invited the public to play. Some 40,000 participants took up the challenge, with spectacular results: Today, 99 percent of the solutions proposed by this ad hoc community produce more stable molecules than those generated by computers.
5. Embed the brand
Employee engagement doesn’t have to be oversimplified and boring. When done properly, it can be a masterful way to help staff internalize the why behind a brand and encourage on-brand behavior.
To help new hires get up to speed on its wide range of menu choices, Domino’s turned the pizza-making process into interactive, digital learning modules. This ensures that new employees, no matter their role, know exactly what Domino’s offers and what it stands for.
Warby Parker, a retailer specializing in eyeglasses, solicits weekly feedback from staff. Employees report on their accomplishments, rate how happy they are, and submit their innovation proposals, big or small. This enables management to respond quickly to ideas and concerns. Even better, it keeps everyone in sync with the brand and focused on its future.
It takes a community
The Brand Community Model, far from undermining brands, is a dynamic strategy for making them stronger and more viable. If we can rethink assumptions and learn to cede control, the implications are exciting and complex. For brand leaders in particular, this approach demands a willingness to change and a focus on:
Rallying everyone—employees and external partners—to play a role in bringing the brand to life
Prioritizing decisions and brand expressions
Fostering flexibility and intuition
Unnerving and uncharted as it may be, managing by community is the path of the future—and the surest way for agile brands to hold their competitive edge in a constantly shifting marketplace.
We’re happy to provide further insight on the Brand Community Model. Contact us with any questions or to schedule a presentation.
Managing by community isn't just about internal groups in your organization. It's about inviting superfans, brand ambassadors, and external brand communities to get involved. Global marketing director Trevor Wade explains why this is so critical.