Harden up, marketers: be the bloody-nosed brand police

It’s the start of a day in a company meeting room somewhere in the UK. A team and a consultancy are in the room.

Kristof Fahy

The consultant kick things off with: “So, thanks very much for coming to this session. Now, before we really start to dig into the issue we want to solve, let’s spend a little time exploring what we do and how we do it. We’ll start with: what is our mission at this company. What does this brand stand for?”

Sound familiar? 

I am sure many of us have sat in far too many of these sessions where a consultancy or group of experts are brought in to help with a business problem. There’s nothing wrong with that, as outside expertise can be incredibly useful. Neither is there anything wrong with asking the question ‘what does the brand stand for?’. No, the issue here is the way that question is all-too-often answered.

The answer, of course, should always be a short, sharp and punchy explanation of the company’s mission with lots of nodding heads and general murmurs of agreement. Everyone is clear on what the brand stands for.

That would be refreshing. 

I have yet to sit in a session where that happens. Instead, the question always sparks a heated, passionate debate. Post-it notes are thrown onto walls, small groups gather around flipcharts, followed by feedback sessions, little ripples of applause and words crafted until a new statement is ‘born’.

Everyone sighs with a sense of collective achievement. Of course, the statement sounds a lot like the usual corporate one but with a subtle new twist where the group feels it has added some value and made a real contribution to brand strategy. 

Then that statement becomes gospel for that team and begins appearing on more walls, then mugs and badges, and then someone demands a logo. Then other teams around the business begin to demand the same. All hell breaks loose.

So what is it that makes teams (and consultants) think they should, can or want to question the brand essence at any given opportunity? 

First, the brand bit of the workshop is probably the most interesting part of any day, so why not get stuck in? Second, unlike finance, HR or legal, every team feels the brand is something they can have a legitimate opinion on.

Are we just too damn nice in marketing? How often would a legal opinion or finance projection be an open topic for discussion? Perhaps it is because marketing is the ultimate stakeholder management group – marketers will often need complete business alignment to succeed.

Consultancy Wolff Olins used to compare a brand to a salami. Take a small slice and it may go unnoticed – but keep slicing and soon your salami isn’t half the size it was. So it is that as teams, divisions and territories go off and create their own ‘version’ of the brand, the rot starts to set in. 

Yes, brands need to be flexible, localised and to adapt, but they also need to have a single core purpose. They need to be relentlessly consistent on this and this has to be protected and fought for. Because if we allow gaps to appear, different agendas start to take hold, customers suffer and so, ultimately, do revenues.

So, marketing, let’s harden up. Let’s be the bloody-nosed brand police on a bad day and ensure that the brand is cherished, respected and protected. 

Let’s make our brands solid, beyond question. And fight the brand corner every chance we get. Because every day, someone, somewhere is trying to take a slice of the salami. It’s often a well-intentioned attempt, but it’s a cut into the brand nonetheless.

Kristof Fahy is CMO of William Hill and one of Marketing Week’s Vision 100, in association with Adobe.

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