Mind the gap
Too often a business and its brand seem to exist in parallel universes. They aren’t congruent. Why is this? And what can be done about it?
Here’s the scenario: half a dozen talented professionals are completely sucked into the business they are building. They’re not short of acumen, ambition or arrogance and are speaking a language that is English but at the same time a dialect that is utterly indecipherable. Let’s call them alternative asset managers. Their venture is beginning to bear fruit.
Tagged onto the end of their board meeting, they have a presentation from the two people they’ve employed to do their marketing. The presentation, in PowerPoint, is in its own way a specialised, niche version of English. It talks about the need to “cut through” in “an already cluttered marketplace” that stresses the need for “out-of-the-box thinking” and beliefs about “synergy” and how the brand can “add value”.
The big take-out: A business must matter to its customers. When its business and brand strategies work together to form the twin strands of its DNA, the business will matter more.
Before the big moment – when the proposed marketing campaign will be revealed – there are notes on “the template” that all the company’s communication will slot into from now on. And “a rationale for the typefaces” that will be used.
Then come the ads.
Then comes the sound of breath inhaled but not exhaled – the sound, for the first time this morning, of discomfort, of a talented bunch of professionals wondering whether they are stupid because they just don’t get this stuff or whether the marketing duo are stupid because they don’t get the professionals’ stuff.
There’s a gap. Perhaps even bigger than a gap: the existence of a parallel universe.
But who knows? Maybe they should sleep on it. What do they know? Efficient frontiers, they know about. But “brand”? Maybe the marketing duo knows best.
This is not an unusual situation. And it may be the reason for a damning article in the Harvard Business Review (July-August 2017) that confirms that chief marketing officers are having a hard time of it. “80% of CEOs don’t trust or are unimpressed with their CMOs. (In comparison, just 10% of the same CEOs feel that way about their CFOs and CIOs.) CMOs also sense a serious problem … 74% of them say they believe their jobs don’t allow them to maximise their impact on the business.”
Why isn’t everyone on the same page? The reason is that we all think a business has only one brand; but maybe there are in fact two. There is the visible, external, marketing brand and there is the … let’s call it unarticulated, internal brand.
Two fundamentally different brands, which develop in isolation, for markedly different reasons.
The external version is developed by the people in marketing in conjunction with brand and ad agencies. Here, in this partnership, the things that matter are: the “unique selling proposition” or consumer promise, highlighting one particular benefit of the business’s product or service, how the brand can add value and how it needs to differentiate the business.
Here, every agency will tell you, the biggest risk the brand can run is not being noticed. Remember, 89% of advertising isn’t noticed or remembered. And, as US creative director Bill Bernbach said a long time ago, before things weren’t nearly as digital and pervasive as they are today: “If no-one notices your advertising, everything else is academic.”
So, when it comes to this brand, differentiate or die. Stand out. Cut through. Disrupt.
Within the four walls of the business there are other priorities. Here, the focus is on bringing to market a product or service. One that will make a difference in customers’ lives, addressing some issue or solving some problem for them.
In other words, it’s not about being different. It’s about making a difference. And making it as efficiently and as cost-effectively as possible.
Here, for those running the company, is where the real value is generated. If they don’t deliver, everything else is academic.
For these people, the marketing brand is all very well, but it is not the real thing. It is an add-on. It is smoke and mirrors. It is conjuring things out of thin air. It may even be cheating.
And that is why their marketing brand is something that will never be the business itself. And that, in turn, may be why only 2.6% of board members at 1,500 S&P companies across the US have marketing expertise. They just aren’t that integral to the actual business.
For the people running the company, their brand – the thing that guides and motivates them – is often not written down or articulated in any way. As powerful as it may be in their lives, it remains unspoken.
But when this unspoken, unarticulated, internal brand is confronted by the external version, the gap appears. That is when they inhale but don’t exhale, and discomfort and discontent set in.
Needed: a unified field theory for brands
There is a need to unify internal and external brand development. The two should be one and the same, surely?
If a business exists to address some “unmet need” of the customers it is trying to win over, then its brand, too, should address some “unmet need” of those customers. And it should feed that back into the boardroom and back into the business. In other words, business strategy and brand strategy should be developed together, informing each other. When they do, they become the twin strands of a company’s DNA. And then the magnificent is given space to happen.
A famous example was mobile network operator, Orange. The founders knew that in the prevailing mood of Britain of the early 1990s, when technology was a disliked intruder, they needed to provide more than only a cellular service. If a mobile service was the answer to the functional unmet need of the customers it wanted to win over, that psychological or emotional unmet need of British society was a sense of optimism.
“The future’s bright, the future’s Orange” was at the heart of the brand that developed. The brand emerged from deep within the business, and then fed back into it. As Orange’s Hans Snook put it: “Part of it was the desire to do something better, to create a better world, a new condition. It’s a virtuous circle. Freedom leads to creativity, leads to a better world, leads to optimism, leads to more freedom.”
This sort of thinking is not philanthropy. Orange went on to become a very valuable business. Founded in 1993, it was bought for $33bn in 1999 by a German conglomerate, then for $37bn in 2000 by France Telecom, which rebranded its entire mobile service as Orange.
That is the single most compelling reason for developing a unified brand. The brand-enhanced businesses that enrich society also happen to be those that enrich their shareholders.
* Varder is co-founder of brand consultancy, Varder Hulsbosch.