Brand complexity – when ‘keep it simple’ may not be the best approach

Brand complexityBrands are complex entities and sometimes we can be doing them a disservice in pursuing simplification. I used to employ an approach in creating brand strategies called the Delta Plan: essentially this was a funnel for distilling all the information we had about the brand, its environment, its competitors and such, down to a single sheet of paper. I still believe that strategies should be pared down to simple objectives – they are plans of action, and are about managing and employing resources in order to achieve clear goals. However, they don’t help us to understand the brand itself in all its wonderful complexity, where trying to simplify its values or operations may be like putting a whole day of food, menus and tasty meals into a blender and converting it into a single soup.

Let’s consider just one aspect: the brand personality. Relate this to the personality of a person – perhaps your own. It is complex and changing and may appear differently to a range of individuals. Your subordinates may have one view of you, while your superiors may see you quite differently. To your parents you are judged as a son or daughter – perhaps to be protected or as a source of help and solace. You children may view you as a figure of authority and protection, while your spouse may see you as a lover and a romantic. In short, you have multiple selves that are constantly on the move.

The same is true of the brand; to customers it may present as a problem solver or reliable helper. Corporate staff may see the brand as a parent or grandparent, while directors may see it as a vulnerable child in need of protection or nurture. Suppliers may view the brand a figure of power… even something of a bully, while competitors may see it as a villan or perhaps as a sleeping dog, best left to lie. This is only one aspect of the brand’s personality in terms of its interaction with its various audiences, and highlights why it is important to understand these dynamics and their complex interactions rather than attempt to simplify them. Our relationshops with brands are emotional, and we know how complex are emotions.

Out of these complexities come many of the strengths of brands. It allows them to interact with multiple audiences on different levels. I’ve had issues in the past with some US companies seeking to create brand strategies across Europe, and looking to develop a simple ‘pan-European’ approach. Such approaches are usually doomed. They don’t come to terms with the fact that not only are customers significantly different in, say, France, Germany, Italy and Greece, for example, but so are staff, employees, suppliers and competitors. Accepting the ‘multiple selves’ within the brand allows us capitalise on the inherent flexibility.

This is not just a case for international brands. Understanding your brand’s complexity within its own complex environment allows you to build on certain strengths important to one set of stakeholders, and equally polish another facet of the brand for another sub-set of the audience. Complexity need not be seen as something daunting but simple requiring different approaches. Let us look at the case of the SWOT analysis. Creating an analysis for a brand falls into the trap of simplicity and is generally unhelpful.

A SWOT analysis is only useful when it is contextual. It can be a very powerful tool when looking at a particular brand/stakeholder relationship in its historical and cultural context. For example, the results of an analysis for (say) your brand of cooking oil as viewed by a retail customer in Scotland may be very different from that in the context of a buyer in a chain of London delicatessen or a distributor in southern France. Understanding and appreciating complexity can ultimately lead to a deeper and more fine-grained understanding of our own brand and its real relationships.



  1. Hiya

    I agree that there can be a tendency to oversimplify brands, to strip away some of the more dynamic aspects of their personality or interactive states. And it’s often in these areas that some of the most interesting brand facets can be found…

    However, on the flip side of the argument, one does need to distil a brand to an essence in order to ensure that it has a clear motive and core proposition.

    Everything else can then be built on from there. This helps to keep the brand focussed and on track at all times, plus means that the customer proposition is easily explainable.


    1. Thanks for that Neil… and I agree. A point I was trying to make is that (as you say) simplification is vital for strategy, objective setting and planning, however, accepting complexity is key to understanding brand personality.

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