Brand management: The dangers of yes, no and clothing the Emperor.

Brands hang on decisions

People buy brands, not managers. And yet think about the number of managers who make judgment calls, sometimes very big judgment calls, based on their own opinions and experiences? They feel comfortable because they are expressing views and making decisions that fit with their worldview. But that doesn’t mean they’re necessarily doing the brand justice, particularly if their viewpoints compromise the personality of the brand itself.

Hands up if you’ve ever been to this meeting:

“I like orange.”

Or “Don’t make it orange.”

“Use short words.”

Or “People don’t read.”

“We need to be on TV.”

And/or “We need to export.”

Brands thrive when they are based on meaning, trust, relevance and delight – but of course they must deliver that meaning, trust, relevance and delight to the buyer, not the seller. Otherwise they risk narcissism.

Every brand must pursue a life of its own – not affirm the life of a manager. And to me, that integral sense of being an asset in its own right hangs on ten things. A brand must have:

Its own name (obviously)
Its own purpose
Its own values
Its own viewpoints
Its own story
Its own language – verbal and visual
Its own structure
Its own pricing
Its own style of marketing
Its own experiences

Without distinctive brand attributes, companies are left to market the Emperor’s new clothes. And yet at the same time as a brand’s attributes must evolve to remain distinctive, they must remain recognisable to consumers.

Brand evolution is not about yes or no. It’s about on-brand or not. Personal opinion is a dangerous decision maker because it seems so reasonable to the person with the opinion. Unless managers can put distance between what they believe and what the brand believes, unless they can plan not just for difference but for distinctly and consistently branded difference at every point, a brand can quickly fall victim to compromise, distraction and sector and personal bias.

As Ron Johnson, the ex-CEO at JC Penney, has discovered to his cost, what feels so “yes” to a decision maker can be worlds apart from what the people making the buying decisions want. While his replacement, Myron Ullman, is quoted in this NY Times article as saying, “Nobody ever wins by going back in retail because the customers’ expectations change all the time”, it’s equally true that the way forward must align with what people expect for the brand as well.

As Bill Campbell pointed out in an interview in Wired recently, “Johnson was tone-deaf to the issues … Whatever you need to do, you have to keep the current business going while you are experimenting with your new one. He didn’t do that. What he did was put a bullet hole in his current business and went about trying to create a new one.”

It may even sound like I think brand managers’ opinions don’t count. Of course they do. No-one is closer to a brand and has more direct impact on its future direction than those who guide it and who are responsible for it every day. Just be very clear what sorts of opinions hold value. And which represent trouble.

Know the customers’ agenda. Pursue the customers’ agenda.
(Not what you think it is. And not what you’d like it to be.)

Acknowledgement
Photo of “Coat hangers” by Matt Callow, sourced from Flickr

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