Why brand governance is dead—and what to do about it

Brand governance. There’s so much wrong with that term. First, it implies that brands can be controlled. (They can’t.) Second, it suggests that your brand is your own. (It’s not.) Third, it implies brands need managers. (They don’t.)

A look back

Let’s look back before we look forward. In its first most primitive incarnation, branding focused on delivering a promise: speaking at consumers to declare quality, features, or benefits. Think Coca-Cola’s first ads, “the pause that refreshes,” or National Oats vowing to “make kids husky.” These simple promises were manifested through catchy taglines and bright packaging. Brand management meant ensuring these promises were loudly and widely blasted at consumers.

Old Coca-Cola Poster Showing How Brand Governance Has Changed
Image courtesy of Flickr user Don O’Brien.

In the middle part of the last century, branding shifted from a promise to a relationship. A simple message wasn’t enough—building a deeper connection with consumers was paramount. The goal: tap into customers’ emotions and convert them into lifelong loyalists. Brand management in this Don Draper era required creating and then protecting a very carefully crafted mental construct. Like the man in the Hathaway shirt, brands became ideas we wanted to buy into.

Then around the beginning of my career, branding evolved yet again. This time experience became the key to success. With the rise of digital and technology, and the increasing importance of customer service, brand management became focused on building consistency across every point of touch. Whether it was online, in-store, on-box, or anywhere else in the world, brand managers sought to build and manage a single experience. So we started to map the customer’s journey from awareness to post-purchase. We conducted audits. We created heaps of guidelines. We developed detailed governance processes and, as zealous enforcers of brand standards, chased down every errant font and misplaced logo to ensure absolute consistency.

But that model doesn’t work anymore. Ten years ago most brand touchpoints actually were under our control. But that’s no longer true—we’ve arrived at a new era of brand management. Today’s marketplace is too fast moving, too big, too heterogeneous, and too complex. Today brands have a nearly exponential number of influencers, fans, employees, partners, and audiences all exerting an impact on the brand—all across a seemingly infinite number of channels and touchpoints. And that’s a great thing. It’s what keeps brands alive, relevant, and responsive to today’s hypercompetitive marketplace. But the long-held assumptions of what it takes to create and manage a brand no longer apply. We need a new playbook.

A brand community of diverse people: Abandoning brand governance tenets

Enter the age of brand community. By engaging and empowering the very audiences we seek to manage, we can build a new, powerful force for growing and shaping brands. When harnessed effectively, communities can be product developers, market makers, problem solvers, help desks, and content creators. Simply put, building, nurturing, and sustaining communities will be the decisive force in brand management moving forward.

A path forward: The Brand Community Model

So how does this work in practice? We’ve spent the last year considering that very question. After countless hours of thinking and debating, here are the five critical facts you need to know.

1. All audiences and decisions aren’t created equal

Company leaders must recognize that different audiences and decisions carry different weight. Brand experts like the CEO, CMO, or head of strategy will be more familiar with and involved in the brand than, say, a sales associate. But the sales associate should still understand the brand’s promise and be able to represent it every day.

Similarly, the day-to-day decisions made on behalf of a brand have varying degrees of impact. A social media post requires less oversight than the launch of a new visual identity. The best brand managers will delegate changeable brand choices while overseeing major decisions that have greater business impact. By prioritizing audiences and choices, they engage myriad communities across the organization.

Brand Community Model framework

2. It’s not about what, it’s about why

Before senior leadership can delegate, they must ensure communities know how to properly represent the brand. The key: focusing on the why of the brand (why assets are used in specific ways, why the brand holds its core beliefs) rather than the what (what the assets are, what the guidelines say). Armed with this knowledge, employees across all communities can make appropriate decisions without detailed guidance from management.

3. Collaboration isn’t optional

A great idea can come from anyone, at any level, at any time. The same is true of agency partners, from media agencies to digital groups, who can influence and improve each other’s thinking. By organizing all-agency work sessions before initiatives launch—and providing budgets for these meetings from the outset—brand managers can make sure all ideas are heard and the best strategies are employed.

Brand community: Abandoning brand governance

4. It takes a community

Don’t fall into the trap of expecting the brand team to solve all brand problems. No one person or team can handle everything, and outside perspectives often lead to better ideas and results. By incentivizing and rewarding brand participation from multiple communities, companies can simultaneously harness untapped ideas and foster stronger brand buy-in.

5. Brand makes culture, culture makes brand

Many companies find translating their brand ideals into their culture to be a colossal undertaking. In truth, it doesn’t need to be so hard. Brand and culture have a reciprocal relationship—by fostering one, you foster the other. Leadership should embed brand messaging into onboarding and training so that employees are exposed to and involved in the brand from day one. They can also use gamification, contests, and surveys to solicit employee feedback and ensure employees’ actions are on-brand.

The next (r)evolution

Command-and-control governance is a thing of the past. The door to the future: brand communities. Adapting to a more complex world means letting new audiences in. Brand communities are the surest way to do so, helping brands remain agile in a constantly changing environment.


This piece was first published by the American Marketing Association (2 August 2017). Republished with permission.