Brands & Branding: Transformations & emergence of brand ecosystems
by Dr Carla Enslin. Here are two scenarios: 1) In a small central African country, riven by social complexity and internal strife, the state and its citizenry commit to a clear and compelling purpose on their road to recovery and so rise from the ruins. 2) On a far lower scale in product format, a bar of soap with ¼ moisturising cream evolves into a range propelled by a determination to redefine the global meaning of beauty.
These two very different scenarios are the results of four fundamental transformations to give rise to being primarily labelled “brand-oriented” and so becoming those countries, organisations, cities, product ranges, entrepreneurs, social movements and cyber communities that acknowledge their own existences as vibrant ecosystems in which unique and compelling reasons for being are central to all that they do and wish to achieve. These key shifts behind strategic brand building present themselves as measurable variables and offer us a brand-business metric to meaningfully support performance.
From the product- to the brand-oriented
Perhaps the most-significant trend in recent times has been the progressive transition from being product-led to marketing-led to being brand-led businesses or organisations. This fundamental shift has become the baseline measurement for a brand-business metric and a significant marker for the transition from production and sales aimed at enticing consumers to spend ever more on possessions, or worse, to simply ‘buy anything’, to brand-led business models focused rather on producing those items and creating those environments for people to prosper. At its core, this is the transition from product proposition to brand proposition or purpose, from a focus on what a product or service does to why it does what it does. A strategic brand has a deep understanding of why it matters, and this sense of purpose is central to how it positions itself in the mind of the market and how it models its business. It instinctively soundboards every decision and action against its very reason for existence. Whether it be a proposed merger, a contemplated acquisition, a new portfolio or a seasonal promotion, all are undertaken as meaningful extensions of the unique and compelling values it has to offer. Those leadership teams and organisations that are still battling to make this transition are wrestling their way past static ways of thinking and doing, and encumbered by legacy systems, processes and structures. A recent line of reasoning in Fast Company (17 January 2019) foretells the right call: “Purpose is something you believe, not something you make up one day as a marketing strategy.”
From a departmental to an organisation-wide brand remit
An ecosystem depends on all parts working together — its leadership thinks and acts brand-first and the purpose of the brand is enshrined as an organisation-wide remit. The standard approach of the past “I suggest you talk to HR (or) marketing” when employee and customer experiences are to be considered has made way for a stakeholder- and purpose-centric organisation, where all units and departments uphold the meaning and valued practices of the brand. In a recent interview on eNCA (28 June 2019), CEO Adrian Gore stated that the moral core of a business can be rooted in a purpose-built brand. Arising from this, the simple idea of making people healthier and enhancing their lives has evolved into a sophisticated, shared-value business model for Discovery.
In a world that is increasingly connected, the brand ecosystem depends on all parts to instinctively think and respond brand-first, and to do so with integrity and vigour. If purpose is the moral compass, the leadership and management determine the true direction and thereby enable and inspire the entire organisation to participate in and co-lead the brand-building endeavours. When the needle is not constant, where decisions and actions show signs of disconnect, doubts and distrust follow and equity may be eroded. Even a 243-year-old iconic country brand in pursuit of life, liberty and happiness may find itself under tremendous strain when artificial constructions such as “false” and “alternative truths” are seen to become part of its brand lexicon, and this in turn suggests that its brand meaning, leadership and people are increasingly out of kilter.
From a set of Ps to a 360-degree perspective
The vital shift, from regarding the brand remit as merely departmental to instead encompassing the entire organisation and encouraging participative leadership towards this goal, has caused major evolutionary changes. Organisations have largely moved from the previously mechanistic approach of the 4/8/12 Ps (product, price, place, promotion, etc) in their marketing orientation to a rather more-holistic and -integral ‘touch’ or contact point approach in shaping and building relationships with all stakeholder groups.
To further underscore this notion, a recent article in the Harvard Business Review led with the headline “Why Every Company Needs a Chief Experience Officer” (13 June 2019), and a recent survey (2018) by the global consultancy team Forrester indicated that 76% of executives today believe that supporting and promoting holistic experience strategies are now high, if not critical, business priorities. The quest to innovate and streamline capacity and capability, eg to implement fully automated stores managed only by artificial intelligence, nevertheless still depends on the strategic imperative to plan systemically in order to deliver the right experience, in the right way, at the right time. Brand-led organisations and practitioners are thoughtfully and carefully investing in outside-in thinking platforms and processes that enable them to map, create and reinforce congruent and meaningful brand experiences as seamlessly as possible. With equal commitment and rigour, they are developing systems and measures from inside out to enable, support and track performance across touchpoints, and to address challenges with increasingly nimbler solutions.
The global branding company, Siegel+Gale, surveys and ranks brands on how clear their identities are to their customers and how easy their services are to use. In the 2018 World’s Simplest Brand Index, Netflix ranked first. The success of this brand depends on a uniquely congruent user experience of convenience and delight in “movie enjoyment made easy” consistently delivered across touchpoints. From the inside out, Netflix leads its brand performance through a cultural model that clearly defines behavioural expectations and how these should manifest in daily operations. The brand’s behavioural code is captured in an internal document called “Netflix Culture: Freedom & Responsibility”, which is implemented fastidiously to build an increasingly more participative and self-regulated brand ecosystem. The brand culture, eg, celebrates those who act like leaders but also personally stoop to retrieve the trash from the floor; those who question everything and speak honestly; and those who are able to identify and discard that which does not matter in order to focus on the ideal and what deliverables may be required in order to achieve this.
From creative marketing communication to creative points of brand resonance
The brand-oriented organisation concerns itself deeply and intrinsically with the performance of every single touchpoint in every stakeholder network, and therefore also with the quality and application of its strategic insights, or in today’s terms, its data analytics. Where employed effectively, as the research company Gartner reasons, analytics moves beyond the descriptive (what happened?) and diagnostic (why did it happen?), to the predictive (what will happen?) and prescriptive (how can we make it happen?). Sophisticated data analytics enables the brand-oriented organisation to create real-time organisation-wide insights into stakeholder experiences, to identify and track the most-influential points of contact, to disrupt industry norms and to produce increasingly more-compelling and -meaningful brand experiences. These brands are insight-confident and purposefully create porous ecosystems, with feedback and participation loops to invite strategic partners and end users to share their thinking, to co-create product and service experiences, or to flag new opportunities.
By way of illustrating the point, as a leading manufacturer of high-quality power tools, DeWalt closely tracks the performance of all of its touchpoints, in particular those critically important in-use reports about its tools. The brand relies heavily on the experiences and insights of its community of more than 10 000 professional tradesmen and loyal customers to co-produce durable products that solve new challenges on worksites and to design entirely new product lines.
On a different track and vastly different in nature, but with similarities in thinking and practice, the small island of Palau located in the western Pacific Ocean hauled in a transdisciplinary team of specialists to help track and analyse the behavioural patterns of all its stakeholder groups in order to gain better insights into the human impact on the island’s natural and protected resources. Ranging from descriptive to prescriptive analytics, a critical point of brand resonance emerged: that first official moment where the visa entry is stamped into a passport document. The development team was able to focus their strategic and creative efforts and to conceptualise a unique and compelling experience, starting with an environmental pledge stamped into all passports and signed off by all international arrivals. This pledge will hopefully continue to resonate with the 2m+ tourists to visit Palau over the next 10 years as they learn to appreciate and perhaps later recall with some fondness all that the island had to offer.
Brands have evolved from focusing primarily on the creativity displayed in planned marketing and communication campaigns to being fully alert to the impact of all their touchpoints and, in particular, those most critical — those points of brand resonance with the most impact on stakeholders because of what the brand stands for. Equipped with sophisticated analytics and meaningful insights into user experiences, the brands of today are able to practice creative strategic thinking to realise the potential of the touchpoints that matter most.
Volvo’s brand purpose has always been to put the safety of people first. The company’s accident research team has been gathering real-world data based on accident reports since the 1970s in order to better understand what happens during collisions. This has enabled Volvo to design cars that are safer for everyone. Volvo’s commitment to purpose and industry wellbeing is public knowledge; in fact, it is 60 years ago now that Volvo freely shared its three-point safety belt patent with the world. Today, we all depend on this for our safety. Most recently, the brand has made all of Volvo’s safety research available by establishing a digital library with data gathered from more than 43 000 collisions and 72 000 people. The library is open and free to any company to learn from — a hyper-transparent step in the best interest of all and a point of committed brand resonance for the brand.
When a unique and compelling purpose adds value to peoples’ lives and becomes an organisation’s chief pursuit and natural way of thinking and doing (a living philosophy, so to speak), then a meaningful brand is brought into existence. Enabled by its leadership and culture, it operates in a mindful and nimble manner and moves outside-in and inside-out to swiftly create and deliver brand experiences that are always congruent with its unique reason for being.
The Havas Media Group’s Meaningful Brands index, conducted across 22 industries and 31 markets, measures brands that are seen to add value to quality of life. It is not encouraging to note that the 2019 results indicate respondents consider 58% of content created by brands as meaningless, and even more concerning is the fact that they could not care less if 77% of brands (three percentage points higher than in previous results), were to disappear overnight. Strategic brand-building is a commitment — a meaningful and holistic strategy. A dedicated culture with supportive operational analytics and designs is a baseline requirement for success, if not actually for survival.
Those transformations identified in this opinion piece present fundamental outcomes and key performance variables towards the useful development of a customised brand-business metric. They guide daily practice and continue to bolster the principles that give us the firmness of purpose to be always congruent in what we believe, say and do.
References & recommended reading/viewing
- Atmar, H, Becdach, C, Kleinman, S & Rieckhoff, K, 2019: Bridging the gap between a company’s strategy and operating model. McKinsey & Company, p 2
- Cannes Lions Creative strategy winners 2019 [online] (accessed 28 July 2019)
- First Round Review: The three tools Netflix used to build its world class brand [online] (accessed 28 July 2019)
- Hassan, A. Netflix is the simplest brand in the world according to a new survey [online] (accessed 28 July 2019)
- Havas Media Group: Meaningful Brands [online] (accessed 28 July 2019)
- Li, C, Littleton, A & Akhtar, A. 2017: Experience Strategy: Connecting customer experience to business strategy. Altimeter, Prophet.
- Milbrath, S: Co-creation. [online] (accessed 28 July 2019)
- Millar, B: Brand purpose is a lie [online] (accessed 28 July 2019)
- Palau Pledge (Grand Prix Cannes Lions 2018) [online] (accessed 28 July 2019)
- Rosethorn, H 2018: Becoming Purposeful. A Prophet Report in collaboration with HR Grapevine. Prophet.com
- Taking Stock. Adrian Gore, Discovery Holdings CEO 28 June 2019 [online] (accessed 28 July 2019)
- Yohn, D L: Why Every Company Needs a Chief Experience Officer. Harvard Business Review. [online] (accessed 28 July 2019)
- Brands & Branding: Consumer disloyalty sweeping the nation
- Brands & Branding: Brand-building — key lessons & insights from Nashua
- Columns | Brands & Branding – Affinity Publishing
Dr Carla Enslin is a founding member of the Independent Institute of Education’s Vega School and serves as its head of strategy and new business development. She is a research associate at the University of Stellenbosch Business School and teaching fellow at the University of Cape Town’s Graduate School of Business.
The article first appeared in the 2019 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 — shortly accessible at Brands.MarkLives.com. Order your copy of the 25th annual edition now!