Why Losing Control Is Good For Brand Management

In times of uncertainty, it’s human instinct to cling tightly to what’s around us for fear of being swept away entirely.

In such an environment, it’s understandable that some brands have been tempted to reach for their prescriptive brand guidelines, laid out from on high, to help them weather any storms. Once upon a time, this meant a religious adherence to brand guidelines and controlling brand expression at all costs. From strict logo layouts to highly structured customer experiences and carefully orchestrated advertising campaigns, consistency and discipline were paramount, with any deviations frowned upon.

Today, however, it’s a brand’s ability to be agile and truly responsive to changing market and consumer needs which is the best indicator of performance over time. This year alone, major brands like Budweiser, Samsung, and Uber have already faced surprising challenges and had to react quickly to safeguard their reputations. The need for brands to be ready for anything has led to a big shift taking place—slow, linear strategy and methodical R&D have given way to rapid decision making as well as customer and employee-led innovation.

Whilst this, undoubtedly, creates a much more complex environment for brands to navigate, it also opens them up to a whole range of exciting possibilities. New approaches can often generate the biggest returns, including increased product and service innovation and more meaningful customer connections.

Learn To Let Go
So how can brands become more agile without diminishing the brand value they’ve built up over the years? Moreover, how can they communicate and action that agility within what could be a rigid corporate structure?

It may sound counter-intuitive, but the answer is learning to let go. Look outside your brand managers and those guidelines to the wider brand community. There’s no set formula, but the majority of brand communities comprise employees, partners, and third-party influencers, among others. Each brand’s audience is unique, and, within the community itself, they’ll represent different needs and opportunities. Crucially, at its core, a brand community will be vibrant and actively connected to the brand’s future—perfectly positioning them to function as product developers, idea generators, content creators, and problem solvers.

Nonetheless, the Brand Community Model won’t work if it operates in isolation. Brands should make sure the individual roles of community members—employees, for example—are grounded in context in order to ensure their decisions create true value. Move from the “what” to the “why”—it’s this deeper understanding within the community of why a brand holds certain beliefs or why brand expressions are used in a certain way which will enable them to be useful contributors to the brand as a whole.

Not Up For Discussion
Not all elements of the brand will be open for community influence, however—the Brand Community Model allows for a more meaningful dialogue between a brand and its audience, but, for every brand, there will be certain elements which should not be up for discussion. These are the sacred expressions of a brand, and they’re the things that define it and make it unique. With these, consistency and discipline are still key.

As with the community, the sacred elements of a particular brand are unique to it. They could be anything from logo colours, to a style, a sound, or a ritual which embodies that brand. IBM’s Smart Planet logo is an interesting example—the five rays at the top of the mark remain consistent throughout their marketing, but the central icon itself can be adapted to fit any context. Many will recognise the white frothiness of a Guinness beer as distinct to the brand, yet the shape of the foam shifts and changes based on the marketing need or message. It’s a drastically different interpretation, but each is still distinctly Guinness.

A sacred expression need not be visual—it’s the sound, the scent, the experience. For instance:

  • The sleek sound of an Apple computer powering on can’t easily be confused with its PC counterpart.
  • The plop and fizz of Alka-Seltzer is sacred to the indigestion-suffering consumer.
  • The Snap! Crackle! Pop! is owned by Kellogg’s Rice Krispies.

For frequent travellers on Singapore Airlines, it’s the scent of its hand towels which provides an identifiable marker, whilst for those who prefer Virgin Airlines, it’s the signature red uniform of the flight attendant and the warm red glow that lights the plane.

Those who stay at a DoubleTree Hotel recognise the warm cookies on arrival as that brand’s special ritual.

Brand agility has already emerged as a key predictor of performance, and at a time when brands are increasingly being tested in new ways, its importance will only grow. Brands that are willing to take more risks, putting their agility to the test by ceding some control to their unique communities, will see the biggest returns. In this new age of fluid brand management, losing control is actually a good thing.

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