Why losing control is a good thing—when it comes to brand management

In the not-too-distant past, brand management was about controlling the expression of brands at all costs. From carefully orchestrated advertising and promotional campaigns to strict branding and logo rules to highly structured customer experiences, consistency and discipline were paramount. Guidelines were sent down from up high and deviation from them wasn’t tolerated. But there’s a big shift taking place. Slow, linear strategy development and design execution is out. Rapid decision making is in. Methodical R&D is out. Customer and employee-led innovation is in.

Today, a brand’s ability to be agile, or very adaptive to the changing needs of the market, is one of the strongest predictors of top performance over time. It’s a much more complex and challenging environment for brands—and for the managers who lead them. But it’s also very exciting, and new approaches can generate big returns, including greater levels of product and service innovation and deeper customer connections.

More volatile times call for a new playbook

In the last few weeks alone we’ve seen major brands like Budweiser, Nordstrom, and Under Armour tested in new ways; some by taking political stands, others thrust into the vortex of debates on political and social issues. Brands today must be ready for anything. But in practice, within the walls of a company, what does that really mean? How do you manage a brand to be agile while keeping true to its core principles?

Budweiser 2017 Super Bowl Commercial | “Born The Hard Way”

The answer may sound counterintuitive, but it’s about letting go. It’s about giving up more control to brand communities. Every brand’s community is different, but likely includes employees, partners, third-party influencers, superfans, and others. Each audience is unique, representing different needs and opportunities. And brand communities are not passive, they are vibrant and connected to the brand’s future. In fact, members of a brand community can function as product developers, idea generators, market makers, customer support, content creators, and problem solvers.

The Brand Community Model must also have context so that the roles of individual members—employees, for example—have meaning and decisions are on point. It’s about moving from the what to the why. For the community, understanding the why (that is, why the brand holds specific core beliefs, or why brand expressions are used in certain ways) is critical.

Brand Community Model framework

But hands off the sacred expressions

Not all elements of a brand should be open to community influence. Certain expressions of a brand are fundamental—they’re things that define it and make it unique. We call these sacred expressions, and while brands must be open to change and influence more than ever before, the sacred expressions are off the table. It’s one area where consistency still rules.

Brand Community IBM smarter planet

But just as sacred expressions are the secret ingredients that make a brand unique, they are different for every brand. For some brands, the logo and colors might be off-limits. Others may have a style, sound, or ritual that embodies the brand and needs to stay constant. IBM’s Smarter Planet logo is an interesting example. The five rays at the top of the mark remain consistent, but the central icon can be changed to fit the context. And, for anyone who has ever stayed in a DoubleTree Hotel, the warm cookie you receive at check-in act as the hotel’s special ritual. For Singapore Airlines, it’s the scent of its hand towels, so welcome on long flights.

Brand Community

Brand agility is a key predictor of performance, and brands that are willing to take more risks, and to cede control to their brand communities will be the winners. In this new world of brand management, losing control is actually a good thing.

Landor’s Brand Community Model

We spent the last year examining the intersection between agile brands and brand governance, interviewing more than 20 Fortune 500 companies, and working with a panel of senior executives from leading global brands. Using this research as the foundation, we developed the Brand Community Model, a dynamic strategy for making brands stronger and more viable.


This piece was originally published on LinkedIn (15 February 2017).

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