Agility and why it matters: An interview with Stuart Sproule and Branding Magazine

As a part of Branding Magazine’s “What leading brand thinkers really think” series, Stuart Sproule, our president of North America, sat down with Chuck Kent to discuss Landor’s principal perspective on branding. The goal: Examine the “marquee content” that often encapsulates an agency’s philosophy to determine the essential meaning and importance behind the thinking that shapes brands.

In this interview, Stuart Sproule discusses the Agility Paradox—both the name of a research report and the moniker for one of Landor’s primary points of view.

What Leading Brand Thinkers Really Think #02 - Agility and Branding

Branding Magazine: Stuart, can you give us a little help here. What was the genesis of the Agility Paradox—and what exactly is it?

Stuart Sproule: Historically, brand management was largely about consistency and constancy, but today’s marketplace couldn’t be more dynamic, more disruptive than it is right now. With increasing competitive pressures and technological impacts, the landscape is so rapidly changing that we’ve had to evolve our thinking as a branding agency, counseling our clients differently in terms of how they should be managing their brands.

BM: Differently how? How did that first manifest itself?

SS: In the past, brand management was all about building the “brand cathedral.” We identified what a brand stood for and then built it almost as a fortress, ensuring that it was solid, ensuring that it wouldn’t be challenged. In that mode, brand managers became almost like priests, using brand guidelines as a sort of bible. If there was an issue or a challenge to a brand, they would open the book, turn to page 16, paragraph C, and there was the rigid and assured answer to the question.

In today’s world, brands need to be much more responsive, so we’ve evolved and changed the paradigm—the outmoded thinking, tools, and attitudes toward brands and brand management.

BM: So how exactly did you arrive at the Agility Paradox? What is it as both a study and a concept?

SS: We’re starting to consult and advise clients about the need to be agile, because the idea of rigidness, constancy, and absolute consistency doesn’t seem to be the way forward in terms of assuring success. We decided, however, that we needed to validate our thinking, so we turned to a database of ours called BrandAsset Valuator (BAV)—which has actually been around for 20 years—that tracks 50,000 brands across 51 countries on 48 attributes annually. We used BAV to look at the brands that are most successful today in terms of growth and revenue.

BAV brand analysis
Landor’s analysis shows that the U.S. BrandAsset® Valuator top 50 brands index outperforms the S&P 500 and NASDAQ indexes in CAGR (Compound Annual Growth Rate). Strong brands drive more value, are more resilient during hard times, and bounce back more quickly.

What we found was that there were two dimensions that seemed particularly relevant to the success. The first was the need to be “true,” that is, that brands need to be authentic, reliable, high quality, high performance. Then the other dimension was the need to be “leading,” that is progressive, innovative, visionary.

BM: You don’t mean leading just in terms of literally leading in sales?

SS: No, no, no. In fact, we would say that the other attributes such as being progressive, innovative, and visionary ultimately help brands to become leading and successful.

Therein lies the paradox: We believe that brands absolutely and firmly need to be true and have a clear, differentiated positioning message. But at the same time, they have to be willing to evolve.

BM: On the face of it, being true and being a leader, particularly if we’re talking about being true as being “authentic” versus leading as being “visionary,” aren’t necessarily in conflict or paradoxical. Can you dig a little deeper into why this is a paradox? Because a paradox also suggests some sort of difficulty in managing it.

SS: Well, first off, the evolution of brands and brand management and this idea of needing to be nimble to change is relatively new. The thing to really emphasize is the need to be agile. The paradox component of our message is an acknowledgement that it’s not a clear and simple path that a brand needs to go down.

BM: So are people just too comfortable with driving their brand stake in the ground and not moving from it?

SS: Well, that’s a piece of it. Agility requires a very different way of thinking about how to manage brands and move them forward.

I’ll give you an example to reinforce the dynamic landscape. Think about the car rental category. For years it was all about Hertz establishing, proliferating, and extending its brand—and the same with Avis. Now, suddenly, dynamic change enters the marketplace in the form of new players such as Zipcar and Uber.

zipcar-consumer-pod-ford-focus

Then layer on top of that a change in attitude, especially among millennials, who are comfortable with the idea of a sharing economy and aren’t as inclined to rent or buy. This requires brands like Hertz and Avis to be more willing to evolve and be less rigid in terms of how they present themselves.

BM: It’s interesting, as I talk to people in this series and others, the same sort of examples keep coming up, particularly Uber disrupting the taxi industry. Is there any type of industry that you don’t think is in need of agility? There are some categories that seem ripe for disruption, but are there more prosaic or static industries to which the need for agility doesn’t apply?

SS: I would venture that, at best, that would be a cavalier attitude, to not think a brand needs to be agile. Let me talk a little bit more about agility and this paradox.

BM: Wait—would you find it cavalier, or arrogant, or both?

SS: Well, I would find it stupid—it could be a very dangerous viewpoint to take at the end of the day.

Consider another validation of our thinking around agility. We took a deeper dive with millennials, given their growing importance in terms of purchasing power and influence in the market. In addition to the quantitative work that we did through BAV, we also assembled a global panel of millennials—140 millennials across the U.S., Europe, and Asia—and we spent three weeks connecting with them in daily interactions, asking them about what makes a brand successful today.

Some of the things we heard back included an emphasis on the need for brands to be authentic, the need for brands to evolve, and the need for a brand—if it’s going to be successful—to have a sense of the greater community. And an important additional point was the need for brands to be personalized, but at the same time to be inclusive.

BM: The study seems to have a millennial skew—or is that not how you see it?

SS: I don’t see it that way. Our intent was to tackle the quantitative research as a source of validation, but not to skew it toward any specific demographic. But we also recognized the value and importance of millennials, and the interest that so many clients have in millennials, and so we layered that on.

Ultimately, we identified six behaviors that we believe brands should pursue in order to be agile and to succeed in the dynamic marketplace that we find today.

Agile brand behaviors

BM: Could you address those in order?

SS: Certainly. We believe, now more than ever, that it’s important for brands to be what we’ve termed principled. This is to have a very clear, compelling reason for being—but as discussed in terms of paradox, that doesn’t mean that they should be building a fortress around those principles.

In fact, we think to be successful today, brands need to be adaptive, to have a willingness to change, to evolve, depending on the various influences to a category or market they find themselves in. A third behavior that we think is critical for brands is to be open. Gone are the days where brands exist with a one-way exchange of information—there absolutely has to be a dialogue. Brands need to look for ways to collaborate and in some instances co-create with consumers.

I mentioned our new research with millennials and it definitely speaks to the fourth behavior: being responsible. We think it’s really critical for brands to be perceived as being responsible and to demonstrate their commitment to the broader community.

The fifth essential behavior is for brands to act and consider themselves within a global sphere. Even for brands that may not have products or services that extend beyond a particular border, because of the world we live in and the communications that exist, because of the competitive pressures that could exist tomorrow if they don’t exist today, we think it’s absolutely fundamental for brands to be considering themselves within the global spectrum.

The last behavior is the importance for brands to be multichannel. An interesting example is Delta Airlines. Think about the space that Delta finds itself in within the hearts and minds of its loyal customers. There are dozens of airlines looking for ways to leverage a variety of touchpoints with customers, and no one would argue with the success that Delta has had with its app. The Delta app is the intimate, warm, personalized touchpoint that I think most Delta customers would point to as one of the differentiating reasons they prefer the brand. It’s a reinforcement of the need for brands to constantly be thinking in a multichannel way.

Delta app

Those are the six behaviors that we’ve identified and that we’re working with our clients to ensure that they’re considering. These are necessary if marketers expect to be successful in a world which is, as I said, very transitional and very dynamic and disruptive.

BM: A quick question on the six points which seem to be, at least as posited, very externally facing. How do you see them impacting a brand’s internal audience, its employees who have to deliver the brand experience? I mean, does it apply in equal measure to being open and principled and responsible with a brand’s employee workforce?

SS: Absolutely. An area of brand strategy and brand management that we’re particularly active in currently and have a pretty robust practice in is brand activation and brand engagement. For example, being open doesn’t exclusively apply to the relationships that brands have with their customers. It absolutely applies to the relationship they have with employees. Similarly, this idea of demonstrating responsibility is not exclusively an outward behavior—there is a fundamental need to demonstrate that this sense of responsibility exists with employees too.

BM: We’ve covered a lot of the “what” and the “why” so far. How much into the “how” of doing this, of achieving a mastery of the Agility Paradox, do you really get into now with clients?

SS: We’ve definitely been getting a lot of traction and interest with clients to hear about the Agility Paradox. What we’ve found is that our senior-most clients have been very interested in bringing us in to share this thinking with a broad cross-section of people in their marketing staffs. What they’re hoping will happen and what we’re trying to help them make happen is a sea change in terms of the mentality of brand managers.

BM: Can you think of any specific clients right now, yours or others, who are really starting to operate on this more agile basis and are able to handle the paradoxical nature of it from a brand standpoint?

SS: As part of the Agility Paradox study that we did, we identified the top 10 most agile brands globally as well as the top 10 most agile brands in a number of markets. Let me use an example: Earlier, when I mentioned Uber, you said, “Oh, that’s sort of the stereotypical example.” I want to choose an example of a very different brand.

One of the brands that was identified within the U.S. as a top 10 agile brand—and I’ll be curious to hear what your reaction is—was NPR (National Public Radio). Here’s why: NPR has been around for a while. It’s news and culture programming, tied very closely, historically, to radio. It stood every likelihood of becoming irrelevant in the digital age, and yet brilliantly, they navigated podcasting and other forms of communication that people now turn to in order to stay relevant to new audiences like millennials.

Serial

That’s agility. Programs like Serial, a true crime story distributed by podcast, has had at least 75 million downloads.

BM: Is that agile or is that just really creative? I mean, to me, creativity is what has to be at the core of a brand’s ability to adapt.

SS: Absolutely. I mean, I don’t want to speak ill of any brand, but where’s Reader’s Digest in your world?

BM: It’s in my grandparents’ bathroom, somewhere in heaven.

SS: Exactly. Can’t you imagine that NPR might have stayed just on your grandparents’ radio? But it’s not, and that’s agile.

BM: So, how have your clients reacted? Is there any marketer specifically that has said, “We have to go all in on this agility thing,” or is this an incremental awakening for people? Incrementalism doesn’t seem to work during an age of disruption so that’s the genesis of the question. But incrementalism really works well with organizations in terms of what they’re comfortable with.

SS: Well, I think our clients, CEOs, CMOs, brand managers routinely talk about it. Their jobs are so much more difficult today than they used to be, so giving them some behaviors that they can use as rallying cries for their departments and within their companies has been extremely well received. We are, as I mentioned, being called upon on a regular basis to lead seminars and discussions with a broad swath of marketing professionals to help make this a major point in our clients’ businesses.

BM: Thank you Stuart—we’ll leave it there for our readers to explore the subject further, and hopefully leave us a few comments, too.

 

A version of this piece was originally published in Branding Magazine as “What leading brand thinkers really think #02: Agility and branding” by Chuck Kent (15 July 2016).

© 2016 Brandium, Inc. Ltd. Republished with permission.