The CEO's guide on how to avoid the seven sins of branding
With global economies blooming, many executives seek a forward-looking and aspirational perspective that can be used as a growth platform and give their company a clear direction. But, in order to fully realize the value in your branding endeavors, there is a range of pitfalls that can be easily avoided if mitigated appropriately. We call them the seven sins of corporate branding.
Mikkel Bach-Andersen, Partner
Nils Koch Jensen, Partner
Our experience is that revitalising or transforming a company’s brand position and story can be an immensely transformative experience for companies – if done correctly. If not handled properly it can, however, also become a messy journey and the outcome blurred. Having undertaken more than 200 branding projects around the world, we have seen first hand some of the pitfalls that companies need to avoid in order to fully realise the value in their branding endeavours, make a truly transformative difference and take them from PowerPoint to reality.
We have come to call them: The seven sins of corporate branding
- Treating branding as a choice
First, one of the basics: Your brand is an indeterminable size that exists in the minds of customers and employees – not on your website, packaging, or in customer service. That also means that “branding” is not a choice. The choice is about whether you do it well, or not so well – and whether you manage your brand or let it slip.
This means that the first – and perhaps most common – pitfall is to believe that branding is only a topic if you are turning it into a project or a must-win-battle.
Implication: Even if you don’t have the resources or time to make a major overhaul of your brand, you still need to think in terms of branding. When launching new products, entering categories, onboarding new employees or talking to investors - always think how these different elements fit into the bigger story.
- Not recognising the complexity of branding
We still hear the phrase “we need some branding”. But in reality, “branding” is a very broad term, and it can be broken down into many types of challenges:
- Brand positioning and essence: What is our core belief and positioning in the marketplace and how do we stand out from the competition?
- Brand portfolio: How does our brand map against the customer segments, and how many brands should we have to cover the market optimally?
- Brand hierarchy: How is our brand portfolio organised and is there a certain hierarchy between the brands that will allow us to transfer value between them? How do we maintain equity in existing brands while keeping it simple and focused on our brand portfolio?
- Brand culture: What values and behaviour does our company live by and how do we express our brand in terms of company culture?
- Brand identity: How should we look, feel and talk across the different touch points?
- Brand story: How do we tell our story to consistently build and express our brand position? How do we elevate strategically important product launches to also support and build the corporate brand? How do we in a structured way tell the story of our company in film, social media, our website, trade fairs and so forth?
To us, these many challenges represent the branding exam questions. Sometimes companies struggle with all the sub-tasks listed above or just one or two of them. The trouble is though, that if you don’t have an idea about what you are trying to solve and why you are solving it before reviewing and defining your brand, you are most likely not going to succeed in achieving much.
Implication: Front-load the process and spend more time than you would intuitively think you would need on framing the brand-related questions you need to address.
- Making the brand platform too complex
Many professionals think hard and long about the brand. The problem is that your brand probably plays a much smaller role in the life of your customer than it does in yours. Consequently, this “overthinking” can have adverse effects. A classical pitfall is to deploy overly academic brand pyramids/circles/matrices with high-lix, new-age language and meta-frameworks. Steer away from this complexity and keep distilling, removing and questioning until you reach a pure essence that maps easily onto the way customers make decisions. Finding a simple language to express your brand is key. By addressing this point, you will be able to take your brand from something abstract to something concrete.
Corporate narcissism and the need to over-engineer brand stories are some of the greatest obstacles to building a distinct brand position.
- Not balancing the internal and external perspective
In our experience, a strong brand is built by balancing the internal and external perspective. Missing this balance can be dangerous, as purely inside-out brands risk becoming irrelevant and seen as arrogant, while purely outside-in brands risk becoming blunt, blank and a mirror of competitors.
Implication: There is no silver lining here, but always match the internal, organic view of the company with the customer’s worldview – and if the gap is too big, you have a challenge. A sound tip is to let customers have the final say. And, in industries with long value chains, you often need to involve views from end users and influencers and not only your direct customers.
- Beginning brand development before you have outlined your brand strategy
It’s not uncommon for executives today to be pulled towards a desire to get stuff done and as a result, jump right into the implementation of the brand. This drive can be extremely beneficial once you know what road you are going down, but if you run too quickly over some of the “big branding questions” you will find yourself in trouble. Some of those big questions that we would put into the brand strategy bucket are:
- What is our positioning?
- Who are we targeting with our positioning?
- How many brands do we need and why?
- Do we need any affiliation between our different brands?
- What is the concept that expresses our brand position in its simplest and purest form?
Implications: Once you know the answer to the big branding questions you can move into “the how” by finalising the required brand story, deciding on design tonality, logo, brand assets, touchpoint playbook and whatever else is needed.
- Don’t treat branding as an identity overhaul or as an image campaign
Branding is an over-used and often misunderstood term that means many things depending on who you ask. This is the reason why branding is sometimes reduced to an identity overhaul or advertising campaign. The challenge with these half-baked approaches is that they usually fail to actually build long-term brand equity or connect with the strategic themes that are driving the business. As well as this, if “branding” is treated this way it will be seen as something that only concerns the marketing department rather than being something that actually affects and drives most people within and outside the organisation.
At its worst, it can be extremely damaging as without a clear direction, executives can feel the need to reenergise the brand by overhauling its identity and messaging as often as companies change their CMO (about every third year). This forces the company into a virtual spiral of constant change, instead of creating the consistency needed to claim a distinct value position for its customers.
Implications: Branding should be used as (and often is) a CEO’s strategic management tool that greatly overlaps with strategic topics such as segmentation, positioning, the sales-approach, company culture, innovation, customer experience and the company’s long-term corporate strategy. If the brand platform is merely a new corporate identity or an advertising campaign it bears no relation to these topics and will not have the transformative impact it should.
- Not taking your brand beyond the PowerPoint
A thorough approach to brand development is important, but you should also recognise that value cannot be realised until it is implemented across your full marketing system and in the minds of your target group. Launching a new identity and website can quickly make an organisation feel refreshed internally and to such a point that those responsible rest on their laurels and may not do anything more to reach their market and build frequency on their new story.
A common pitfall for executives is to feel that the mission is accomplished once the brand is launched after (hopefully) many months of hard work in engine room – but this is actually just the start. It takes strenuous and constant effort to reach your audience again and again across and beyond your own touchpoints. Few but impactful brand blazing initiatives should be prioritised to cut through – choose what you want to do and especially what you do not want to do.
Implications: Once your brand position is sharply defined and thoroughly developed by navigating the first six sins, you have, in fact, just made it to the starting line. Brand building is not a sprint but a marathon and you need to consistently ensure that your new brand and story reaches your market by actively pushing it.
Claim your position
The number of potential pitfalls related to branding is many, but the upside of doing it right is immense, with results such as higher employee engagement, increased sales and experiencing a price premium. Research has shown that strong brands convert three to four times better in sales channels and in B2B markets, strong brands have been shown to generate 20% higher EBIT compared to weak brands.
The seven sins are derived from our hands-on experiences, and how we have seen first hand that by considering and navigating each of them, you help mitigate risk and maximise the results of your branding initiative.
If you are you unsure about how to go about a branding exercise and want input on the process, reach out to Nils.
Want to learn more about our branding philosophy and process that we call Corporate Religion? – read more here
Learn how branding helped Danfoss provide a platform for their international expansion and become “one company” across geographies and business areas – read more here.
See how a Danish retailer reduced its number of clothing brands from 51 to one and outpaced the category in terms of growth as a result – read more here