The Balanced Brand: some preliminary thinking

What is it with me and earthquakes? Last Christmas, I was in Christchurch for the Boxing Day shake. This year, I was there on Friday, and it happened again. They are scary – and it’s interesting how different people are scared about different aspects. For most, the fear of death and injury is prevalent as you’d expect – but almost as distressing for others are the noise, the shaking itself and of course the damage that brings silt to the surface, breaks possessions and puts everyone on edge. To all those in Christchurch, including of course my own immediate and extended family, my prayers and thoughts are with you.

We all live with fears I guess, and they come to the surface at different times. That’s as true for business as it is in our personal lives. Today’s obsession with growth has it seems to me often overshadowed the more important strategic question of what do we want our organisations and our brands to grow into – how will they evolve, and how will the benefits of that evolution be effectively and efficiently spread. How will everyone gain something from the strategic change: customers; shareholders; employers; the community?

Business is so linked these days that effects, both positive and negative, are virtually impossible to contain. So I see this as a deeply commercial question centred around holistric incentives and rewards – financial, social and cultural. One that generates tough questions in the bid to find the best answers.

I think there is an opportunity here for brands to think more sustainably and report more holistically (at least to themselves) about their overall returns – not just what they made as an organisation and/or what they gave back, but what were, are and are projected to be the beneficial returns for everyone that the organisation really cares about of the strategy that was pursued and is being pursued.

We talk a lot about intangibles and in some areas of commercial life I think we go out of our way to report them. Yet at a strategic level so often the ways we assess the wider effectiveness of brands is very narrow indeed. Either that, or the assessments are confined by discipline, which really means that one effect is siloed from another.

The conventional response to the relentless demand for growth is to piledriver pressure down supply chains, internal and external, in the name of efficiency and to look for that to blossom into returns.

But I’ve watched many organisations aggressively pursue a scale based model that has kept the people in marketing and finance very happy. Meanwhile the effects of that pursuit are reflected in cultural climate figures that are through the floor or a growing list of supplier casualties who have applied their expertise elsewhere. The true cost of those losses often goes unreported.

The reverse is also true. I have worked with brands that have such a “family feel” that no-one is prepared to bang the performance drum for fear of changing the mood. The point here though is that a workplace that is that comfortable is at risk of becoming complacent.

Either way, the true quid pro quo is lost or at best overlooked.

As the people of Christchurch have discovered, shake-ups force a re-evaluation of many different priorities – from the very personal to the abstractly international. And no one person or entity can make or direct all the changes required.

As the after-shocks of the current financial stalemate ripple through Western economies, everyone will react to what is happening in different ways. Some will indeed take to the cities and raise their fists in fury at the system. Some will look to consolidate. Some will file for bankruptcy. But some may also see this as an opportunity to re-examine the commercial agendas of their brands in a more sustained and broadly ecosystemic way; to look both closely and broadly at the benefits and dangers of the current path and to plot a path forward that generates the best possible advantages for all concerned.

My theories on this, which are still developing, are very much along the lines of Kaplan and Norton’s Balanced Scorecard. The intention is to find ways to develop, monitor and stimulate what I’m calling, at this point anyway, The Balanced Brand.

Best wishes to you all this Xmas season.

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