Brands & Branding: The infinite loop of purposeful & agile brand-building
by Dr Carla Enslin. Consider the infinity loop, in all its seductive and sinuous elegance. But it can also be quite useful as a physical demonstration and metaphor when applied to strategic brand-building. Businesses and organisations aim to form mutually beneficial and self-regulating connections with stakeholder groups. Self-reflecting, too, much like the infinity loop. All of the brand’s contact points and journeys, involving all stakeholder groups, loop outside-in and inside-out to deliver a promise that is unique to the brand and of particular value to the stakeholder.
Herein lies the infinite challenge of strategic brand building — to remain ever-aligned as a business, and true to purpose, in all that is done. It becomes an endeavour that considers every contact point from the outside-in in assessing, planning and tracking its value in the contact journey from the inside-out.
The infinity loop serves as a symbolic guide for our brand-building strategies to address the complexity of internal models, systems and processes, all aimed at achieving the absolute simplicity of cohesive experience, gauged from the perspective of stakeholders, at and across all points of contact. The symbol visualises what needs to be achieved at every contact point, as well as what needs to be achieved collectively, in all contact journeys across the business or organisation over time — moments of truth in which the brand promise is made, delivered and ideally upheld to infinity.
In order to become a global network to truly serve its purpose, that is, to find out what the world needs and then invent it, the leadership of General Electric has connected the brand’s 30 000 people, situated in 91 countries and 10 different businesses, in a virtual forum. In this way, GE’s cross-team councils, constituted of horizontal and vertical levels of expertise, are able to share key insights and solve problems faster. The GE aviation team in Singapore is able, for example, to initiate a contact solution for the healthcare business in Turkey.
The South African retail bank, Capitec, pursues much the same strategic approach, connecting employees in an internal Facebook-like environment in which all, including top management, collaborate to develop processes and systems that result in simpler and more-transparent contact encounters, thereby upholding the promise that clients will always know what they get and pay for. Purpose-driven brand building is not located in one particular role or department; this responsibility vests everywhere and with all employees and strategic partners.
Moment of truth
In the 1980s, Jan Carlzon, then president of Scandinavian Airlines, introduced the phrase “moment of truth” to remind his management team that every form of contact with a business or organisation, however remote, shapes an impression.
For example, this principle, when applied to today’s online environment, may reveal that customers who click “buy” to purchase a particular product or service are often left feeling quite uncertain about the delivery and quality of their purchase. A company may send an email or text notification that the order has been shipped, and customers may be able to track its progress online, but the transaction remains a complex strategic process if customers are to be given those all-important cohesive post-purchase touchpoints that affirm the brand’s promise.
From the inside-out, this complexity is often amplified when additional outsourced, and lately also crowdsourced partners, systems and processes are involved. From the outside-in, though, customers draw no distinction between sources of origin and expect every point of contact to be true to the brand.
For this reason, brand oriented etailers, such as the kitchen accessories company, Yuppiechef.com, share its customer feedback about contact performance at all touchpoints and with all employees on a daily basis. The team at Yuppiechef is highly motivated to move from the outside-in while planning contact journeys from the inside-out. This requires cognitive agility and action that crosses units within the business and ensures that cohesive performance between points of contact remains the strategic priority. The management team at Yuppiechef clearly reasons that being trusted and favourably regarded by its community at every point of connection is as important today as it would have been in the past, in a 19th century physical marketplace where everyone knew everyone.
When our aim is to connect with people, however many or diverse in profile, we need to consider why connection matters, and what the most meaningful experience or form of contact might be. In his song, Sunday Lyrics, David Bowie tells us:
Everything has changed
For in truth, it’s the beginning of an end
And nothing has changed
And everything has changed
It may seem to be a superficial reference to the well-known French phrase plus ca change, plus c’est la même chose. Instead, Bowie does affirm real change, while affirming unchangeable, universal truth. His refrain is very relevant to the challenge of building enduring brand relationships in a world proliferated with touchpoints, platforms and propositions. We have the industry language as evidence that much has changed. We invest in data analytics, purpose strategies and seamless omnichannel plans, and deal with increasing complexity in the analysis and synthesis of brand and business models. Yet, nothing has changed. People continue to live engaged in their own lives to varying degrees, with expectations of solving the challenges they face, or not, and satisfying their desires, or falling short, as the case may be. There therefore exists an absolute simplicity in a brand that genuinely succeeds to connect meaningfully and adds value to how people live life, whether the brand in question is a public transport system or a favoured takeaway meal.
A week in advance of Discovery’s 25th birthday on 10 March 2017, Adrian Gore, the group’s chief executive, sent a well-considered email to all employees. In his communication, he reflected on the remarkable journey of the brand and the leadership team’s sustained commitment to guard against a culture stifled by too-bureaucratic rules and a too-narrow pursuit of profit. Discovery’s success, according to Gore, is and will remain the result of being a purpose-driven business. “The simple idea of making people healthier and enhancing their lives has evolved into a sophisticated, shared-value business model that leads the industry globally, while our eight core values have ironically and importantly remained completely unchanged, but our ambition has grown from being the best health insurer in South Africa, to the best insurer globally by 2018,” said Gore.
Discovery’s shared-value model is engineered to manage large-scale complexity in the analysis and synthesis of contact performance across business units. As a result, the brand is able to remain true to purpose, in all that is done to incentivise people, to be healthier and to enhance and protect their lives. The contact journeys, involving all stakeholder groups, are purposefully planned and managed to loop outside-in and inside-out to deliver on the Discovery promise.
The practice and pursuit of outside-in and inside-out thinking in strategic brand-building should first and foremost be embedded in the leadership of the organisation, in order to permeate naturally into the brand-building culture of its people. Every person in every business unit should feel an instinctive inclination to engage with others and ultimately with stakeholders, fully aligned with the brand’s promise, because doing so is infinitely in the best interest of the business. For this reason, brand-led organisations and practitioners invest in platforms and processes that enable the sharing of contact journey insights and user experiences with all employees and then move ahead to address challenges, incorporating company-wide planning approaches, embracing all departments and functions.
The McKinsey Quarterly (February 2017) points out that industries are, on average, less than 40% digitised, although this is a rapidly evolving situation. Brands are increasingly in constant interaction with their stakeholder groups through a myriad of processes, systems and platforms, many of which stream real-time data about customer experiences and business performance at various touchpoints. The South African brand, Flash, provides payment solutions that enable informal traders and consumers to pay suppliers from a Flash device, thereby removing the need to collect and transport cash. While providing an innovative trade solution, stakeholder behavior is continuously tracked to enhance touchpoint performance. Likewise, entrepreneur Tshepo Moloi recently launched StokFella, an app that assists stokvels (saving or investment societies) to administer savings and communicate stokvel activities via a smartphone. The real-time insights gained from user experiences will similarly enable this new venture to develop meaningful and creative contact opportunities in competing with traditional formal systems.
Establishing and retaining a meaningful advantage will become increasingly more dependent on an organisational culture in constant touch with stakeholder experiences and in a continuous collaborative flow to produce creative strategic solutions to obstacles and point to new opportunities. The infinity loop as a representation of a real-time flow in outside-in an inside-out planning encourages a strategic agility, capable of producing moments of truth that truly resonate. When contact encounters are deeply understood in context of stakeholder expectation and brand performance, the organisation with an agile, collaborative culture is able to produce points of contact that present a perfect expression of the brand’s purpose and promise, both in form and function.
Documentary producer, Michael Moore, flagged such a contact resonator or moment of truth in the 2015–2016 election campaign of president Donald Trump of the US. According to his analysis, this touchpoint reinforced brand Trump’s purpose and promise in form and function, continued looping expertly throughout the campaign, and might even resonate well into the future as a commemorative piece. This is the ubiquitous red baseball cap, or trucker hat, with the slogan “Make America Great Again”. As Moore argues, this may quickly have become the subject of meme and parody among Clinton campaigners, but equally rapidly established itself as a powerful anti-establishment expression for ‘middle America’, and an absolute resonator of brand Trump. Voter behaviour analytics and models of campaign disruption looped outside-in and inside-out to culminate smoothly in a red cap, a slogan and a compelling point of resonance.
Notwithstanding this example, it remains a challenge to apply the continuous pursuit of outside-in and inside-out thinking and planning to an entire organisation and in all of its contact journeys. As argued, the ideal is an organisational environment that facilitates an infinite expression of resonance, at all touchpoints, with all stakeholder groups. Conversely, it stands to reason that where the leadership and internal culture constrains agile contact management, or fails to introduce contact planning at the most primal level, the brand and its stakeholder relationships are negatively affected.
At a US congressional committee hearing in May 2017, United Airlines chief executive, Oscar Munoz, described an incident in which a passenger was forcibly removed from a flight, as a “mistake of epic proportions” and apologised for failing to lead with an immediate and constructive response. Munoz outlined contact areas where United Airlines failed to perform, posing some critical challenges, considering the brand’s promise that every flight, every day, to every destination is an experience of flying ‘the friendly skies’. The contact failures ranged from inaccurate implementation of safety and security policies and no clarity of compensation measures for passengers to deficient onboard service delivery. At “that moment”, the chief executive acknowledged, “for our customers and our company, we failed.”
The scope and complexity of contact planning and management is in itself infinite and can only be facilitated properly if led and supported by a leadership and culture in touch with contact journeys from the outside-in and instinctively agile in alignment with the brand promise from the inside-out.
The leadership at Airbnb use an internal metaphor, referred to as ‘spotting duck-tape’, to encourage agile strategic-thinking and -action throughout the organisation. Teams at Airbnb are continuously on the lookout for any and all points of disconnect to be transformed into opportunities for brand contact resonance. The brand’s purpose is to use technology to bring people together, to create communities so that anyone may belong somewhere. In doing so, Airbnb taps into “the universal human yearning to belong—the desire to feel welcomed, respected, and appreciated for who you are, no matter where you might be.” Moving from the outside-in to assess and plan journeys of resonance from the inside-out, Airbnb connects those with the money to travel with those who have the space to host, as well as those who have special experiences to offer. Airbnb’s resonance is further enhanced as it tracks and responds to current conditions that impact its community. Moving outside-in to identify opportunities to serve purpose, the brand navigates complex systems and processes from the inside-out, such as connecting those willing to offer space for short-term stays with those who find themselves as refugees, disaster survivors, and relief workers in foreign environments.
The infinity loop is a useful guide to conceptualise what needs to be achieved across contact journeys over time to ensure a brand promise is made, delivered and upheld. It encourages brand builders to plan and invest from the outside-in and the inside-out in order to align the business seamlessly, to ensure that it performs true to its purpose in all that it does. It promotes an agile organisational culture that is ever-aware of stakeholder experiences and that collaborates across departments and units to grow the brand’s contact resonance. In the pursuit of moments of truth and a cohesive contact experience everything changes while, as far as universal truths are concerned, nothing changes.
- Bughin, J, LaBerge, L, & Mellbye, A (2017). The case for digital reinvention. McKinsey Quarterly, February 2017
- Gore, A (2017). Discover’s 25th Anniversary on 10 March 2017. [email]
- Rice, JG (2017). How GE is becoming a truly global network. McKinsey Quarterly, April 2017
- Budds, D (2016). The worst design of 2016 was also the most effective. Design
Dr Carla Enslin is head of strategy and new business development at Vega and a founder member of the school. Her interest and experience include brand strategy, the design and implementation of brand identity systems and contact strategies. Carla also serves on the Brand Africa Council and is a research associate at the University of Stellenbosch Business School. She acts as a consultant to and trainer for companies, both local and international.
The article first appeared in the 2017 edition of Brands & Branding in South Africa, an annual review from Affinity Publishing of all aspects of brand marketing — consisting of case-studies, profiles, articles and research — which may also be accessed at the brand-new Brands.MarkLives.com. Order your copy of the 2017 edition now!
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