Why someone will always want to be the exception

Brand identity management: why someone will always want to be an exception

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Pitch a new brand identity system to almost any large company with multiple divisions and inevitably someone will plead to be an exception to the new rules. This is particularly true where brands or divisions have had their own identity in the past. Attempts to consolidate a myriad of “brands” into a consistent brand identity system or to replace a whole portfolio of marques with a single power brand will be met with varying volumes of indignation.

Let’s assume there’s a strong business case for doing this. Because that should be a given. And let’s assume that the business case is driven by by a powerful pain point or a significant prompt – because otherwise why would you be motivated to look at change in the first place. Finally, let’s assume that the design team have done a great job and the new identity is powerful, distinctive and well crafted.

Why the resistance?

In my experience, it’s often because when you introduce a new brand identity system you take away something that people have real ownership of. Once people have an identity that feels like theirs and they have formed an association with it that binds them together as a group, that identity in essence becomes their flag. It is in effect a symbol of their working life. Changing that is tantamount to burning the flag. People respond viscerally to such a shift but they look to articulate their concerns logically – and in a business context, that inevitably means they frame their arguments against what is being proposed commercially.

Here are some of the more predictable lines of argument:
• “That’s not what people look for”
• “Our clients need to know it’s us”
• “We need to highlight this”
• “That’s not what works in our experience”
• “We’re not comfortable with that”
• “We can’t compete with that”
• “We need to fit in with others in order to be credible”
• “It’s not exciting enough”
• “That’s not us”
• “Changing is a waste of money”
• “We don’t want to be that close to the corporate brand”

If these or other lines of resistance are clogging up your inbox heading into the brand implementation stage, here are three things you need to query:

1. Why do they not want to be part of the wider group? Identity fills a vacuum. Often if I’m undertaking a change project inside an organisation that has had a plethora of brands, there is a distinct lack of core identity. People generate or adopt brands in order to have something to be part of (whether they recognise that’s why they’re doing it or not). And because there is often no central brand management function controlling who can be a “brand”, identities proliferate like rabbits. The danger sign for me is when internally facing functions identify themselves as something other than the brand that employs them, the organisation has a serious, and literal, identity crisis.

Once people have an identity that they “own”, it becomes a symbol of their working life. Changing that is tantamount to burning the flag.

To build belief in what is happening, it’s vital that you forge a deepening bond between the functions and the new flag you are asking them to serve under. Purpose, values, behaviours and a strong understanding of the united strategy going forward are critically important. So is patience. You need to engage in conversations with the change-resistant that allow them to freely and frankly express their concerns. And you need to build enough flexibility into your own thinking that if they do raise valid points, you are prepared to step back, evaluate what has been raised and adjust. It’s another one of those fascinating contradictions in branding. Great brand management combines the abilities to be both definitive and iterative.

At the same time, if a group’s independence is so entrenched that the outliers are determined never to be part of the corporate brand, they probably need a reminder from the corridors of power as to who writes their pay checks.

2. What are they really missing? It’s tempting for customer-facing personnel to believe that the brand they’ve been operating under is a critical part of their success. Sometimes that can be because they fundamentally misunderstand the role of the brand.

One of the distinctions that I work very hard to establish is the difference between identity and messages. Frontline staff will sometimes tell me adamantly that the (new) branding is all wrong when the real problem lies with what they are being told they need to talk about – or the lack of such prompts. To address this, hold a series of workshops on key messages with teams and distil what you learn down to a series of compelling and short statements that they can use in contact centres, at trade fairs, in-store etc. Fill these elevator statements out with more detailed explanations for times when elaboration is required.

At the same time, examine the permission system under which these staff operate. What are they directly empowered to do? What you’re looking for here is to make sure that the messages people give, and the actions they are allowed and feel comfortable to take, are directly aligned.

3. What happens if you give in? Inevitably the group requesting to be exempt from the new rules is seeing what they do in isolation. But it’s critical that you evaluate such requests from the point of view of the wider context. Every decision you make has ramifications for every other brand in the portfolio. If you make an exception for one brand in one situation, what precedent does that create – and how far could that precedent spread?

The decision to allow one sub-sub-brand opens the door to more. The decision to include an extra colour has the potential to change the palette for everyone. The choice of a name variation locks in confusion. Not unreasonably, the ripples of exception create expectations that others too can plead their case for independence and difference. It doesn’t take long under such circumstances for the regime of exceptions to over-rule the rules and for the consistent brand system that the designers have slaved over for months to be mired in contradictions.

My own guiding rule to anyone asking for an exception? Say No. Until you have to say Yes (but understand that Yes must mean Yes for everyone).

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