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March 2021

Making light work of the hardest brand challenges

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It’s all too easy to focus on the glamour in branding – how it looks. We all like poring over colour palettes or discussing the merits of serif versus san serif (well, we do). But – and of course you know this already – that’s not all there is to a brand. Focusing on brand architecture, messaging and proposition are just as important, deserving time and attention. They’re the strategy, and that’s where your brand must start. They might be the harder bits, but they’ll really make your brand sing.

We’re going to share six pieces of advice to help make the trickier parts of your brand challenge easier and even enjoyable. They require care, but when you get them right it’ll reap rewards for your brand and give the depth it deserves.

1. Fix the foundations

Your brand should be fit for purpose and strong brands need a strong strategy to be credible. Strategy starts with good insights: market context (what’s changing), customers (what yours think), your company (what you offer and what employees think), and the competition (what they’re doing). Brand strategy reviews these and develops ideas based on the findings.

So how do you stay relevant as things change? You need to know what your customers want and need. A famous Japanese car manufacturer no longer talks about making cars but about mobility solutions for everyone, giving them credibility to introduce new products and services like shared car-pooling and transport aggregation tools. They’ll thrive while others get left behind. Our recent work with a global, wholesale insurers looked at how competitors talked about the business. Like many others, our client’s proposition focused on size and heritage. Customers asked, “So what?”. More progressive brands talked about what they enabled, with ‘confidence’ a common theme. Our insights had to express our client’s distinctive benefits, otherwise there was no differentiation. By talking to customers, brokers, leadership and employees we found that what they do isn’t so different, but how they do it is, giving their customers freedom to focus on business performance. This idea became the new heart of the proposition: Performance Freed. They can leapfrog competition because it’s no longer just about confidence, but about what that confidence does for their customers.

So, strategy needs curiosity and open-mindedness. Find insights that are distinctive, yet ensure they’re credible. With this strong foundation, the rest can follow.

2. Say something sensible

What about evolving your messaging when the world is changing so quickly?

We’re often asked how to develop messaging that can evolve for audiences but still reinforce the brand proposition.

As we’ve discussed, the insights that can elevate the brand and make it stand out are key to getting your messaging right. Next, finding a structure that reinforces your central idea but can still flex for different aspects of the offer is important to give your messaging depth. Adapting messaging to different audiences can also be a challenge. Having developed your core narrative you then have to think about who the audiences are for each part of your business. The unifying idea shouldn’t change but we would consider how it can adapt depending on what each business area must communicate. We create shorter, secondary narratives for each area, explaining the offer in more granular terms for their audience, nuanced to their particular needs and the services or products of each area.

What about evolving your messaging when the world is changing so quickly? Rebranding won’t often be the answer (you can’t do that whenever something changes) but you still need to be relevant. Over the last year during Covid, there have been different approaches. Some companies exploited the situation (not usually in a good way), but the best examples thought about it in the context of who they are and what they stand for. A supermarket chain, whose brand is centred around community, responded to the pandemic in ways that were true to their brand, partnering with a charity paying tribute to local heroes, stopping television advertising and instead donating the money to fight Covid in their local areas, demonstrating purpose in a positive and active way.

Your brand needs to endure. If you have to alter it every time something changes then it’s fundamentally wrong. If you get the strategy right, with messaging that supports your central brand idea, adapted for your audiences when relevant, then tinkering under the bonnet occasionally is fine but remember to stay true to who you are.

What about evolving your messaging when the world is changing so quickly?

3. Remember the experience

The value of a brand, that each of us holds in our mind, is based on our interactions with it. How people experience your brand really matters so it must come to life. It would be too easy to focus just on digital but while digital can amplify, it’s not the whole story.

In retail, with the decline of the high street, excellent digital experiences have become necessities. When a well-known high street retailer rebranded, they made their people integral and refocused attention on the service they’re known for and that makes them different. As they plan to move two-thirds on their stores online by 2025, they’ve invested heavily to ensure the digital experience is similar to instore – for example being able to return items instore bought online – so the transition is seamless and each supports the other.

What about competing when you’re not a cutting-edge digital business and already have an established physical brand? The banking sector has interesting examples, as traditional high street banks do battle with online-only disruptors. One high street bank recently rebranded with a new identity that cleverly combines fintech with humanity. It appeals to the next generation with investment in digital, but also to broader audiences by reminding us of their heritage and reimagining physical spaces as welcoming places that showcase products and services in a non-traditional bank environment. These spaces are designed to bring people together, creating a sense of community and emphasising the benefit of in-person service, where online-only can’t compete.

When it comes to your brand experience, focus on core strengths. Don’t try to be something you’re not. Online and physical experiences should support each other. Don’t rest on your laurels – always be thinking about ways to make your brand more accessible and relevant.

4. Bend but don’t break

Here, we look closely at brand architecture and how you can bend communications without breaking them, being flexible yet also single-minded.

This is a common challenge and it’s important that any solution fits your organisation’s strategic aims, as well as your audiences. A common problem we find is a tangle of brands and sub-brands that have accumulated over time. Brand systems are often over-complicated, or non-existent, and the master brand becomes diluted. Going back to basics and keeping things as clean and monolithic as possible will resolve such complexity. We often suggest developing decision trees to advise if a sub-brand needs its own brand. Unsurprisingly, most don’t. Creating a communications hierarchy that – rather than thinking about what you’re trying to sell or who you’re speaking to – thinks about what you’re trying to say is also helpful. At the top, you’ll have ‘the big story’ and the overarching message, and beyond that communications split into different types depending on what the message is or what services / products you’re communicating. This might represent a mind shift for organisations but it also allows your brand to flex, be more playful (or corporate, or serious) and be more illustrative. Some communications may encourage bolder imagery and provocative messages. Others might be better suited to an infographic approach. If your audiences are very different for each brand or sub-brand, content could be key to differentiation while imagery and visual components stay the same.

There’s no right or wrong answer, but start with the strategy and remember that, most of the time, less is more. Consider what you’re trying to achieve and how your brand supports that. Think from the outside in, forgetting internal siloes and thinking about what your audiences want to see instead.

5. Think global, act local

Brands will always need to nuance, and there’s rarely one size fits all

A common problem for multi-national organisations is how to resonate with local markets when the brand is developed by HQ in another country. This was a challenge for an Investment Manager we worked with who had rebranded in the US but needed to make the proposition work in EMEA, where we discovered the US-centric messaging didn’t resonate with audiences. Our solution was to reinterpret it, making it simpler for European markets so it could work in different languages and make sense to a different European outlook. Following this initial work, we were asked to create a pan-European campaign. From the outset, we knew this would need to be transcreated into different languages. We formed a steering group with our client, with representatives from each region where the campaign would appear, so we could work out whether the messaging we developed would work for each market. Keeping the messaging clear and simple was key. Our success led to the US commissioning us again for another, similar project.

Another challenge we encounter is how to follow global brand identity guidelines. You might be repositioning the brand locally, but there will be visual elements – logos, colours and typefaces – that cannot change. Where we often find some latitude is with imagery and graphics, so this is where we can focus our efforts, taking the core identity and building on it, not breaking it. Photography is an important element as you can be more literal or metaphoric with it depending on your message. As long as you maintain any overarching stylistic guidelines, you’ll have some wiggle room. Iconography can also add synergy and bring together new messaging and existing visual identity in a crafted way that feels fresh but still stays visually true to the global brand.

Brands will always need to nuance, and there’s rarely one size fits all. Engagement is crucial when you need to develop your global brand locally. Speaking to audiences in the market to develop your thinking and, ideally, test it before you go to market. When it comes to messaging, keep things short and simple, and avoid those idioms that can be hard to translate.

Brands will always need to nuanceand there’s rarely one size fits all

6. Practise what you preach

You’ve developed your external brand and it’s working brilliantly. But it’s meaningless if your internal employer brand isn’t aligned with your external brand too. So how do you ensure the two fit?

It’s important to remember that your brand is nothing without the people behind it – your people are your greatest asset – so we believe that by putting your people front and centre you can bring your internal and external brand together most successfully. Messaging should align, so internal messaging should support and enhance external messaging. We believe the best synergies happen when employees are given the spotlight, highlighting case studies and stories that they’re involved with. What’s more, such an approach brings authenticity to your brand. The really good examples carry this through to social media, where the focus is away from the corporate and more on the real people who work at the organisation, with posts that support the external brand both visually and verbally. Social media also provides the opportunity to convey aspects of your brand that may not come to life as easily on a website – diversity and inclusion, for example, which can be so powerful for your audiences when done well. We’ve also enjoyed examples where companies hand over control of their social media accounts to their people. It makes for content that is engaging, real and honest.

So, when it comes to practising what you preach, your internal brand must mirror your external brand. Use your people as your brand ambassadors to promote your external messages. Your brand is only as good as your people – use them wisely.

Conclusion

We hope we’ve demonstrated that even the trickiest of brand challenges can be dealt with. Of course, we’ve had plenty of practice. Developing solid brand strategies, adapting messages for different audiences and contexts, ensuring experience matches the offer, examining brand architecture, nuancing brands for local markets and campaigns, and making sure employer brand matches the external promise are all challenges we’re used to solving. They may need consideration, and even quite a bit of hard work, but ignore them at your peril. Get them right and your organisation’s brand will only benefit and thrive. 

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