I’ve just completed my first significant assignment solely as a strategy and brand coach, versus the full-service ad agency guy I’ve been throughout my career. When I took the assignment, I expected it to be routine: the charge was to help re-establish a mid-technology B2B brand, and the beginnings of a marketing program — right in my wheelhouse. But, while one of my primary goals was to encourage the client’s staff to take over content and social media creation, I expected resistance, and thought I’d still have to be part of the tactical team.
Then I met the young stakeholders of this Austrian mid-technology business, and they stepped-up and took full ownership of the brand. I was delighted.
You see, much like my college-age twins, they did so with a knowing light in their eyes – the “faces with a view” songwriter David Byrne once described – giving me great hope for both their professional careers, and for the people whose lives they will touch.
The emotion was more than I’d envisioned as I’ve formulated my strategy to evolve into a coach over the past few months. But they didn’t need me to tell them how to characterize their brand any more than my sons need me to tell them how to live their lives.
They just wanted a few hints about its structure; and license to go at it their way. Excellent.
All Lines In The Water
I was most struck by their instinctive understanding their brand was about truth, and not some epic myth we advertising folk used to invent. Though I think it helped their new CEO, a brilliant Austrian technologist and who’d also taken the CMO reigns, had very focused and transparent business goals he’d begun to share across the organization.
Faced with aggressive owner expectations for sales and revenue growth, he was convinced his strategic concept of “active fishing” could make the cash register ring more consistently. His approach suggested every contact every employee made – at work, and even their personal lives – was a possible customer, and they should be encouraged to benefit from all the business and brand offered.
My heart soared as I listened: it was not unlike a concept my dad, a sales engineer and manufacturer’s rep, had postulated and talked about during happy fishing outings in New Hampshire many years back. It was part of our legacy. And, with my decades of experience since, I recognized it wasn’t just a sales strategy, but an umbrella brand marketing strategy.
What he was asking was every single person on his staff become an active brand ambassador.
We can do that!
Osmosis Isn’t a Brand Development Strategy
Just one problem: the brand story was in disarray. Every person to whom I spoke had a different feeling and sense about the company, and its focus. This is quite common with going businesses; it’s easy for owners to think because they know the current and/or evolved business story everyone in the business should. It’s often not accurately reflected on websites either.
This typically happens when a brand’s strategic communications platform and position — a core foundational block — hasn’t been formally or recently articulated. As such it can’t be scaled throughout the organization, much less executed against in its inbound and outbound marketing.
After long discussion, including an introduction into current best practices including marketing automation, and content and social media marketing, I agreed with the CEO/CMO’s assessment: its marketing and sales teams needed branded “quality bait.” And only brand stakeholders could determine what that meant.
Much to his credit, the last thing he wanted was for me to ‘create’ it. He’d already given that a go with other agencies, and had neither the budget or patience for it. Nor did I.
During a week of meetings in Austria, I helped lead the company’s best and brightest construct the elements of their core brand – not just the “what,” but the “why” – using oversized post-it notes with considered contributions teams had created in a moderated workshop format.
As they did, and it all started to take shape, I enjoyed one of the biggest thrills of my multi-decade career. You see, I was experiencing the (re)birth of a pure brand, one representing the exact sensibilities of its owners. Brilliant!
Part of my interest was how the brand lexicon was evolving from what I viewed as a rather obtuse brand design system to language-based understanding; and addressed technical and non-technical audiences without loss of technical context.
Importantly too, the team also recognized and addressed how each linguistic bite translated into core understanding – mutually agreed upon translations – as it affected its markets and cultures, European, American and Asian.
In short, when the workshops concluded all participants were armed with the first vestiges of a defined and agile brand story to take back to their teammates. Everyone could talk to the same brand regardless of where they lived; a baited hook they could cast at will.
Brand Becomes Culture
In his blog post “Live, Protect and Strengthen the Brand” one of my career clients and a most respected friend, Bill Carew of Ovation Benefits Group, suggests:
“(Beyond marketing materials) you build (brand) equity every day with every little decision you make along the way, which sounds simple and easy. But if you are growing, how do you continuously protect and preserve and strengthen the brand when more and more people get involved? That’s where brand becomes culture.”
And that’s how it should be. Because today marketing is not about creating a myth and selling it; but about finding a truth and sharing it. And about creating a brand customers want to find, and make part of their own personal and professional brands.
A Living, Agile Entity
It would be simplistic to suggest the client team fully formulated its brand within a scant few meetings or they’ll even take it any further now the meetings are over.
Or, that their definitions will remain intact, which can be a good thing, given my sense today’s brands should be agile and allowed – even required – to evolve with changing attitudes and technologies.
But, while visual design systems will remain a constant to brand identity (and a love of mine), today it’s more about how a brand engages people on every possible level, inside and outside of the business.
It’s about building upon the core emotional dynamics of a brand, of being real, as tactics to add value and understanding; and to help the business qualify for brand value premiums because their goods are perceived worthy.
Importantly, it’s about having a brand baseline upon which everyone on the company team can build an ongoing sense of their own brands and purpose in their lives; something to which they can belong while building self-esteem, and their paths to success.
It’s all so exciting – even if I’m not creating it all as my agency-guy ego might once have demanded.
But then again, my brand has had yet another defining moment too.
Tom Lanen is the principal of Thomas Marketing Services Corporation, an erstwhile full-service advertising and digital marketing agency he founded in ‘89, now a strategy and brand coaching consultancy. He truly enjoyed the people, and the lusciously rich coffee and desserts for which Austria is known; though is less convinced of its many permutations of wiener schnitzel.
His marketing in-service program, Fishing Where The Fish Are Today™, is designed for business owners and brand stakeholders in small businesses who seek a better brand and marketing process as a strategy to hit their numbers. Tom can be reached at +1 508- 951-0130 or at Thomas.Lanen@gmail.com