brand narrative

Volkswagen embedded brand values

Volkswagen and brand contagion

A brand is a social construct and as such it does not exist in a vacuum.  It is socially and historically contextual. A brand narrative draws upon these contexts and informs our understanding and our emotional relationships that they engender.

The recent issues facing Volkswagen bring these connections into sharp focus. When we consider the brand values of VW, we see them as shared and deeply embedded in those of the German auto industry in general. They include technical and engineering expertise, quality of manufacture and attention to detail. These qualities we see shared and associated with other individual brands such as Mercedes and BMW.

If many VW values are shared and embedded in our perceptions of German car manufacture, they also draw upon what the world may see as German national values. These may include probity, rule-following, bureaucratic fussiness and openness.

It’s easy to see how VW has enjoyed and built its brand persona upon the wider perceptions of both the industry and national values.

However, just as the brand may suffer from any failure in the encompassing brand values – the converse is also true. VW’s apparent lapse in standards, running contrary to our perception of their values, also has repercussions for the German auto industry as a whole. We may question the brand values of the whole cohort.

As the ripples spread out, long-held impressions of German national principles and brand dimensions cannot avoid damage. This in turn may affect and cause us to questions those values as attributed to other businesses and brands closely identified with national characteristics.

It is a salutary reminder that no brand is an island and value it may acquire or inherit from a sector, industry or a nation is synergic. All may prosper or suffer damage from the actions of others.


Brands must have walls, windows and doors

Walls, Windows andLet’s think of a brand as a fine building with walls, windows and doors.  These are the essential and useful features of any building. Properly constructed and used a building is sound, welcoming and vibrant, but care must be taken in the use of those same features to ensure that it doesn’t become a fortress, or worse, a prison.


A brand’s walls define what it is, its scope and boundaries. Walls people understand a brand in terms of what it does and what it doesn’t do. This clarity is as important for those working on the brand  as it is for the public outside. As well as separating the brand, walls also connect – they are the touch points where the public contact the brand.

The danger is that walls can become fortifications. The brand can feel too safe and secure behind them and avoid contact with the challenging world outside. The walls can grow too high and the brand can no longer see out and understand what is happening outside.


Fortunately brands also have windows. Through the windows the public can see into the brand and understand it. These are the communications conduits – advertising, press and public relations, digital and social media windows. It’s through these windows that the brand can speak, shout, wave and smile.

Windows work both ways – not only should the world be able to look in on the brand, but the brand can observe, understand and take note of the world it inhabits. These are the windows of customer service, and research – where the brand watches and listens.

Brands can choose how big to make their windows and how many. Plenty of big windows shed a lot of light into the brand and not all brand stewards like this. When problems occur its all to easy to start drawing the curtains.

But windows are useful for communication – you can see, show and demonstrate, but there is always that pane of glass between the brand and the public. To genuinely engage we need doors.


Doors are where people actively connect with the brand. They are the points where the public purchases products and services, where the become emotionally involved. These are the gateways where the brand comes forth and meets its people – but more importantly, where it allows the world in – not just to observe but to connect. Doorways are where we place our welcome mats.

All three elements are equally important for a sound and effective brand:

Walls define the purpose, borders and remit of the brand, showing both public and staff where the brand stands.

Windows are vital for communications – transparency is the key.

Doors are where the public and the brand meet – not where people are locked out.

Virgin rail behaving true to brand values.

We have all noted the recent farce with the government back-pedalling rapidly over the franchise process – probably with a mixture of incredulity and eye-rolling.

Aside from the political issues and outcomes, I was quite heartened with how the Virgin brand comes out of this. Whether you consider it creditable or not, the brand acted true to its values. Much of the personification of those values is embodied in Mr Branson, and the way he goes about his business. But in this instance he and the brand acted in a way we would have expected.

I’m not getting into an argument over whether it was right or wrong – just that the brand behaved authentically.

If we look at the long brand narrative, from selling imported vinyl, to taking on the high street, launching airlines and digging in its toes against BA, it has always behaved in character.

I suggest this little chapter will not reflect badly on the company. One thing the public likes from its brands is consistency, and Virgin certainly seems to demonstrate that trait.

Legal victories may be bad for brands

JusticeWhen your brand wins a legal battle it may be good for the company but can damage brand values and engagement.

Apple have been smugly congratulating themselves after their court victory over Samsung. We can all understand – when your success is built around product innovation, protecting your intellectual property must be at the front of your corporate mind. But perversely, the public may not share in the jubilation.

Legal confrontations are not particularly edifying. Especially if you are a powerful, brand leader, there is always a reaction to feel sympathy for the underdog. I’m sure many of us remember the reputation Microsoft earned by their eagerness to rush to litigation.

Nobody likes to see dirty washing done in public. Facebook’s internal conflicts did little to endear the management to its public. All of these actions reflect upon the brand values and can be internally damaging.

The discourse within organizations that are involved in litigious processes is indicative of lawyers’ confrontational culture. The metaphors are about battles, about fighting, winning, victories and defeats. The dialogues are adopted throughout the organization. Staff understand who the ‘enemy’ is. The brand ambassadors begin to use the discourse of street-fighters. The ‘battles’ become part of the brand narrative and define its values.

Of course we must protect our IPR and be prepared to stand up for our brand. But it is also important from a brand leadership standpoint that we don’t allow the corrosive and hostile attitude to damage our values.

The narrative of new media brands is the story of revolution.

Red Flag of revolutionIt is glib to talk about ‘The New Media Revolution’, or ‘The Digital Revolution’, or, more recently the ‘The Social Network Revolution’ – but if we look closely at the brand stories, they seem to follow the narrative of a revolution. From the start-ups in silicon valley, through the dotcom boom and into Twitter and Facebook, the analogy of the progress of a brand revolution parallels the storylines of such events as those of 18th century France and the United States, or 20th century Russia.

Consider the chapters:

  • Chapter One – the visionary sees a need for change. He or she progresses their ideas, perhaps working in close co-operation was a very small group of like-minded associates.
  • Chapter Two – the manifesto is published and immediately meets opposition from the establishment. Status quo is threatened and the revolutionary ideas are dismissed, ridiculed or oppressed.
  • Chapter Three – the revolution gains momentum. First zealots flock to the banner, then the more cautious population. The establishment can no longer ignore the revolution. Battle lines are drawn: people must choose between support or conflict or be swept aside.
  • Chapter Four – revolution is successful. It is swept to power and its commune achieves heroic status. The original visionaries are almost deified. The people are happy and reap the befits of the new order.
  • Chapter Five – the revolution becomes the establishment. Revolutionary leadership begins to be observed as self-serving. There is dissent about direction and leadership faction emerge.
  • Chapter Six – disillusion sets in. Followers become disappointed; perceptions of corruption begin to be whispered. Factions break away as agendas conflict. The population becomes discontented and leadership increasingly distant.
  • Chapter Seven –  centrifugal forces pull the revolution apart. There may be destructive factionalization or the fermentation of counter-revolution. The leadership is seen to have feet of clay. The population cries out for change and the regime has lost support. Conditions are right for a new visionary, a new messiah… or the return to the old reactionary ways.

Perhaps this is a bleak view of revolution, but I think the narrative metaphor can be applied to many of the brand histories that we have seen since the dawn of the digital age. I hope that a view of the potential dangers can help the visionaries avoid some of the pitfalls that the story of revolution holds.

There have been positive revolutions, successful over time and  every revolutionary brand should seek to emulate these and not let their brand narrative become that of ‘Animal Farm‘.