57 - What Sustains a Brand 4

What Sustains a Brand’s Identity – Does It Matter?

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This is the fourth of 5 posts that will explore the dimensions of “Identity as Brand”. This post is about “sustenance—what gives drive and motivation and keeps an organization going,”

Commercial aircraft lumber across the sky high above our farm outside of Toronto, following the approved flight path into Pearson airport. Because they are pilots, two of my brothers-in-law can explain to me the principles of lift essential for flight. And yet, even though Gordon and David have explained these principles to me—both in detail and in laymen’s terms, and I have experienced first-hand the force of the air by putting my arm out the car window at 60 mph, I still struggle to understand.

There is something marvellous and unbelievable about tons of metal hurtling gracefully through the sky, and so I crane my neck to watch them pass overhead. Brands are a bit like airplanes—something keeps them aloft. But what is it?

The identity (and reputation) of a company is sustained by the belief that leads first to action, then to confidence, and finally to advocacy.

Those are the four critical stages in the dissemination of a message in a framework suggested by Jon Iwata (Senior Vice President, Marketing & Communications at IBM) in his helpful paper about a new communications model entitled “Building Belief: A New Model for Corporate Communications” published by the Arthur W. Page Society. In the model, belief comes first, which springs to life as a hopeful idea that a need may be met, an experience may be positive, or a new concept may work. Belief prompts action, for if I believe something, then I am likely to do the work to act upon that belief. In traditional marketing, such action corresponds to the notion of trial, which is preceded by awareness and followed by repeat.

In Iwata’s model, action provides an experience from which learning can be extracted. Negative experiences, like the ones I repeatedly endured with my satellite internet provider, undermine belief. (Not to mention the regular occurrence of unhealthy levels of rage, which several times has nearly caused me to scale my office roof in order to hurl the dish from its perch and watch gleefully as it shatters on the ground below!)

On the other hand, when belief is confirmed through a favorable experience, confidence in the original belief and the importance of the action is strengthened. Following such an experience, Iwata says, we are inclined to tell others, and advocacy is achieved. As the model suggests, advocacy then reproduces belief, and the cycle continues with others. When it comes to understanding the dynamics of brand and identity, this is a good start.

It seems to me that identity, for both people and companies, obeys the second law of thermodynamics – that is, it dissipates over time unless it is sustained by something external to itself. Sustenance, then, cannot be manufactured from the inside, rather it must originate from outside and be offered as an infusion – a transfer of energy – that is received. For brands, it is those who bestow to the brand its identity and character that provide its sustenance.

I am reminded of one particular client, Kodak, which failed to recognize this truth. It believed it could sustain its identity through the narrow confines of self-declaration and reliance on familiarity. Not so. Earlier this year, another client celebrated its achievement of a huge number of impressions created across multiple media: print, billboard, digital, etc. It was quite an accomplishment, and yet, the sustaining feature of that client’s brand is not how well it trumpets itself from any vast number of rooftops but rather the legacy of its excellence and relevance to customers—its reputation–the fruit of action that either builds or erodes confidence.

Some years ago, concerned that we might not have enough work, a young associate who had come to join my consulting firm suggested that we should be more actively marketing. I agreed to try the approach he favored, but perplexed him by also suggesting that, in my recollection, the promotional activity he had in mind had never produced a single client enquiry. Over time, I have learned that what sustains or weakens my own personal brand is not how cleverly I manage exposures in the right media channels with the right endorsements from the right people, but rather the extent to which I have served and cared for others and the place I have in their lives, memories and relationships.

When a brand thrives, whether personal or institutional, it is not because of its own efforts to manufacture reach or construct its identity. Rather, the embodied brand is the brand that will find its sustenance. In other words, the company must know its identity and really live it out. This is what I mean when I use the phrase “identity as brand”.

If embodiment is the strategy for brand sustenance, then its mechanism is reputation. And reputation cannot be manufactured – it is always bestowed. When it comes to marketing efforts for my small consulting firm, my reputation as a consultant and as a person will be determined by how well I live up to the things I claim, and whether or not others experience the things I promise. The same is true for companies.

A brand will be sustained by others as a “reputation” when it is embodied by company actions.

This is the invisible force that provides “lift” to keep every great and lasting brand aloft, and it is a key part of a company’s journey toward recognizing and living an “Identity as Brand”.

Think about some of your favorite brands – what sustains their identities? Does the company express its brand by simply living it out, or does it treat brand like a product to be fabricated and sold? Which would you rather experience?

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