It is said that some of the top branding consultancies refuse to work with SmithKline Beecham in the UK because of the company’s cavalier attitude towards its brands. Ribena is the most often quoted example of a once strong brand that is now on the ropes.
Brand guardianship is a hotly contested issue. Which type of communications consultancy should drive and develop brands: advertising, design, PR?
The truth is that the responsibility for brand guardianship and ownership lies squarely with clients. If clients get it wrong, no matter how good the consultancies are, problems will occur. Not only do clients have to understand the importance of brands, they need the ability to manage their various communications consultancies and ensure they are all moving in the same direction.
But clients have an even greater responsibility: to ensure customer experiences of products or services live up to brands’ claims. The only way this can be achieved is by ensuring everyone in the company understands and believes in the brand.
Interbrand director Andy Milligan recounts a true story about pre-privatised British Rail. Its marketing department called in a consultant to advise on how to improve the British Rail brand and they listed three things that had to change for it to move on: staff were rude and the trains were always late, and filthy. The marketing department replied by saying the personnel department was responsible for staff and the operations division for train delays and cleanliness, so what else did he have in mind?
A client which views itself like this is fighting a losing battle. Nowadays, if the brand is not centre stage and the responsibility of all departments, the end product is likely to be patchy.
Management consultancy McKinsey came up with the idea that brands should drive companies, but it is brand consultancies that have leapt at the opportunities this dictum has created.
Brand consultancies have unearthed a new and lucrative revenue stream which involves educating clients – and not just marketing departments – about the importance of brands. They are tackling the traditional internal marketing sector, and doing well out of it.
Wickens Tutt Southgate runs what it calls “brand soul workshops”, which emphasise brand ownership across a client company. Chairman and creative partner Mark Wickens explains the key to brand ownership: “Brand values need to spread throughout the company, rather than remain with one person. Brands are not the marketing department’s responsibility – they need to sit at the centre of the corporate strategy. Not many companies have grasped this.
“New kinds of lead agencies are emerging. They used to be advertising agencies. But with media fragmentation and different agencies doing different things, this has to change.”
Unsurprisingly, Wickens believes the design industry holds the key to the creative guardianship of brands. And if you look at the figures, he’s probably right. The design industry is experiencing a boom, with 18 per cent growth a year.
The truth is, it is probably easier for one consultancy to take a lead in this. Stephen Thomas, managing director of corporate branding consultancy CGI, says that although communications consultancies believe they are contributing to brand development, they often pull in different directions. “Because the brand is so large, within a corporate environment the chief executive is ultimately the brand custodian. But in reality this is an unreasonable assumption,” he says.
Championing the brand
Thomas works on the basis of having a brand champion, which may include a number of people from different disciplines.
He says: “Clients need to behave like facilitators. They need to empower internal departments and external consultancies and give them some rope to work with.
“If everyone always has to get permission from the person above them to do something with the brand, the system is too hierarchical and won’t work. The client must give people space to operate – but build in safeguards to ensure things don’t go wrong.
“The climate can’t be dictatorial. You have to acknowledge that from time to time things go wrong.”
Thomas uses Center Parcs as an example of a client that has got this process right and is able to manage and enable its various consultancies. But then Center Parcs has also had the same managing director for the past eight years who has been closely involved in the brand’s development.
On the client side, length of service is an increasingly important issue. It’s not only brand managers who move on after 18 months; marketing directors are increasingly changing job after about two years. It has become increasingly common for branding consultancies to brief clients about their brands, because they happen to know a lot more about them.
Anna Eggleton, senior consultant at brand strategy company The Value Engineers, says that to stop brands from being changed and tweaked on an annual basis, a cultural change is needed. “If you have to move to another company to be promoted, something is wrong. Some companies are beginning to realise that it is good to have stability, and they are changing the way that staying in one job over time is viewed,” she says.
High staff turnovers and constant brand tweaking create a fog around brands. Of course, there is a big difference between corporate brands and product brands. Corporate brands tend to change much slower, as in the case of Center Parcs. The sheer size of a corporate brand means it can take years before the general public becomes aware of changes – good or bad.
Product brands, on the other hand, are far more vulnerable to change. PI Design International executive creative director Don Williams says: “The market abounds with fragmented propositions – such as Ribena – that started with a clear set of values but then got lost or became bland through a series of identity changes.
“Successive brand redesigns are often a symptom and they betray a lack of solid brand foundations and direction.”
Williams says part of the problem lies in the process of briefing various communications consultancies. He says this “results in a whole range of strategic, creative and technical people all believing they know what’s best for the brand – all of them wanting to score points and no one being particularly passionate about the entity. The result is a weak brand that lacks confidence and appears schizophrenic. You can usually spot one a mile off.”
But some brands obviously know what they are doing. Holmes & Marchant International managing director Andrew Doyle says that when he worked at PepsiCo design, decisions were made by the president “because it was such an important issue for the company”.
He adds: “If the person at the top doesn’t understand that the most important asset – apart from people – is the brand, then someone in the system will screw up.”
The Bud design consultancy is one of a new breed of small consultancies which are often briefed by large corporations (which may also retain a roster of larger agencies) to work on individual brands. The approach seems to facilitate a more flexible client attitude, which in this case is true of Elida Fabergé, Austin Reed and Bombay Sapphire.
Bud partner Charlotte Duggan says: “We encourage clients to work within their brands’ world rather than use rigid rules, because it keeps the brand fresh and allows it to evolve. It would appear that the bigger the brand, the bigger the margin of inconsistency. However, a brand that too rigidly conforms to its original game-plan often becomes stagnant.”
Tweaking designs can have far-reaching effects. Bud was briefed to update Bombay Sapphire’s packaging and elements which were picked up on in the ads are now considered central to the brand.
More interesting still is a packaging design to be launched in the autumn for an Elida Fabergé brand.
Duggan says: “We were encouraged to bend the brand rules to the maximum, while retaining brand integrity.”
It is impossible to pinpoint one way of working that will ensure brand guardianship and development is always in safe hands. It is crucial, however, that the brand’s progress is valued above client or consultancy whim.