Three myths that will hurt your brand

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Everybody wants to believe they work for brands that are among the best. But just as marketers are in the business of telling others stories, they also tell themselves stories about the brands they work for. And some of those myths are just not good.

Here are three examples of how brands tell themselves the wrong things and where that can lead.

“Digital will save us”

Unilever’s Keith Weed has argued that a whole generation of marketers are failing to tool up fast enough for the world of marketing that lies ahead. According to Weed, marketing pros can be divided into three groups: those who have engaged with digital to keep up; those who know no other way because they were born and bred into a digital world; and the group Weed refers to as “the lost generation” who are leading brands and businesses but whose knowledge of digital is superficial at best.

I don’t disagree at all that there are those that get the opportunities that digital offers and those that don’t. But I’d go further. To me, that lost group are not just those who fail to understand digital marketing. They are the brand leaders and managers from across the generations who have become panacea-hunters. Recently I was at a meeting with a leadership team who told me that the future of their business lay in the fact that they were going to be a digital organisation. When I asked them what that institution looked like, they essentially told me they didn’t know yet. It was a work in progress. I refrained from stating what they had clearly missed – putting the word “digital” in front of something you can’t even imagine doesn’t make it more viable.

“Our brand is great (I think)”

When Interbrand released their study of the best brands in the world, Global CEO Jez Frampton talked about what it takes to grow a brand in today’s “Age of You”: “Companies have to be more comprehensive, creative, and customer-centric. The only way to navigate the multiple avenues of growth is to develop a clear and cohesive strategy that is completely designed around the customer. Growth comes from a clear strategy and exceptional customer experiences.”

A brand is only as good as the difference it makes and the growth it creates as a result

I don’t disagree with any of that, of course. But it does strike me that so many brands are still banking on improvement to get them to where they want to be. To me, that ignores (or at least downplays) the market dynamics that decide who wins and who doesn’t. You see I don’t think it’s enough to focus on having a brand you think is great or even better; it’s about growing a brand that out-competes and out-performs relative to everyone around you and to what consumers are looking for. You can’t just have a strategy and experiences and a story. A brand is only as good as the difference it makes and the growth it creates as a result.

It’s not about what a brand is, or has. It’s about what a brand does. Too few marketers seem prepared to make the calls that Mr Frampton argues for: they think they’re comprehensive, creative, and customer-centric; what they don’t know is whether they actually are comprehensive, creative and customer-centric enough, i.e. what do their customers think about them, and how do they know?

“That’s the agency’s job”

As agencies struggle to articulate their role in today’s marketing environments, it’s tempting for them to take on more and more of the responsibilities for the brands in their charge. At one level, I applaud that. Agencies have an important and valuable role to play. At another level, I am dismayed by the number of executives who have essentially “outsourced” the understanding and the mechanics of a significant company asset to an outside organisation. Because when that happens, there is no-one from within the business, with enough understanding of the wider situations, driving the integration of the business strategy and the brands.

I think CMOs in this situation have confused the role of the pilot and the navigator. The role the pilot is to know to the mission; the role of the navigator is to get them there. If the CMO is not the one driving the decisions, it is tempting for brands to devolve into campaign-focused sales generators as the business looks to the marketing team (and therefore its suppliers) to do the heavy lifting on revenue generation. Inevitably, the agency becomes a short-term tactician, pushing campaigns into market on schedule but without the time or the resources to think through how these short-term gains build entrenched equity.

As Darren Wooley of TrinityP3 so rightly points out, “Today it is the marketer’s responsibility to define the role of the agency not only at the time of establishing the relationships, but on a regular basis as the needs of the marketer change.” That means that marketers not only need to have control of their brands, they must also draw on the diverse skills at their disposal in ways that actively enhance their brands’ capabilities. Unless they hold the vision, the agency is reduced to only operating on low-beam.

I applaud the talk for agencies to step up and become strategic partners. I think that performance focused arrangements make sense. But the onus is not one way. The people who drive the brands must power the strategy because it is their brand. And both client and agency must have performance expectations of each other and of the arrangement. Last word on this from Stephan Argent, who wrote the article that Wooley is quoted in, “If you’ve not considered the role of your agency(s) recently, ask your teams what they think the role of your agency(s) should be.  Better yet, ask your agency(s) what they think their role is too. The answers (and the gaps) might surprise you.”

Three things to ask

Everyone would like to believe that there is a magic answer. Everyone would like to believe that part of the work is done, or that there are people they can hand over to. The fact is brands don’t work that way – or at least they don’t if you truly want to get the most out of them.

Three questions will keep you on course:

  • Do we fundamentally understand how to apply the concepts we say we believe in to our brands?
  • Why is our growth strategy competitive?
  • When, where and how do our agencies bring out the best in us – and what are we doing to actively guide them through?

Note: A version of this post has been published elsewhere under the title Three Beliefs That Will Kill Your Brand.

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