Why brands need vision.

Does your brand know where it’s going? More importantly, do you know where you want it to go?

When developing a brand or briefing consultants it’s critical to consider what you want your brand to look like in, say, ten years time. Don’t focus on where you are now.

Where do you hope your business will be? Will it have grown, or relocated? What mix of products or services would you like it to be providing?

What do you think the world will look like – how will your market change? At the top of the list, what will your audience be – will you be selling to just the same people or perhaps a wider market, maybe more international – people who want different things from you.

A brand’s relationship with its audience is primarily an emotional one, so you need to spend some time considering what you want the nature of that relationship to be.

Where’s the brand going – and where are you going?

You also need to consider what your ambitions are for your business. Will it be a lifestyle business or will you be looking to sell? This could have a major impact on how you want your brand to be.

Consideration of your brand vision can be enjoyable and fun. It’s about looking at a big picture and your wishes and desires for that brand. You may be just at the start of that journey and are having to deal with all the day-to-day issues of the business. Taking time out to crystallise your dreams can re-energise you and your budding brand.

The same is true for a brand that’s been around for some time.  Is the vision that existed at the start still there – is it still relevant for today – is it fit for tomorrow?

Practical steps

Take some time out to dream, then write down your vision. Allow your imagination to fly, don’t anchor it down.

Talk to others, discuss your vision. Colleagues may add to and enhance it. The more it is talked about, the more substance it will have and the more likely to be realised.

If you are working with outside consultants or specialists, your vision may be the most useful starting point you can give them, and a benchmark against which to measure results.


Favourite Brands – Virgin

There are lots of reviews of top brands… rankings, awards and well-researched analysis. If you want some more scientific insight, where better to look than Superbrands.

However, I like to occasionally indulge myself in looking at my own favourite brands – in a non-scientific and wholly subjective manner. My justification for this is my belief in the power of the emotional dimension of branding. This is not as open to scientific analysis though its manifestations may be quantified.

virgin logoMy choice for this piece is Virgin. I begin my working life when Virgin was still a baby brand and watched it grow up. For me it is an ideal example of consistent, emotional brand values.

It is hard to put your finger on the spirit which runs throughout the brand and engages with the public. It has much of the zeitgeist of the 70’s – slightly hippy and irreverent, perhaps it strikes a chord with those who have grown up with the brand. It is difficult to believe the same emotional theme could run throughout a business story that began with record stores and diversified and transformed through air travel, railways, new media and telecoms, financial services and now… space travel?

A key dimension has almost certainly been people. It’s glib to use terms like ‘brand ambassadors’ and I’m not sure that it is useful. It suggests that staff have another, special role. In truth the people are just doing their jobs, but the way they go about them embodies the brand spirit.

Another factor is probably the structure. A lot of what Virgin does runs contrary to accepted business wisdom. When Richard Branson took the business back into private ownership it ensured it had the flexibility to do things its own way. As regular plc, with a board with shareholders to answer to, it’s possible that business would never have moved into such seemingly unconnected arenas. Had it stuck to the record business it might have gone the way of HMV.

That’s why I’m nominating Virgin as one of my top brands – it has done things it’s own way – and understands that the value of the brand transcends the standard business models. It has maintained the emotional core, consistently over half a century, still with the cockyness of a bright teenager.

The seven pillars of export branding

sevenpillarsAt its core, all branding is the same – however, when a brand moves into the international arena, there are some critical dimensions that must be considered.

1. Language

This may seem obvious, but does your brand name translate into your target languages? Even proper names may have an unintended meaning. Don’t just think of the spelling – when pronounced, even seemingly harmless words may have unintended meanings.

Do you use descriptive words in your brand such as, ‘Norfolk Car Parts’ or ‘Budget Printing’? Will these words be meaningful in your selected markets.

You may not need to change a brand name, but it may help to emphasise just part of your title.

Also consider any statements or strap-lines that form part of your corporate signature; these may need adapting in translation.

2. Culture

While language may be easy to check, culture is rather more subtle, and potentially a bigger trap. There is no quick fix. You need to do your research and immerse yourself as far as possible in the culture of your market.  Look at the media, both online and offline; look at your competitors.

Best of all, expose your brand to nationals of your target markets. Discuss your ambitions. Use your partners in-market; agents, distributors etc. Talk to embassy staff.

You’ll soon appreciate how culture impacts upon many of the other dimensions of your branding activity.

3. Brand Story

Is your brand narrative relevant to your target market? Things that may seem unimportant at home may be leveraged to advantage internationally. While your location may have little relevance to home customers, it may be a strong plus abroad. Consider the cultural context: for example, history of a family business may be very important in certain markets.

4. Competitive positioning

The perception of your brand position relative to your competitors from market to market. Be aware and be sensitive, you can often use this to your advantage. Don’t assume that your positioning will be the same as it is at home.

5. Core Values

Your core values are what makes your brand what it is. They should be strong and consistent wherever you do business. You must be clear about them and communicate them to all you work with – your staff, your partners in market, your customers and supply chain. Don’t tinker with them, but just be aware that certain values may be more important in some markets more than others.

6. IPR

Intellectual property rights – consider them all; brand names, trademarks, patents, designs, copyright etc.

Legal protection may be difficult or costly across export markets, but you must give them consideration. It is important to give your brand all the protection you can apply or afford. It is equally important to make sure you don’t infringe the IPR of others.

Remember, a strong brand can often be the best protection you can get – be first to market, establish a strong presence and leave potential copyists playing catch-up.

7. Visual communications.

Though language is important, visual and non-verbal communications have an equally powerful part to play. When you see the ‘golden arches’ of Macdonalds, or the Apple symbol, you don’t need the name. Strong visual symbolism can be a means of transcending language difficulties.

Consider the elements of your corporate identity, symbols, colours, typography. Maintain rigid visual standards.

It’s important to look at the cultural context of your visual elements. What semantic connotations do your colours have? In many cultures colours are far more important, and signify different states.

B2B brand benefits are relative.

Brand values and more importantly, brand values, are not always the same throughout the marketing chain.

Some years ago I was pitching for a project for a major retail brand, when I realised how crucial our own brand reputation was. We had clearly demonstrated we could deliver the ideal solution; our product knowledge, understanding and research was spot on; timescales were realistic and prices very competitive. However, we lost the business to a competitor with a stronger brand who we were sure had far less product knowledge, fewer in-house specialists and would certainly be much more expensive.


What we had failed to grasp was that the brand benefits of a supplier are specific to the customer you are dealing with. We were negotiating with a middle range line manager. Of course he shared the corporate ambitions, but also had a personal agenda that meant he needed to be sure he would look good in front of his boss and not suffer too badly if the supplier did not perform.

He chose a ‘bigger’ brand. There used to be a saying many years ago, that: ‘Nobody got sacked for specifying IBM’. There was a safety factor behind the brand.

The lesson for all businesses is to understand the priorities throughout the marketing chain. What may be key benefits for the end-user may not be top of the list for the distributor or retailer. Of course all the benefits are components of the brand offer. If a brand is to sustain that offer in-depth it must satisfy all stakeholders. However, it is important to understand and communicate the relative benefits to each of the individual parties.

You have a chain of customers each with their own focus, and customers only listen to one radio station – WIIFM – ‘What’s in it for me’.

Don’t blame retail brand slaughter on the internet.

HMVWe’ve seen quite a bit of brand trauma on the high street recently with big names such as Comet, HMV, Jessops and Blockbuster, among others, hitting brick walls.

It’s easy to jump to a lot of mistaken conclusions. Retail is very visible and as many manufacturing and service companies have also suffered – it’s just that their profiles are not so high.

One of the assumptions we hear is that e-commerce and the internet is ruining the high street. But the reality is simply that people’s shopping habits are changing. Online shopping, downloading music and movies, and digital technologies are part of the landscape. But these technologies are not that new. E-commerce has been with us for around 20 years. iTunes is part of life. Of course technology is rapidly evolving, but many retail brands have recognised and embraced change, adapted and are flourishing.

It is natural for brands to look outside for their nemesis rather than analyse their own shortcomings. Sadly, established and successful brands become complacent and only notice the changing landscape when it is too late and struggle to adjust. Change is no longer in their DNA.

There is nothing fundamentally wrong with many of these brands, just their strategic management lost direction.

A brand such as HMV has huge value, a history to envy and a unique place in the music landscape. The business model was just no longer robust. The management tried many tactical adjustments but more fundamental change was needed. Perhaps the cold light of administration will focus the thinking. This is a brand with real values that will be snapped up, I’m sure.

Similarly, Jessops. We saw how even Kodak lost its way and failed to come to terms with digital imaging. Jessops has a unique place in retail. Of course, the rate of change caught it out, and it needs the breathing space to reassess itself and re-position its offer. Again the brand has some strong core values and it’s little wonder there is a good deal of interest it – last Thursday, PwC confirmed that Dragons’ Den entrepreneur Peter Jones was among a number of buyers looking seriously into acquiring it.

Brand quirks are good for you.

A brand quirk is a feature or attribute that does nothing to enhance the performance of the product or service, but provides a unique point of differentiation.

QQIn areas where the delivery may be considered a commodity, differentiation is at a premium. This is where the value or a ‘quirk’ may be really telling  – it ups the ‘Quirk Quotient’.

Some of the most notable examples appear in the confectionery or countline sectors. There are very few real differentiators between chocolate bars, few notable differences you can make. The most we can manipulate are marginal variations around a few popular themes.

Consider the shape of the ‘Toblerone’ bar. It has no effect on the taste of the product, provides no enhancement in itself – but it is a quirk or huge value in brand identity and differentiation.

The round Smarties tube is another quirk. It provides no tangible benefit. In fact, I heard a well-reasoned argument from a packaging specialist that a rectangular tube makes far more sense, providing better space occupancy in transit. I understand it was even tried once, but for the public, the round tube is part of the Smartie offer.

The hole in a Polo mint or a Lifesaver has no flavour enhancing property – it is a quirk – but of inestimable brand value.

Quirks are as important as brand assets as are brand names, logos, colour schemes and all the other identity collateral.

Though we understand their value, quirks are among the most difficult things to create successfully. They are often serendipitous, springing from creative irrelevancies and often coming from unlikely quarters within the organisation.

Consciously creating a valuable quirk is as difficult as creating a video that is ‘guaranteed’ to go viral.

If you have a brand that is clearly differentiated in terms of the benefits it delivers, you should concentrate on communicating them. If not, a quirk may help. There is no handbook to creating a killer quirk, but I suspect that the necessary conditions include an organisation that loves and believes in its product or service, that creates a truly innovative environment and has people with a sense of fun and playfulness.

What will do the Google brand most damage – profit slump or communications bungling?

Google logoShare trading in Google was suspended for a while when its third-quarter results were published early by mistake.

The results revealed a 20% profit slump, but what was the biggest potential long-term damage to the brand – the figures or the bungling?

Business results matter, but all companies have ups and downs. Many traditional media companies have suffered reversals in the face of changing markets – areas where Google has benefitted in the past. CEO’s present to the analysts, explain the figures, make their future forecasts, and get on with job.

Share prices suffer for the company (Google was down 9% when shares were suspended) – but that is a business fact. Investors will take a long view of performance and projections and move on. It is a pragmatic decision.

Brand damage is another thing – it is an emotional dimension. We don’t have quantitative measures such as share prices, though all are interlinked. Crucially, the brand is more likely to be damaged by the apparent bumbling and fundamental errors in releasing the results early.

The Google brand has ridden quite high, displaying sound judgement and competence, where other internet brands have skidded from error to error.

The general public is often unconcerned with corporate performance so long as the brand is comfortably between the extremes of insolvency and excess profits.  PR disasters are likely to inflict more lasting dents.

This blip for Google is unlikely to be an enduring or terminal issue. It should be a warning to all of us however not to take eyes off the details of process, especially in corporate communications, however big and successful we grow.

Five key characteristics of great brand leaders.

Brand leadershipWhat is the defining characteristic of great brands – large or small? It is brand leadership. They have strong, committed and unwavering direction.

Great brand leaders come in all shapes and sizes from Henry Ford to Richard Branson or Steve Jobs. But they all share some key qualities.

(1) Vision

A clear view ahead and ambition for the brand is vital. Vision is not to be confused with strategic objectives: it is a more amorphous thing and often difficult to articulate, but we all recognise when people have vision.

Vision is not about what a brand will do, but of the brand itself. I’m sure in the early days of Virgin, that Branson had no idea he would be selling financial products or space travel. And Steve Jobs did not see himself in the mobile phone business. Vision is not necessarily about the product or service – these will change over time under market or technology pressures. It is about the brand and its values that should be steady and enduring.

(2) Communication

There is little point having vision if you are unable to share it. Great brand leaders are good at communicating their vision – but not necessarily verbally. Often they communicate by example, by their actions, by the way they go about their business. Branson is not the greatest verbal communicator, but his vision is clear in his operation, manner and approach to business.

(3) Empathy

Great brand leaders have a good deal of empathy for their audience. This is different from understanding – the stuff you get from research. It is an emotional quality. It is relating to the aims and aspirations of your brand stakeholders. It takes exceptional people to still be able to empathise with consumers or junior employees as they themselves climb the greasy pole of success.

(4) Consistency of values

One of the reasons we choose brands is for consistency – when I select brand ‘A’, I know what to expect. So long as my expectations are met, I am happy and loyal. It’s not just about product performance or service, it’s about the way the brand goes about its business.

Consistency is a function of leadership. It is not to say a leader can’t surprise or even shock – but they operate within a clear framework of values.

(5) Brand guardians

Organisations grow. To ensure that the vision is clear, the consistent values are understood and empathy is fostered, the leader needs to recruit brand guardians – trusted lieutenants who will carry his or her values through the organisation.

We see this with great football managers – once the match is in progress, there is little they can do to affect the outcome of the game. But usually they have one or two key players who understand and share their views and wishes. These players ensure things are kept on track and don’t drift.

As brands grow to global stature and complexity, these guardians are vital and should exist at all levels and in all disciplines within the organisation. Once recognised they need to be fostered and nurtured.

Make the most of the five ‘E’s of branding.

The five 'e's of brand experienceBrand experience is all about the interaction between the brand and its public. While we all remember the four ‘P’s of the marketing mix (though I’ve seen up to 11 at the last count!) – the crucial dimensions of brand interaction are the five ‘E’s.


– interactions need engagement. The more people engage the greater the opportunity for interaction. Smart brands maximise engagement. Product, literature, advertising, communications, customer service and online connections – all present chances to interact.


– the goal of any brand should be excellence in its chosen arena. Excellent product, customer service, processes – each touch-point should be the best we can make it.


– we see more brand disasters arise from unethical dealings. This is all about poor brand values and bad leadership. A sound brand should deal openly and honestly with its customers, suppliers, employees and the world in general. People are far more likely to forgive incompetence or poor service than they are unethical business practices.

Emotional attachment

– much of our attachment to brands is emotional (though we try to convince ourselves it is pragmatic). It is intangible, but we should recognise it as a core brand strength, deeply embedded in brand values. Apple, for example, has a loyal following who simply love the brand – it is difficult to analyse, but the company does seem to understand it and builds on the values it embodies.


– as with ‘engagement’, the points of interaction are points of experience. Whether it is visiting a store or a website, opening a brochure or a package or using a product – there is a user experience. Our entire understanding of the world is based primarily upon our sensory and emotional experience of it. Brands such as Starbucks understand this – it is not just about the product (which lest’s face it is just a cup of coffee), but the whole experience of the store, the environment. It is about all the senses, visual, auditory, olfactory  and tactile.

Branding should not be a verb.

Branding in marketing - never verb a nounBranding, in marketing, is something that ‘is’ not something you do. In short, we are better thinking of it as a noun rather than a verb.

A soon as we start selling a product or service with a name, a brand exists. It emerges from the interaction of the product or service with the world at large. A business can create a new brand simply by bringing something to market.

We can then develop that brand, improve it, promote it and communicate its benefits, protect it, grow and diversify it – but branding itself as an activity, has no meaning, unless you are a cattle farmer.

I spotted an article the other day proposing that branding was an unethical activity. I was about to rush into print to respond, when I realised that I couldn’t because the argument was based upon an incorrect premise – that there was an activity called ‘branding’.

Dangerous shorthands

The unhelpful and uninformed use of the term has grown out of lazy journalism. Just as ‘marketing’ is misused to mean anything from advertising to PR, branding is a shorthand for all forms of brand development, identity creation and brand communication. It is also a handy term when a pejorative inference is needed to criticise those bad, mad men and women.

I work in brand development – but I would never describe myself as a ‘brander’ – because I don’t ‘brand’.

Perhaps it’s time for all of us who work on brands to champion a bit of clarity, and in the words of one of my favourite quotes: ‘Never verb a noun’.