Beyond the logo

The case for brand management

Beyond logo and tagline

Everyone is an expert on branding. Even my kids profess to be. But ask those same experts about brand management and you’ll probably get a blank stare. Mention that the brand is one of the most important assets an organization has and you’ll probably cash in those stares for some serious yawns.

It was one of those aha moments several years ago, when I realized what it was I’d been doing all those years working with clients on image, reputation and communications. Over the decades I’d the worked under various banners including corporate identity, visual communications, corporate advertising, branding, reputation management and others. The labels themselves often had us and clients befuddled as to what it was we were actually doing for them.

It wasn’t one of those eureka, bolt-out-of-the-blue moments. Rather, it was a quiet moment after a hectic day at a client’s office. During the course of the day I’d worked on copy for a sensitive issue related to their environmental policy, led a meeting on re-examining the company’s mission, provided input on photography to be used for the annual report and had a meeting with a marketing chief on product development. The previous day had been just as far-flung, working on issues such as diversity, recruitment communications, corporate social responsibility and advertising. While each activity had a totally different mandate, my role as brand expert in each was the same – applying the brand to manage more effectively.

With 20/20 hindsight, it’s clear to me now that as the business landscape evolved so were the tools we were using that the corporate world needed to communicate how they were coping with change.

The case for brand management

Knowledge is fundamental to the machinery of the interconnected, globalized world we operate in. And brands are one of the most obvious forms of intellectual property that keep that machinery oiled.

As with many new professions to emerge from the development of the knowledge economy in the 20th century, brand management is still undergoing definition and will probably continue to do so as the role of the brand in the life of the corporation evolves.

Brand management is to the modern enterprise what a steering wheel is to a car – a rather minor, taken-for-granted piece of hardware, but one which influences the direction taken and to which all the other performance-related components in the vehicle must interact with vis a vis that direction.

This may be an over simplification, but brand management is certainly no simple activity. If you are tempted as I am to check Wikipedia for sound bite clarification, don’t bother. The current contribution has a rather ‘three-blind-men-and-an-elephant’ flavour, ignoring the many other audiences that brands have beyond just customers.

How do you begin to describe a meta-discipline that touches on such diverse organizational responsibilities such as reputation management, HR, CSR, investor relations, visual identity management, marketing and communications. No wonder it’s a challenge for most organizations to comprehend, never mind build into the organizational chart beyond a blip tucked away somewhere in corporate communications. To sharpen the question further, if this is not about logos, how do you define a business activity dedicated to managing the intangible?

To understand brand management requires taking a step back to see ‘what the steering wheel is connected to’ (to continue the analogy). We must ask: what is a brand? What role does it play in the life and success of the organization? Why does it need managing? What value does it bring to the enterprise? While the spectrum of answers to these questions is wide, the act of asking them is in fact, part of the act of defining this emerging business tool.

What is a brand?

A brand is the expression of an organization’s identity – who it is, what makes it unique and what difference it makes to the world it operates in. If the key word in this definition is expression, it’s easy to see why both lay and professional mistakenly equate logos or advertising with brands. These are indeed expressions of identity, but they are by far, not the only (or even defining) manifestations.

This definition also begins to illuminate the fact that a company’s product development, its service standard, its human resource and leadership management functions, its CSR activities, and indeed almost all actions are all expressions of identity, i.e., contribute to the ethos of the brand. The brand is a bridge between what the organization thinks and what it does. The ideology of an enterprise does not live in isolation from what it does.

If indeed, these are aspects of the brand just as the activities more commonly associated with branding such as marketing and communications, then the answer to what is a brand? takes on a different hue. The brand becomes a management tool for creating synchronization, for building consensus, motivation and greater productivity. Externally, it becomes more than just the motor for its messaging machinery, but can provide a framework through which the enterprise manages relationships.

What is brand management?

Brand management is the discipline of aligning the identity of the enterprise with how it performs and ultimately, how it creates value. If the role of any enterprise is to create value – financial value, societal value, value in the hearts and minds of customers and employees, to name just a few types – then the effectiveness with which it expresses its identity in all activities has a bearing on the degree of value that can be created.

As a process, it involves both strategy and implementation, e.g., clarifying what the brand stands for (strategy) and then communicating it internally and externally (execution).

If the brand is one of the organization’s most important intangible assets, then viewed from the perspective of asset management, brand management falls clearly in the purview of C-level management. Synchronizing how the organization moves, performs and adapts is intrinsically linked to how it expresses itself to all its constituencies that must come from the top of the organization. Customer care, community relations, investor relations, CSR, recruitment, to name just a few, are all activities that cannot ‘perform’ without relating back to the identity of the organization.

Unfortunately, in many large companies the extent of that synchronization as relates to ‘managing the brand’ is relegated to advertising, media management, PR or policing the logo. Managing the expression of the organization’s identity goes way beyond this.

Creating the self-aware organization

The battle that every company fights on a daily basis is coping with change. Building awareness and retaining understanding to what makes the organization unique and how that should be expressed in all activities while the landscape is changing is no small challenge. It means having a constant watch and reappraisal to validate its truth and relevance. It means creating synchronization across very different activities. It means building adaptability and responsiveness.

This is NOT to say that brand management is about constant reinvention – much the opposite. It’s about continuity and relevance amidst change–continuity based on heightened self-awareness that contributes to coherent decision-making as well as adapting that awareness to the changing needs of customers.

As with an individual, this is about creating stronger self-awareness. The greater the awareness to one’s potential, the greater the chance of moving toward it. Effective brand management creates ‘organizational self-awareness’ – the understanding not only of who we are as an organization, but why and what difference that should make.

My recent work with Hydro, a Norwegian-based Global Fortune 500 company provides a case in point. As it has evolved from an energy and light-metals conglomerate to a focused aluminium company in the space of several years, brand management has been a vital function in helping the company maintain a sense of who it is and where it is going amidst dramatic change. Such ‘corporate self awareness’ has had a profound stabilizing effect, not just on Hydro’s management and employees, but on customers, shareholders and the communities it operates in.

Launching new or revitalised brands is always an exciting process. I’ve had the honour of doing this more than fifty times in my career across different industries and cultures. But the real test comes in managing it for the long term – raising institutional awareness of the brand’s meaning and potential to a level where intuitive, brand-based decision-making happens across all areas. That’s where brand management can go nuclear. That’s why the daily mandate of every management team in the world, is in fact about brand management. Creating self-aware organization that is able to live up to its potential – that’s what brand management is all about.

Brand management in motion

The trajectory of brand management is evolving. Today it includes defining mission and values, building and tracking image, reputation and communications, marketing and product brand development. But more and more it is becoming integrated with other functions as well: leadership development, management of intellectual property and focusing corporate social responsibility to name just a few examples.

It is not my intention here to list all the activities that constitute brand management (that is is the challenge of another article). But it is important to note that effective brand management must have three parallel mandates:

  • Continually build internal awareness to the brand, its relevance and potential
  • Facilitate greater dialogue across the organization and to its constituencies
  • Rethink the potential of the enterprise as the landscape changes

The last goal is poses the greatest challenge and opportunity – using brand management as an tool for innovation and renewal.

This is perhaps the next stage in the development of this evolving profession, As Darwin said, ‘it is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change.”