Brands Gain Relevance By Losing Control

In talking about strong brands, the term consistency is usually paramount. At the BRITE ’17 conference, however, Thomas Ordahl, Chief Strategy Officer of Landor, cautioned brand managers against being over protective about every element of their brand.

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If brands are becoming organic, living, responsive things, as opposed to being rigid fixed things, they need to be rejuvenated by everyone who's involved in the brand.

We're going to talk about the most boring part of branding, or at least what was the most boring part of branding, which is brand governance, the management of brands. For many folks this was probably the least interesting part of what brand is. I would argue though, it is becoming one of the most interesting as the world of brand begins to change.

I used this metaphor of the Cathedral, and I think about when I was working in the late 90s in the branding world it was as though we were carefully constructing this cathedral over time. And it was very deliberative. It took 80 years. The architect died halfway through. My job was to polish the gargoyles.

And in the end we made this beautiful edifice that then our job was to defend and protect, and we had — if I push it even further — a monastic order that had these manuscripts and they were very carefully preserving this beautiful object we had created. And that was so much of the mindset of brands. Then you flash-forward to today and what's the world we live in now?

I don't work with any business that is not facing some kind of profound change in their category. their industry — Landor included. If I look at, and I often pick on Marriott here, if you were running the Marriott brand five years ago how worried were you about the sharing economy or Airbnb? Suddenly an entrant comes into the marketplace, totally disrupts the nature of your business and your brand. So brand managers have to be willing to change.

What's interesting is in our deep subconscious as brand people we don't typically think about brand as being adaptive, and responsive, and organic, and evolving. It's not really hardwired. Mostly we were trying to prevent entropy versus allowing the brand to evolve over time.

So, this has been kind of my obsession for the last few years: thinking about how do we shift the brand management model and the way we operate as brand leaders to accommodate this new world?

I'll start by going backwards. I was a history major so I have a tendency to always want to look backwards before I look forwards. We're thinking about “well, how has brand management evolved over its history?”

If you think in the very beginning, on the far left here, brand was a promise. It was “the pause that refreshes” or “Lucky Strikes are toasted” or a very direct, very simple claim made to the marketplace.

As a brand manager your job was to make sure that that was adhered to. And, if I click over to the right here maybe the 1940s or 50s, I would say Walter Landor was part of this, David Ogilvy. This was the time brands became relationships. They became constructs that people built emotional bonds with. So, managing a brand became a bit more of an abstraction. It was about a more emotive kind of concept.

Then if I click over another bit to the right, around the time I started in the brand world — we're in the dot bomb.com time, late 90s early 2000s — we began to talk about brands as experiences. They were composed of all these different touch points you know kiosks, and retail, and websites, and mobile, and all these different moments we had to ensure were coherent and consistent.

And that was right, that was the right thing to do. It’s a lot of what we were trained and our processes and our deliverables and our tactics were built around, maintaining this order across the customer experience.

However, I think we're changing. I think something else is beginning to happen in the world, and I wonder if you're also seeing this. Suddenly, brands are now part of a kind of multi-nodal network of owners. You can have people on YouTube having a huge influence on your brand. You can have employees. You have all this multiplicity of channels and stakeholders all of whom, in a sense, own and manage your brand.

So what this has done is it’s created dissonance between the processes and practices of how we've traditionally managed a brand, which was that sort of Cathedral mindset and very much around creating consistency, to a world where we're dealing with a vastly more complex environment.

So, the question is how do we shift our thinking around brand management to accommodate this world of community?

What's exciting is that communities at their best are extremely powerful. They're people-centric. They’re empathetic. They’re connected. They’re democratic. They're open. They have tremendous power to create good.

They're also quite challenging. They're nonlinear. They're composed of multiple parties and platforms. They’re global, made of culturally diverse members. They have a point of view and aren't afraid to express it. They live in the moment don't wait to act. And lastly, and most importantly, they are not asking permission to use the brand on their terms.

So, they have a great power to grow brands if we leverage them. This is just digging in, it's interesting looking at the power of community to grow businesses. They can become market makers.

I have an 18-year-old daughter. She's obsessed with glossier. She made me obsessed with glossier. If you don't know the brand, it started as a blog, became a market, and now they're selling products too, the total inversion of the traditional product development process.

[Communities] can become product developers, and there's lots of examples of crowdsourced product development. This is one from Volkswagen in China. They can be self-policing, which is very interesting you think about brand management and how we can leverage the communities to become self-governing.

This is just kind of a silly example, but it's from Jeep. I have a friend who has a Jeep, and there’s a whole like wave thing and all kinds of weird sort of habits that if you own a Jeep you have to adhere to, you know. It’s a part of this Jeep culture, right? If you buy a jeep.

[Communities] can be helpdesks, another interesting thing in thinking about how to manage brands. This is from Xiaomi. A lot of the tech help they're able to outsource to their fans and their enthusiasts who actually advise other folks in terms of how to use the products. Again, thinking about how do we begin to network the management of brands.

[Communities] can be content creators. Probably a very common example, but a good one: Airbnb, their storytelling is all about their guests and their hosts.

So, what we're beginning to think is that building, nurturing and sustaining communities will be the decisive force and brand management moving forward. It's a very different mindset though to think about cultivating a community around your brand versus managing standards, managing systems, managing identity.

So, how do we do this?

Let's think practically for a moment. A lot of it is about challenging some assumptions we've had in the branding world. Historically, we treated pretty much all audiences internally the same. Everyone gets the same 2,000 page PDF of guidelines. Everyone goes to the same brand governance portal. People get the same content. When, really, audiences are actually quite different. They all have different needs. They're exerting influence in different ways. It's a very different environment in which to communicate and engage them.

We think there’s, at a high level, three different types of audiences from a brand management standpoint. The first we're calling experts. The second we're calling practitioners, and the third we're calling employees. I'm going to walk through these individually.

The expert community: this is the brand leadership team internally. This is core agencies. This could be the leadership of the company. These are the folks that are really driving the strategic future and purpose behind the brand. I've put an example from KFC for each audience, and with this one, this is an example of the kind of thing only experts will do. I don’t know if you saw this, but KFC made a nail-polish out of the flavors of their chicken. I mean, I love them. It's so weird. It’s the kind of thing only a very small group of people will be allowed to take that kind of risk with the brand.

But then you have this other group, and this is a lot of the folks this is both external, third parties, channels, people we want to engage who are having an influence on the brand, or communicators, but they need to be engaged in a different way. They need different types of content. They need easy-to-use brand principles. They need tools. They need to have a sense of working together. They need some freedom to interpret and act on the brand in a way that's appropriate to their marketplace.

Thinking about KFC — this is just an example, I think this is the menu in Thailand — you know there's there's 50 items on the menu, so this is something where they've been allowed to interpret this brand appropriately to the context of their marketplace while still being true to the brand.

The last — and this was perhaps the one I feel the most passionate about — is, if you think back to that metaphor of the Cathedral, if brands are becoming organic, living, responsive things as opposed to being rigid, fixed things, they need to be rejuvenated by everyone who's involved in the brand, and that includes all employees. And how do we engage them to feel empowered to explore the brand? It's critical that everyone feels a place and a role to play in making the brand relevant.

Continuing with KFC, another funny example from Japan: a guy running one the franchises noticed that a lot of expats from the UK and the US would go to KFC on Christmas, and the reason was because they couldn't get a turkey in Tokyo and he started turning this into kind of an event, and now it’s become a huge cultural phenomenon in Japan. Colonel Sanders is now father Christmas. I mean they went crazy with it. Anyway, this was this guy who had this idea — he himself saw this opportunity to expand, to make the brand relevant, so here's where it gets slightly more controversial for brand people.

The other interesting thing is we've often treated, or usually treat, all brand assets or expressions as equally important. I tease some of my clients I work with that if they're thinking about the branding on a paper cup for a small trade show in Manitoba and they're also thinking about the rebranding of a football stadium, there's the same level of anxiety in either decision. There's a same level of tension, the same level of care. There's no kind of discernment. And if everything's important, and they're trying to control everything, then in a sense nothing is important. Everything's the crisis; nothing's the crisis

So we also believe we need to change our thinking around that. Not all expressions of the brand should be treated the same and they are not, frankly, created equal.

Here we also have three ways of breaking them out. The first we’re calling the sacred. What's the sacred of your brand? The thing that, if you remove it, all meaning of your brand falls apart? The next would be, what are those things we believe should be open to interpretation, the things that we want to have some room for people to interpret and make relevant to the context of their business or their market? And then lastly, what are those things we purposefully want to open up and give their give people space to explore the brand? Again, I'll walk through these.

The sacred can be your strategy. It’s the why behind your brand. The knee-jerk reaction, historically, would be to think that it's your logo also, which, in some cases, yes your logo is the sacred. GE, certainly, the meatballs been around for a thousand years. It’s a very iconic classic mark that is integral to their brand. But, if I look at Singapore Airlines and think about their brand, even though Landor did the mark for Singapore, is that the most sacred part of the Singapore Airlines brand?

I would argue probably not. I would think the batik uniform could be the most sacred, the scent on the towel is the most sacred. Coke recently, as you may have seen, sort of dropping the name and putting things like Happy Birthday and Thomas and things like that on the side of the can, implicitly they were saying that the name is not sacred to that brand. They're allowing there to be room to change that and still preserve, perhaps, the color is sacred, or that wave is sacred or the shape of the bottle is sacred, so they're having a discourse around what is the most sacred part of that brand.

We did work on the original kind of reinvention of Old Spice. One of the few things that we held onto was the whistle. There's a famous whistle device that was part of that brand. One of the few things that was held on to.

This was my favorite example. I have no idea what the Doubletree logo looks like unless I’m looking at the slide. They could change it annually, I would never notice. If they didn't give me a warm cookie when I checked in to the Doubletree, it would be a catastrophic brand disconnect. The whole thing would just would fall before my eyes without that warm cookie. So, for them that is the sacred moment.

You know, we have it with the image style of Calvin Klein; you know Kate Moss looking like a junkie. You know, who knows what's the most sacred of your brand? But it's interesting when I when I share this with folks it starts a really compelling conversation, because often, to be honest, many of us go “I don't actually know what the secret of our brand is. My knee-jerk is it’s the logo, but maybe it's not the logo. I don't know.” It's a very interesting conversation to start to have.

Then we have what I would call the interpretive. Very famous example, right, Google. They allow their logo to be elaborated on, to be adjusted, to be made meaningful based on events, things in a timeline what's happening that day. Watson, apparently the only thing you can't change in the Watson mark are the radiating lines across the top, but you're allowed to interpret and make that center area, that circle relevant to your business. Guinness, for years, has been riffing on the foam head and sort of using that as a kind of constant, and yet also interpreting it to the context of the times and making it relevant over a course of decades.

Then there's the things that we're calling explore. This is what gets me the most excited. This is my favorite story. At Disney World there was a janitor who started, just on his own, just drawing characters with his mop, and kids started following him and seeking him out, and it became kind of a thing. Well now he's teaching what they call “water artists” to do characters using the mop right. This came spontaneously from the janitor who intuitively understood the brand, acted on it and made it relevant. This is the kind of thing we need to keep brands alive, and refreshed, and responsive and relevant.

But the management construct is quite different than if you're preserving something and defending the order from the invading Mongols and that's your beautiful palace we've built, our beautiful cathedral, it's a very different mindset than how do we cultivate and encourage among our agency partners, among all employees, among everyone to appropriately understand, and act on, and interpret the brand. It means more risk. It means challenging things. But it’s very interesting how it shifts the fundamental mindset of what brand governance is.

Amazon Prime, another example, this came from the engineering department, apparently it bubbled up, and as we look at its kind of redefining the whole retail category.

So, community is the mechanism to manage this new system. It’s the way we begin to build a governance structure, which is a little different than the command and control model of the past.

Being a consultant, I have the almost irresistible desire to create frameworks. So I'm going to walk through one on this, because what's interesting as we began to explore this, and we had a group we pulled together of clients that we were partnering with, so FedEx was part of it and Comcast and GE and DOW, SC Johnson, a number of folks we worked with to collaborate to think through some of this this new thinking over the last year and kind of co-create, or think about challenging some of our underlying ideas.

What's interesting is seeing how these begin to match up. You begin to see how the sacred can become owned by the experts. They're guiding this part that's most meaningful and most important from a leadership standpoint, and this is actually more uncomfortable for agencies than our clients, is making sure that agencies collaborate together at this level.

Then you begin to think about the practitioners, and they have an interest in what we call the interpretive. They need to have space to interpret the brand. They need to know what they have freedom to explore and not explore, and they themselves become a resource to manage the brand.

And then lastly we have employees who we want to feel empowered to take risks appropriately, to begin to expand and grow the brand in how they operate with their clients and who they work with.

So, this is this new model we're playing with. It's pretty high level but it gives you a sense of how we’re begin to rethink the structure and the approach to brand.

I'm going to end on three principles that really are the essence, I think, of where we're pushing this.

The first is democratization and empowerment. Everyone has a role to play in bringing the brand strategy to life.

The second, and this is a bit challenging for some of our old thinking, is segmentation and prioritization. Not all audiences or touchpoints are created equal, and that's frankly probably more provocative within Landor than anywhere else. That's really, it's heresy frankly to how we've thought about brand building in the past.

Then last is flexibility and risk tolerance. Intuition rather than prescription is key to success. We need to allow more risk in how we manage brands — again not terribly comfortable for all of us.

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