Q5: How to hack a brand, with Sarel Delport [interview]
by Carey Finn (@carey_finn) Sarel Delport — the executive creative director of integrated agency, Autonomous Republic, and part of the brains behind the recently launched Hack-A-Brand online store (which sells interactive tools and guides that will “hack any creative, strategy, marketing, or advertising project fast and successfully”) — unpacks the concept of “hacking a brand” for us.
Q5: What are the key questions to ask when hacking a brand?
Sarel Delport: There are a ton of questions and angles to hacking a brand but these are some of the usual suspects:
- Why was your company/brand started in the first place? What was the motivation?
- What was the problem/gap you tried to solve/fill?
- What is your brand’s purpose beyond sales, profit or survival?
The crux of a brand hack is to understand its essence and align that to its outward and internal creative expression. I’m a firm believer in what Simon Sinek teaches about starting with why and then aligning that throughout an organisation.
Our goal is to help create authentic brands that speak with their own voice, that are differentiated from all the others out there. We do this because a strong brand galvanises a business and ensures it can weather the storms created by the economy and inevitable political rhetoric. This is beneficial to a workforce that is dogged by uncertainty and despondency.
Q5: Once you’ve asked those questions, what are the keys to the hack itself?
SD: The key to hacking a brand is to be brave and to keep asking brutally candid questions. All too often, in businesses and organisations of all sizes, you find a sense of complacency, a loss of enthusiasm or standards. This is especially evident in “the way things are done”. You will always hear “it’s just the way we do things here” when you come across a counterproductive process and/or execution. This happens when what the brand and leadership says is out sync with what they do and how they behave.
Now, the internal process of the business may seem like it’s not really a brand issue. But what happens when clients interact with staff and their experience is the opposite to what your brand is selling? You lose a customer, and possibly their friends and family as potential customers. A brand must [be lived] from the inside out; it’s not a facade that is painted on every time the marketing team gets a budget.
A brand is a living, breathing “organism”. Albeit an abstraction, it has a personality, has likes, dislikes, and has a purpose. It’s not something that should ever be manufactured; it has to be discovered. Sometimes the key to the hack comes down to just being brave enough to be vulnerable, and laying it all out there. That vulnerability makes hacking easier and creates an authentic execution.
Q5: Are there differences when hacking small vs more notable brands?
SD: The difference in approach is you really feel the impact of what you are doing when you hack a smaller brand. The larger ones are generally in good shape and have a history, so a hack is more about streamlining and aligning the brand. The hacking of a smaller brand can have a greater impact on that business financially and emotionally, which makes it sensitive at times.
In terms of the needs of a small or large brand, brand-building and sales are essential for both. Every brand needs to make sales, or gain periodical investments of some sort, but they should never embark on any sales or promotion activity without it building the brand in some way.
The one difference for hacking a small brand is that they need to be continually building enough trust, appeal and motivation to convert those feelings into sales. On the other hand, a large brand needs to concentrate on strengthening its positioning in the minds of its consumers by staying relevant and innovating in line with its purpose.
Ultimately, no matter the size of the brand, they all have to be able to answer these final questions:
- What is the ultimate benefit my clients get from my brand?
- How does my product/service make my clients’ lives better?
- And, why is my product/service better than my competitors’?
If you can answer these questions with confidence and without an inkling of doubt in your mind, then you’ve hacked the brand.
Q5: Can you give us five brand role models — brands that other brands can look up to?
SD: Apple is a definite. I’m a massive fan of what Nick Law and his teams have achieved at R/GA and [it] seems cliché to say but his recent move to Apple is only going to improve an already-trustworthy brand.
Nike is another. You can’t go wrong with this brand, as it has programmed its philosophy into just about everyone. The beauty of this brand is that their philosophy shines through in every piece of communication.
The Pixar-Disney combo is a favourite. Having read Ed Catmull’s [story], the former president of Pixar and Disney, Creative Inc, you can understand why these brands keep outperforming others. They know and understand why they exist.
Volvo is a brand I Iove watching, as they have shrugged off their boxy stigma and evolved their brand into safe Swedish luxury. It shows in their cars and comms. From the outside, it comes across as a brand that every employee believes in and is aligned to its purpose wholeheartedly.
The last one is the Springboks. Having worked on the MTN sponsorship strategy a while ago, I love how they are able to align their sponsors’ brands to their purpose while keeping their own relevant. It probably comes naturally to us South Africans, because we feel like we own it or that it is a part of our DNA. Whatever it is, when everyone can tell what you stand for, you have done your job well.
Q5: Humour seems essential to you — it’s all over your websites. How important do you think it should be to brands?
SD: Well, if brands have a personality, they technically should have the ability to laugh at themselves. A sense of humour is a likeable trait in humans, and is vital in advertising and branding as it’s how creatives strut their creative sides.
David Ogilvy said, “The best ideas come as jokes. Make your thinking as funny as possible,” and he hit the nail on the head. Ideation, conceptualisation and the creative process needs to be fun for it to produce great work. When it comes to hacking a brand, the ability to laugh at yourself is critical, as the conversations that can be quite sensitive.
We once had a CEO shouting “F*** you” at us over a boardroom table at every non-flattering observation and insight we found or documented remark from employees and customers alike. The funny thing about that situation, though. was that we were invited for a whiskey after the three hours of brutal honesty and some laughs.
You have to have a sense of humour in this business; it’s the only way to stay grounded and keep the ideas flowing.
- Find out more about Delport on LinkedIn.
Carey Finn (@carey_finn) is a writer and editor with a decade and a half of industry experience, having covered everything from ethical sushi in Japan to the technicalities of roofing, agriculture, medical stuff and more. She’s also taught English and journalism, and dabbled in various other communications ventures along the way, including risk reporting. As a contributing writer to MarkLives.com, her regular column “Q5” aims to hone in on strategic insights, analysis and data through punchy interviews with experts in media, marketing and design.