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Simplified face [Your brand is not what your branding agency is telling you it is.]

“What do we mean by ‘branding’? Brands are really just the simplified faces of complex organisations and the process of branding distils that complexity into a single reason why someone should choose your product over your competitor’s product.”

 

I came across this quote in an article written by a Strategy Director from a global branding agency.

 

This may be an accurate definition of ‘branding’ as in the verb that describes the work that many agencies do. But it is definitely not what brands are.

 

Whatever your branding agency wants you to believe, the reality is that your brand is the total combined experience of all interactions people have with your organisation. It lives in the heads of your customers, suppliers and employees. Not in a bunch of charts in strategy deck held your marketing department. And it’s made up of all the complex stuff that branding agencies get paid to put ‘simplified faces’ on.

 

I understand this ‘simplified face’ work (aka The Brand Promise) very well. I’ve done plenty of it. But something I have long felt, even as I was doing this kind of work, has now become my firm professional belief — that the Brand Promise or any other reductive articulation of brand strategy is valueless without solid, comprehensive and on-going brand management of all the complexity behind it.

 

Most large brand agencies operate a get-in-get-out consultancy model. They do their due diligence — competitor analysis, customer profiling etc — craft a solid, ideal-world brand strategy, distill it down into a cleverly worded Brand Promise then hand it over to the client. Go forth and concur with this new power we have bestowed on you!

 

What has always interested me and what I now dedicate most of my professional work to, is the complex, messy but ultimately more effectual work of strategic execution and ongoing tactical brand management. The place where the rubber of pure brand strategy meets the bumpy road of real-life application.

 

What most brand consultancies hope and believe is that they are giving their clients a North Star which will guide them through all this behind-the-scenes complexity. But the strategists in most agencies rarely, if ever, have any personal experience managing a customer-facing business and therefore have little understanding of all the complexities that their perfectly-formed, North-Star-Brand-Promise will have to bump up against. And how battered and bruised it may become in the process.

 

One of the examples of a good Brand Promise, according the strategy director in the same article, is AirBnB’s ‘Belong Everywhere’ because it “offers the emotional benefit of belonging and a promise to solve the feeling of alienation that comes from being somewhere unfamiliar.” 

 

I have pretty extensive personal experience of AirBnB both as a guest and as a host. Unfortunately the real-world, rubber-meets-road experience of AirBnB does not play out this promise. AirBnB’s area of business is connecting travellers with accommodation providers. Beyond setting up the transaction, they have almost no control over the individual experiences customers have with the accommodation they book. So offering a Brand Promise that hangs on emotional benefits derived from the travel experience is placing the organisation astride a chasm of unmanageable brand experience between marketing and reality.

 

There is no question that AirBnB’s marketing, portraying a super-Instagram world of travel joy, is highly effective. But their deliverable customer experience often does not match up. Last minute cancellations, leaking ceilings, wifi that doesn’t work and apartments that stink of cigarette smoke are among my personal AirBnB experiences. Ever tried to contact their customer service while standing with your luggage on a dark street in an unknown city and felt that they had “solved the feeling of alienation that comes from being somewhere unfamiliar”?

 

Their ‘Belong Everywhere’ Brand Promise is not a promise. It’s a cool idea to hang marketing creative on. One that is prone to fall apart under the pressures of real-world brand experience because AirBnB are are a tech company not a travel company. A difference that they don’t seem to fully understand themselves.

 

Rather than approaching the process of branding via the North Star idea of a Brand Promise, I prefer to create brand management strategies that operate as a set of ‘guard rails’ — something that can contain all the many moving parts of total brand experience. 

Brand strategy as guard rails allows some lateral movement in response to real-world changes, challenges and learning, while keeping the overall combined brand experience on a consistent enough path to pursue a substantive vision that will make sense to the outside world.

 

People need to understand what you are offering and why they should care. Communicating that message is the job of your marketing. The job of your brand management strategy is to continue communicating, refining and adapting — in actions as well as words — across everything you do and in response to outside-world feedback.

 

If the ‘strategy’ your branding agency is selling you does not cover, in detail, how it should play out across every touch-point of customer experience, employee engagement, procurement, B2B and community relationships, as well as — most importantly — providing tactics for how the brand should respond when things go wrong in any of these areas, then it’s not a strategy. It’s a wishful idea. 

 

Putting a ‘simplified face’ on your brand feels appealing because it’s easy to communicate. But people will form their own idea of your brand based on all their experiences of it. And if the accumulation of those experiences doesn’t match up with your simplified ‘promise’, the lost trust will be very hard, if not impossible, to rebuild.