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For a Brand to Pack Punch, the Business had Better Reflect the Brand
by Mary Lou Zievis


"Logos, slogans and ad campaigns are important, but its what goes on inside the organization that creates the brand."

Officially, the topic at hand was “the brand.” But you never would have known it from listening to the discussion flowing back and forth across the conference table, or judging from the titles of the participants.

Assembled were a client organization’s five ranking officers, some of whom were dubious about the exercise from the start and had arrived under mild protest. Yet, their initial recalcitrance evaporated quickly. Instead of asking them to assess logos, graphics, slogans and a brand’s other presumed components, we first asked the executives to define their company’s culture, as well as its mission, its routine activities and processes – even its hiring practices. Their answers were revealing.

Rarely did any of their respective definitions match. And the focus of their discussion soon shifted to the kind of corporate culture these five corporate officers yearned to create and, in turn, what was already in place to nourish its development. Very little, they ruefully concluded. Moreover, the messages this client had been conveying in its newsletters and other official communiqués were not consistent at all. Nor was its management team consistently sharing important information with employees.

Why had a high-level assessment of a client’s brand evolved into a much deeper discussion about its overall business? It had been our objective from the beginning, and for good reason:

If a brand is to deliver its desired value and impact, then the organization standing behind it had better ensure that it lives up to what the brand stands for.

Conventional wisdom may well protest that this fundamental contention of ours puts the cart before the horse. But we live in unconventional times.

To be sure, the label that one applies to a product or service, the tagline or slogan that gets attached to it, how it’s positioned, how it’s packaged and how it’s advertised all contribute to a brand’s well-being and longevity in an increasingly rambunctious marketplace that attracts customers around the clock. Even so, these familiar components have been reduced to playing supporting roles.

A brand derives its real strength and identity today from the organization itself – its heart and soul and everything that transpires within its walls, in part because we know not when we will encounter a customer, or where, or why, or even how. This is especially true for both emerging and mature high-tech firms, whose products and services are not easily defined by a logo – no matter how striking or eye-catching it may be.

A brand is forever being refined by the entity that brought it to life: It’s how we conduct business, and how we wield established practices and processes – or amend them as required. It’s how we answer the telephone and the voices of the individuals we assign to that routine but vital task. It’s how we conduct meetings, how we court investors and how we entertain customers. It’s with whom we associate, and the philanthropic efforts we support. It’s that all-important first impression conveyed by our lobby and a receptionist’s greeting – this initial encounter, insist those who visit companies regularly, speaks volumes about the enterprise they represent.

The brand also reflects the culture that thrives in our organization, and most assuredly the attitudes and practices our human resources department relies on, both to identify job candidates and recruit and hire new employees.

Most important of all, perhaps, the brand is reflected by our employees, the information they share with others, and the messages they send to the public each day. “Word of mouth” advertising has as powerful an impact on the brand as it does on sales and revenues.

No, these are not the components that most people associate with branding. But they should. 

One would be hard-pressed, for example, to fully distinguish the brand of airline travel offered by Southwest Airlines solely by gazing at its logo or reciting its slogan. The light-hearted nature of Southwest’s TV commercials is a bit more descriptive but still not complete. Far more descriptive and most telling of all are Southwest’s day-to-day practices, its procedures and, certainly, its employees. Indeed, they are the brand and give it substance:

Walk on board almost any Southwest flight and you’ll be greeted by a cheerful crew in khaki slacks or shorts and knit shirts. You’ll hear delightfully entertaining deliveries of federally required safety information, such as, “There are 50 ways to leave your lover, but there are only four exits off this Boeing 737 aircraft.” You’ll hear otherwise mundane instructions presented with such words as, “If you are holding a child, sitting next to a child, or sitting next to an adult acting like a child.… ” And after your flight touches down, you also may hear flight attendants thank you for your patronage by bursting into song.

Southwest’s repertoire is the quintessential example of how a brand is really conveyed: It reinforces its distinctive culture – in this case, “We’re having fun and welcome to the party” –  and relies on hiring a certain kind of person. And it is reinforced by its advertising, and by its customer relations. The brand is so distinctive, in fact, that it’s hard to imagine a competitor duplicating it. Southwest’s example also reaffirms a critical truth about any brand: 

You can create award-winning advertising campaigns ’til the cows come home, or design a logo for the ages. Yet, if daily activities don’t support and reinforce such messages, they won’t mean a thing. Far more powerful are your customers’ experiences and the perceptions they prompt.

A recent episode in another client workshop offers further affirmation. Prompted by one revelation about brand awareness, one of the executives assembled suddenly recounted how he first learned about his company’s brand as a customer himself. In short order, the discussion’s focus shifted to other customer experiences and to such questions as: 

  • How did I first learn about your firm? 
  • Who did I first talk with?
  • Is that the kind of person that really reflects your brand? 

Thinking about a brand in this way requires a much broader perspective. It can be a painful experience, as well, especially when executives realize they’re not creating the brand they desire – or realize they’re not at all sure what kind of brand they do desire.
Pain notwithstanding, it remains a healthy, enriching, worthwhile exercise because it invariably becomes an introspective study, with implications that extend far beyond marketing. For one thing, it allows executives who tend to spend the lion’s share of their time “in the business” the chance to spend precious hours “on the business.” There’s a vast difference. Executive teams have found, for instance, that they can wield the brand to guide internal behavior, or to attract hard-to-find employees along with customers. In reviewing its marketing strategies in another workshop, a client discovered why customers remained loyal – which prompted it to continue certain practices, and revive or discontinue others.

In the final analysis, and most important, examining one’s brand from this perspective inspires senior executives to ponder critical questions about their organization itself. 
After creating a new tagline, for instance, one corps of executives found themselves confronting a more daunting task: Determining what they and their colleagues had to do to live up to it. They understood that their tagline is far more than a slogan; it’s their positioning. In fact, it all but serves as the organization’s mission statement, because the tagline prompted the executives to identify actions and attitudes they needed to adopt in order to live up to the image that it and their brand inspire. Indeed, whenever its managers ponder any major decision, they have learned to look at their brand and tagline to gain an important insight to determining if what they’re about to do will strengthen – or weaken – their organization. 

This is but one brand-related issue that merits the personal and continuing attention of senior management. There are numerous others, as executives who have experienced the process will attest.

No one would deny that the brand needs to be at the heart of every marketing program. In fact, without a strong brand, integrated marketing strategies collapse in a heartbeat. Yet, what is most critical is putting the brand at the heart of the organization. This is how an organization differentiates itself from its competitors and builds customer and employee loyalty. It’s how a strong corporate identity is built.

It’s been nearly a generation since Silicon Valley public relations guru Regis McKenna won lasting fame for declaring, “Marketing is everything and everything is marketing.”

Today, the brand – and how you market it – is everything.


The Author

Brand strategist Mary Lou Zievis is president of Marketing Synergies, a national full-service strategic marketing firm. Her leading-edge strategic branding seminars have made her an influential marketing voice in the boardroom.

Many more articles in Branding in The CEO Refresher Archives
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Copyright 2000 by Mary Lou Zievis. All rights reserved.

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