by Erna George. As marketers, we are tasked with being brand custodians of these awesome wards called brands. Many of these have been on the market long before many of us were born and, if we do our jobs well, will be thriving long after we’ve retired. While being passionate about your brand and building it, there is a fine line to navigate so that you realise you and your views are not always those of the brand.

Staying on the right side of this fine line has always been a challenge and yet is even weightier these days, given the competition for standing out, the competitive brand-role environment, the emphasis upon personal branding, and with companies using employees and others as brand advocates on social media.

Make the client famous?!

In my agency days, I once had a client state that they needed us to make them famous — heard that one before?! Your brand is not your stepping stone to greatness; yet, if you do your job brilliantly as the brand’s caretaker, you will be more successful and more famous than if you try to put your success first. Neither is it okay for you to have a knee-jerk reaction based upon your views. We are because of our brands and this balance needs to be upheld always — working upon some of these brands is a privilege, not a right.

In addition to the “make me famous” mantra, I have often heard a new brand manager or new agency talk about refreshing the brand under the guises of improving relevance. I heard things such as “OMG, the pack is so beige and brown! We need to brighten it for great standout!” And it was at this point that I wanted to scream out, “Do you know what being beige means to consumers? Just maybe the earthy warmth the brown hues bring generates a sense of wholesome, farm-style goodness that consumers have bonded with on an emotional level?” Just because you are tired of it doesn’t make it wrong.

I am not opposed to change but I do want to encourage caution around significant or multiple shifts on branding.

Assess the lay of the land

There are very few occasions when, walking into a brand custodian role, that an immediate change is required. Give it some time; first assess the lay of the land:

  • Review at length the roots of the brand (where it comes from, its journey, the language, visuals and messaging that have made it strong — its assets) and understand its positioning
  • Assess current market reality — the brand performance within the competitor context and how it’s positioning makes it distinctive or not, and when last it made a shift in its market approach
  • Then check the brand vision, while always keeping in mind its roots and memory structures, and build upon these for the most impactful and relevant future

I wonder how many brand managers or agencies have tried to change the Coca-Cola logo, spice up its colours and rejuvenate its proposition? There is a reason Coca-Cola has been the most well-known brand globally (worth absolute billions), with lots of consumer love. This is why new (and fleeting) brand management teams have not been permitted to make their personal mark. Yet, the brand is still fresh and relevant and growing, yet, for the most part, its offer and connection to the world have progressed seamlessly. True brand custodians protect a brand and its meaning to the world as there is no space for narcissism in brand management.


Challenges to unbiased brand management are brand managers or agencies trying to make their mark, short views, reactions (rather than considered response to changing market dynamics) and more. It is tough. The seduction of change is alluring — changing the logo or packaging or using the latest stop-animation techniques or shifting iconic music in communication. How do you think the market would react if Nike lost the tick or, if overnight, Kulula’s tone became serious? If it is on-brand, and the timing is right, it can work. But, even if it is the hottest trend, it may not be the right representation of the brand.

Sometimes when short-term objectives are pressing — such as meeting quarter-sales objectives or retail customers threatening to give your big promo slot away unless you do something more innovative like brand Y does — sales and marketing teams may be enticed into implementing a slightly off-strategy campaign or promotion. Imagine this cycle repeating a few times each time the pressure is on. The short-term objective may well be met, and the current crises averted, but did anyone taken into account the long-term effect of off-strategy messaging or brand representations upon the brand’s value and consumer perceptions?

And, when we do this, this is when consumers take over custodianship. When their perception or takeout of the brand messaging doesn’t match its true positioning, their voices take over and construction of the brand happens out of the hands of the brand team. Some may argue that this is fine, but I am not a believer in brand democratisation if it doesn’t happen within a clear framework or guard rails of what the brand is and stands for, in order to manage split personaliiesy. Consumers need to be led on what the brand is and to respond to this, and (if we let them) create aspects of the brand in a way that is respectful of the brand positioning. The trick is that, if your foundation is so strong and unwavering, they don’t realise their creativity is being channelled.

Brand advocates

The same may be said for employees as brand advocates.

I am a firm believer in internal marketing and having a force of employees as potential brand advocates. As brands fight for trust in a more-sceptical world, consumers — in particular, millennials — find more value and credibility in real people. The challenge is ensuring that they support the brand voice in a human way. The oxymoron is that strong personalities (celebrities or public figures) capture attention and help strengthen brand voices. This vicious cycle continues as, when personae become powerful and known, the possibility of egos and their own voices step in and their voices or stories undermine those of the brand.

Only those who can tell great stories without personal boastfulness or swagger being brought to the fore should be permitted as true ambassadors. They need to be told that, the more this happens, the better the brand or company will advance and therefore they will be elevated. Again, a give-and-take of the right nature.

  • Be respectful of the brand roots and heritage, and use these as guardrails to progress the brand — use existing memory structures
  • Have ‘external’ advisors who have independent views so you can stay true to your guardianship, be it fellow brand managers, consumers in research, the head of marketing, or key agency partners
  • Follow the brand guidelines and embrace its spirit in updates or rejuvenation to ensure it is easily recognisable, so consumers connect emotionally and adoption is instant, with significant profitable impact

You will be rewarded

These are valuable assets you have been trusted with, so be considerate or put your ego in your back pocket and be a value creator. The brand will grow and you will be rewarded as your personal ambition for progress should follow shortly (even if this was not your key driving force).

Happy brand-building!


Erna GeorgeErna George is the marketing executive of Pioneer Foods’ Cereals & Other division. She has worked on both client and agency sides with diverse brands and categories — from FMCG, alcohol and agriculture to financial services and entertainment — in countries across many geographies, including South Africa, Mozambique, Nigeria, Kenya, India, Philippines and Brazil. She contributes the monthly “Fair Exchange” column, concerning business relationships and partnerships in marketing and brandland, to MarkLives.

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