Carry on building your brand

Six enduring brand building principles

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Keep Calm and Carry On is a cultural marque in its own right, but in these turbulent times, it’s still good advice for those charged with looking to build brands.

At the beginning of the Second World War, the British Government designed three posters to help keep spirits high. All featured the crown of the monarch, with a red background and an uplifting slogan in white type. Two and a half million copies of the “Keep Calm and Carry On” poster were printed but never circulated. 60 years later, bookseller Stuart Manley discovered a copy of the poster in a book he bought at auction, framed it and put it in his shop. In 2005, the poster was featured in a newspaper supplement as a Christmas gift idea, and demand boomed. Since then, the design has been reproduced, reworked and applied in all sorts of ways.

Why is brand-building in so much flux?

The marque itself may have run its course as a cultural phenomenon in the eyes of some, but the message is apt for marketers navigating their brands through what many see as strange times. Partly, that’s because it’s so easy to be distracted now by the blizzard of statements, trends, ideas, outrage and rebuttal that cram our screens. Partly, it’s because marketing itself seems locked in a fretful discourse over the extent to which data trumps creativity. Partly, it’s because brands themselves seem so commonplace that many fail to carry anything like the residual loyalty that they expect. And partly, as Geoffrey Colon reminds us, disruption is resetting the rules. “The most disruptive marketers believe in using all possibilities available to them, including nondigital tools, in a world with ever more abundant goods and greater access to ever more information. This sometimes runs in contradiction to older systems rooted in hierarchy, monopoly, and scarcity.”

The six brand-building principles

So, as the pressure goes on marketing teams to make their brands work harder, how should they respond? Here are my six bedrock principles for how marketers can continue to calmly and powerfully carry on building brands that will mean something:

  1. Understand your contribution – powerful brands understand what they bring to a market that others don’t. They see their presence as a role: one that appeals to consumers, counter-balances competitors and stabilises interest and demand. What does your brand do for the sector, and what does the sector do for you? In some ways, your operating environment is a community in which you build your brand. The critical judgment is knowing what to align with and where to diverge.
  1. Keep your eye on the value, not on the trends – the purpose of brands is to path the way for pricing that exceeds the non-branded default. Is the work you’re doing adding to the perceived value of your brand in the eyes of consumers, or is it just raising awareness?
  1. Don’t over-react – as the media looks to cash in on the headline power of burgeoning controversy, it’s easy to get pulled into a Q&A vortex. The media has a job to do in investigating what is or isn’t news; but brands also have a responsibility to set limits around how they will engage, what they will engage on, and when their investment in this to-ing and fro-ing has run its course. Hilton Barbour described what’s happening wonderfully the other day as “a rise in online outrage and the attention span of goldfish”. Know what you’ll take a stance on and what you won’t, and what you’ll argue over and what you won’t – but, as per my post last week, do so through the lenses of what your consumers are interested in. Answer to the people who (will) buy from you.
  1. Run your story – the best marketers I know have a narrative for their brand that will build over the years ahead. For some, it’s a mental map, for others it’s detailed storylines. Either way, it captures how the brand will engage with customers and invite new prospects in over the foreseeable future. Some have described it as “the story of my time here”. Of course, plots can change, developments can falter, markets can accelerate or stall, but the plan, in its original form and as it evolves, keeps everyone true to the direction and, more importantly, the intention.
  1. Don’t wander. Know what you’re building – it’s always tempting to believe that throwing a wider net will bring in more fish. But there are plenty of examples of brands that have gone off course because they got interested in something and diversified into a sector that baffled their customers, or that thought they were competitive in a new area when in reality they were seriously out-gunned. That’s not to say brands shouldn’t expand their mandate, particularly if they are operating at critical mass, but do so in ways that align with the principles above: watch the shifts in the market (and identify how you can make a valuable contribution); aim for expanded margin not just expanded presence; consider carefully (but not slowly); and think through how this change in your brand will add to your story, or introduce a fascinating sub-plot.
  1. Repetition is powerful. (That’s right. Repetition is powerful) – There is nothing to suggest that the challenges facing marketers will abate or that the issues themselves will become simpler. While the business press makes much of the pressures of change, the power of consistency should not be under-estimated. Brands with a clear sense of their own worth and identity will draw on these underlying principles to calmly excel and grow stronger. They will continue to reinforce through repetition a powerful and reliable sense of who they are. While marketers can quickly become impatient with historic brand icons, phrases and visual signatures, these work as convenient short-cuts for time-pressed consumers. Therefore abandon what you are recognised by with caution. Being constant is a discipline. Those that aren’t will resort to propelling themselves like pinballs from one idea to another in the hope that somehow freneticism will see them through.

Note: A version of this post has been published elsewhere under the title 6 Ways Brands Can Keep Calm and Carry On.

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