‘Branding queen’ Rita Clifton: At any stage you can shape or destroy brand reputation

Branding expert Rita Clifton has seen a significant shift in the sectors that excel during her career, but says having strong brand principles will always be the key to meeting future challenges.

Rita Clifton

When Rita Clifton championed the idea that the brand is the central organising principle of a business, it was alien to many companies – indeed, some might argue it still is. As CEO and chair of Interbrand from 1997 to 2012, she was at the forefront of a push to get brands recognised as financial assets on company balance sheets.

She tells Marketing Week: “One can always criticise brand valuation – the practice has moved on, and there is a much more dynamic and business-shaped approach to how you look at brands as business assets now. But in those days it was quite a revelation to say you can value the brand as an asset just as you would do other corporate assets, using the language of finance, which is the language of the boardroom.”

Although the corporate view of brands has progressed, there’s still a gap in companies’ understanding of “how that means you need to operate a business to make the very most of it”. The most successful companies are those that “stitch the brand into everything they do” – the reason Apple is “the world’s most overused case study”. But, as chair of consultancy BrandCap, Clifton still sees companies that view marketing as just a communications job.

“The big symbol for that is in some organisations the marketing director reports into the comms director,” she points out.

Ensuring the brand guides everything a company does – shaping, developing and communicating the products and services of that organisation, as well as the customer experience and even corporate governance – is increasingly important. Clifton identifies two big symbolic changes that have driven this over the past 40 years: the end of deference and the dramatic rise in the speed of commerce.

“Forty years ago, when I think about some of the people who were very senior in the marketing and advertising business, they were probably only in their late 40s or early 50s, and yet they seemed like old people. They were very particular about having their own crockery and tea sets and things like that.”

Lack of deference

The sense of reverence has gone, she argues, not only from the marketing industry but also society more generally. The “flatness and democracy of structures” has replaced traditional hierarchies, while consumers have become “reactionary at the checkout”.

Similarly, Clifton compares how long it took just to get a letter typed and sent in the 1980s with today’s business communications, where if you don’t reply to a tweet within minutes or an email within half a day, people wonder what is happening.

As this lack of deference and expectation of speed filter through to consumers’ shopping habits, brands have no choice but to adapt. “At any stage, people can hijack your purchase, hijack your page views, take you on to something else. At any stage of the experience you can either shape or destroy your brand reputation if you are an employee, and have your mind and behaviour changed if you’re a customer. The speed and the scale of that is what has changed over the years.”

Brands that insist on being category-bound can be certain that a trusted and forward-thinking brand in another sector will eventually extend itself into their patch. As such there’s no brand that is safe in its marketplace. Amid all these new demands for quick adaptation, Clifton believes the brand must remain the anchor point for businesses.

At any stage, people can hijack your purchase, hijack your page views, take you on to something else. At any stage of the experience you can either shape or destroy your brand reputation.

Rita Clifton, BrandCap

“Loved businesses – by their employees and/or their customers – can grow and thrive. They deserve success, and they just need to amplify that and keep on growing and renewing it through marketing; whereas big, fat, lazy businesses have got a lot to worry about.”

While the threats are apparent for established brands, these brands also have opportunities in today’s marketplace. It is not only startups and digital disruptors that are able to take advantage of the potential for exponential growth.

“Google went from a boy’s bedroom idea to a top 10 global brand in 10 years,” Clifton says. “But of course you can argue, as with some other digital-based brands, that [anyone] can grow that fast. You don’t have to go physically country by country any more, buying factories. If you tap into a global community and global interest, you can grow your brand with a scale and speed that’s extraordinary.”

Shift in branding power

The corollary is that such growth can be “easy come, easy go”. Uber is one example Clifton points to of a brand that consumers instantly saw value in, but which through its corporate failure to extend that value to all its stakeholders is in a precarious position. She is also intrigued to see how Facebook manages its current brand challenges, as its attitudes towards users’ data come under close scrutiny.

Inevitably, the branding power base has shifted over the past 40 years. “In 1978, brands were really about consumer goods – let’s face it – and marketing was really about marketing consumer goods,” says Clifton. “You tended to be pretty much in control of most of that concept and product development process.”

Now, however, anything in any sector – products, services, utilities, charities, football teams and even individuals – are brands. The digital giants of the past decade have also “moved branding on in terms of its speed and ubiquity”, Clifton concedes.

“Amazon, Apple and Google in many ways obey the classic principles of building a strong brand. They are very clear about what they stand for; they are coherent about how they make that show up through everything they do in terms of service, experience, knowing who you are and so on.”

That does not mean they do not face brand risk, however. Clifton cites Amazon and how it must ensure its coherence carries through to how it treats staff. It doesn’t take many instances of external brand values not being delivered for a company to develop a “bad smell” and start losing talent, she warns. If that happens, brand performance may also start to suffer.

In all instances, Clifton comes back to strong brand principles being the best route forward. As well as providing a clear roadmap for sustainable growth, it also helps reduce the cost of catching people’s attention.

“In cyber space, people can’t hear you scream. It costs quite a lot of money to get to the top of search engines and get to people in the right way. It’s very cheap marketing when you can get people to love you and talk about you.”

Once this is achieved, marketers have to ensure they are marketing to their internal audiences, communicating the value of the brand and the fact that all parts of the business can be part of shaping it. If the marketing team tries to fence the brand into the marketing discipline, it will not gain as much value or influence as it otherwise might.

In essence, Clifton provides a manifesto for instilling the brand at the heart of an organisation, ensuring that business success isn’t driven solely by changing consumer habits, which could be in a brand’s favour one day but to its detriment the next. Just because consumers often make split-second purchase decisions based on messages that can come at any time and on any device, doesn’t mean branding has lost relevance.

“Is this the twilight or death of brands?” Clifton asks. “The truth is, only if you let it be. If you have a great brand platform of trust and interest relevant to your customers, and you deliver that everyday, you deserve to succeed. You’ll only not succeed if you cock up along the way, lose energy or someone else comes up with a better, longer-term idea.”