How to #BuildBackBetterBrands

The first is how brands are made and stay potent. Most up until this point have been playing a duplicitous game. Trying to be many things to many people in myriad ways. After all that’s just part of de facto marketing doctrine – targeting.

Brand marketing and culture practice have fragmented into different functions and departments that have in turn led to fragmented brands and their communities. A drift enabled by the accepted wisdom of slicing one story up into a million different brands for as many people. A plethora of new channels and attention inventory didn’t have to result in this disarray, but in most cases it did.

To paint a cartoon portrait of events over the last decade or so… brands used to be built in broadcast and then the web turned up so we created a digital department who reported into the senior broadcast people…… Then an uncomfortable vacuum formed when digital could no longer breath under these conditions and coupled with the decline of broadcast’s efficacy, demanded a solution which came in the form of “purpose” a movement in marketing circles to locate a common narrative. A glue, a cause….. But of course this proved too messy and so purpose itself became departmentalised. ….These strata were placed, one of top of the other, in the great marketing layer-cake…..Brands were still primed for broadcast, were managing digital as a tactical/ auxiliary feature and flying the flag for purpose with primarily PR and CSR initiatives that had very little effect on any core values, product, service or behaviour.… An expensive, ineffective mess that was losing power and relevance, well before the crisis.

The broadcast team were upset because even though they were still winning gold trophies, their creations were having a greatly diminished effect on perceptions and emotions in the marketplace, the best digital talent was moving to startups who grasped the importance of holistic brand presence through every aspect of brand experience and the purpose people were tired of waving flags when they knew no-one in the business was prepared to bite-the-bullet and change course with all the ensuing complications. Slow declines are like this, you put a patch on a problem, then another and then finally the whole enterprise is a patchwork. No-one knows where the heart is, consumer or staffer alike. Only a crisis creates the conditions to rebuild something fit for purpose, because it’s that or the ship sinks and that eventuality is just a few degrees more painful than a revitalising change.

At the core of the communications legacy is a struggle that has been going on for many years. The fight between linear and living brands. Between brands built through one-way dictation, repetition and messaging and those that are grown through playbooks that connect behaviour and experience with a core set of principles and values that are alive. One procedural, industrial, the other organic and adaptable. One primarily suited to controllable, linear narratives in limited channels, the other more complex and dynamic interactions in fluid, volatile and infinitely larger, unruly real-estates.

And now that digital realm far outweighs conventional media space in reach, impact and role in the hearts and minds of consumers. That battle has been won in the marketplace. But so often brands have not adapted, maintaining their obsession with the message when no-one really cares. Brands aren’t built in messages any more, they’re built in action. Again, this incumbent belief could hold when the bloated economics were there to support them. But will they now?

“Purpose” was supposed to help establish a common, values-based DNA that could at last unite the linear with the adaptive modes, by creating a set of values that could both be the source of storytelling AND gestures. It was supposed to invigorate internal culture by articulating a cause worthy of passion, that in turn would lead to greater productivity and success. “Purpose” was there to show that statements from their leaders weren’t shallow posturing, but commitments with their roots at the core of their respective enterprises. 

But again, the fear of disruption and the unreasonable demand to both turn the ship around and delivery on next quarter’s figures led most to papering over the cracks, going-through-the-motions and adding a few more patches here and there.

The parallel tracks of broadcast, digital and purpose became departmentalised. The broadcast team as the most established and most senior would assume brand guardianship, the digital team, the tactical, technical and performance roles and the purpose, the reputational, PR people. 

But what happens when a crisis comes along and brands have to ask themselves where the overlaps are, where the real value to the business is being created, where the threats are to their prospects of a recovery? If you’re very short of resources then you’re forced to ask why you’re supporting overlapping activities that all share the same ends (i.e. building brands, selling something.) When the push comes to a shove, should brands be sliced up like this? If they’re not constituted to respond authentically to the world in real time, if they don’t possess the levers to connect with culture and ultimately the consumer?

If brands are genuinely committed to pivoting towards a mission based model, not just for recovery, but because of the growing body of evidence that correlates these brands with greater performance, then now’s surely the time to grab the nettle and go for it. If resources are being cut back and departments re-org’ed and rebuilt, now is the surely the time to reshape them with purpose at the core, not to be left as an auxiliary afterthought. And to establish a mission that sits singularly at the heart of a brand playbook that is fit for the complex world we’re all now living in. And of course, last but not least, the fodder that fuels storytelling when the right opportunity arises. 

We all now know we need to build resilient businesses #BuildBackBetter. Achieving this demands we shed the weight of the wastage of contradiction, confusion and consequent jaded indifference. Such brands won’t be able to move forward in this state of malaise, especially not now.

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nicolas roope