We’re in the midst of a crisis in brand building

The rise of technology and decline of marketing training have hurt companies’ brand-building capabilities, but those that retain them will beat the competition.

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What is brand building? Why does it matter? These are questions I want to offer up as important for us to reflect on right now.

I think that we may be staring into a crisis in brand-building understanding and capability, exacerbated by some of the forces shaping our industry in the last decade: the shift from consumer goods as the centre of gravity in brand building to tech; the plethora of new things brand owners have had to make sense of, from data, to blockchain, now to generative AI; and a skills crisis in marketing as training has been de-emphasised, due to cost pressures and remote working but also the inevitable intensity of working through wave after wave of crisis.

True brand building is perhaps still not seen as a source of competitive advantage, or deeply understood and embedded in many branded businesses. Beyond the ‘classic’ brand-building companies, we have a blind spot which may not be helping our lagging growth and productivity in the UK and other markets.

Despite brand building seeming to have been deprioritised, given the other fires we have had to fight, I am noticing a pattern in the conversations I have in what those brand owners who are breaking through are learning; be they startups, founder-led businesses, tech giants or the best-performing consumer businesses. I am noticing working cultures with a thirst for consumer insight coupled with investment in capability – perhaps because brand building is prized or because the founder or business owner is intrinsically wired that way.

Increased pressure is driving marketers to focus more on performance

So how might we define brand building? One answer might be the core competencies needed to create sustainable top-line growth; brand building puts consumer insights at the heart of the business and applies those insights to unlock growth.

The brand-building task is not just a marketing task, as the whole business must be 100% consumer-focused – at all levels, in all functions and across the total business system including agencies, partners and suppliers.  This must be underpinned with the right ways of working – a combination of brand building expertise, leadership behaviours, and the systems and processes which create a culture that manages its brands effectively to create competitive advantage.

True brand building is perhaps still not seen as a source of competitive advantage, or deeply understood and embedded in many branded businesses.

I think great brand builders also recognise the value that consumer and shopper insight can bring to the bottom line. Brands need to be effective in taking price gains without profiteering, in rightsizing exposure to promotions; they need to have the architecture in their offering to appeal to different shoppers and consumption occasions, and to ensure they have an attractive proposition to their resellers if their business is not direct. These brands are adept at maintaining and enhancing their margins responsibly, to make top-line, penetration-driven growth more profitable.

Everything begins and ends with the consumer or customer. Clarity on who your potential audience is, how they think, how they behave and the forces that shape them are what distinguishes the best from the rest.

It goes beyond listening to the consumer – it really is the rare ability to apply those deeper insights into your consumers motivations and behaviours which gives a brand the edge over the competition.

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At times, businesses seem to have lost sight of the fact that a brand exists in the mind of their target audience – all we own is the product or service we create. Conversely, being internally focused and assuming you know all the answers can be dangerous.

Do your marketers demonstrate mastery in things such as brand strategy, brand positioning, brand planning, innovation, generating insights, developing and executing campaigns and activities for different channels, working with partners, media connections planning, managing effective and efficient brand spend between brand building and volume-driving activity, adapting plans based on measurement and learning?  Do they do this while redefining where you compete, challenging orthodoxies, executing tests to inform future activities, and ensuring brands keep pace with societal and cultural change?

Do the other commercial leaders and decision makers in your business also have a sufficient grasp, or first-hand experience, of how these things combine to generate sustainable profitable growth? Are they as familiar with the way media investment builds revenue in the short and long term as they are with other levers in their P&L, such as the impact of distribution gains, tactical innovation, short-term promotions, price changes or the value of reducing cost of goods to expand the bottom line? Are they curious about consumers?

Marketers perhaps need to focus not just on improving their influence on the CFO but also on enabling every function to understand its role in brand building, shoulder-to-shoulder with marketing. Even if the marketer remains the consumer and customer champion, this means that sales, supply, engineering, R&D, finance, legal and HR all need to be enabled by strong marketers to understand what brand building means for them, and how they can all pull together in service of a set of outcomes with long- and short-term measures.

The impact of AI may or may not prove to be the most important conversation for marketers and agencies to grapple with right now, but it shouldn’t get in the way of ensuring our industry deeply understands and is equipped with the skills to build brands when real growth and stability are at stake in the shakiest of worlds.