Blog: Robert Bean – What Makes a Brand?

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This is a guest post by Justin Kirby. This interview was originally published on A Flux State Dec. 6th 2013. Robert spoke at Like Minds London on Nov. 27th 2013.

Interview with branding expert Robert Bean on the Single Organising Principle.

This is an interview that Like Minds kindly facilitated with advertising veteran, turned branding consultant, Robert Bean, author of Winning in Your Own Way: The Nine and a Half Golden Rules of Branding:

What impact are digital and particularly social media having on the way that you look at branding?

I think the explosion of digital helps the branding cause more than it harms it actually. Because what were walls that the companies could control in the old days have now become windows. Anyone can see into any organisation from any number of different vantage points. It behoves brands or companies generally to sharpen up their act and decide who they are and what they’re about and be true to themselves in a way that they’ve never really had to before. So from my perspective it’s promoting the cause of what I call real branding no end.

There’s still a lot of misconception about the term ‘branding’. Generally branding is still regarded as something that the marketing people might do, or is about the logo, or about some external projection of what we’re about. And my way of seeing it is that that’s sort of back-to-front really. That the good brands are strong on the inside first, irrespective of whether they’re consumer brands or service brands.

What do you mean by strong from the inside?

Well, I mean that the people inside the business are completely aligned around what it is they’re trying to do, so you have a culture that is producing a commensurate product that when managed properly creates a commensurate reputation. In my view the three pillars are culture, product or service, and reputation. Those are the three things that govern any business. And in my view the communications aspect sits in the reputation box. And that’s often where branding conversations start but all too often in my experience it is also where they finish. And that just is simply not right. You can’t have a part of the business deciding to project something to the world that that part of the business thinks is the right thing to project without it being directly aligned to the culture of the place and endorsed by the people making the product.

BMW is a good example. I spent a long time with them and their engineers were doing every bit as much of the marketing as the marketeers were doing because that company was driven by a sense of driving pleasure as manifested by The Ultimate Driving Machine. And that’s why they made a wraparound cockpit for the driver. That’s why they make all the dials within a hand’s worth reach. That’s why they make all the illumination a particular shade of orange because it’s easier on the eyes. It all enhances the driving experience. So you’ve got there an example of a complete culture of people focused on making a product that by and large is The Ultimate Driving Machine with a reputation that’s being managed and built. So that’s a very good example of how it works all the way through the business rather than it just being clever advertising or clever communications, or now in a digital world lots and lots of opportunities for different kinds of customer contact.

Another example is BT. A complete reorganisation of the company manifested itself asIt’s Good To Talk. Everyone in the business from van drivers to engineers were retrained to understand they’re not just there to put wires together, they’re there to enable people to talk. It became a very powerful rallying call to rebuild a reputation. It’s Good To Talk worked across all three aspects – culture, product and service, and reputation – and worked extremely well. So this is what I’m talking about, branding that is inside out is in my view the real thing.

Do you think this is now more important because digital means that you can now see the inside more than ever before?

It has many impacts but reactions to digital vary from defensive, ‘oh blimey, we’d better get ourselves together’, to going on the attack, saying ‘oh goodness, look how many opportunities we have to touch people in the way that we would like them touched’. But both of those things require an organisation to be crystal clear about what it is, what it stands for, what it values, what it doesn’t, and all the rest of it in order to play that game. In a way digital is a great way of exposing organisations that are disorganisations for want of a better term. You’ll get found out.

Does this imply that brands need to be more human or at least humanistic?

That’s an interesting thought. I haven’t quite put it in those terms but the corollary of this approach is that. It starts with leadership, of course, a very human thing but it has to include the right kind of followership. What do I mean by that? A chocolate bar company might say it matters to us that we’re sourcing our ingredients ethically or not. These are in the end quite human decisions. In the old days you could have looked the other way and wrapped some fantastic advertising around a chocolate bar, everyone fell in love with the advertising as much as they might with the chocolate bar and off we go.

I don’t think it’s so easy these days. So you’re right that the corollary of doing it inside out means that we at the top level of manufacturer X or company Y need to consider very carefully where we stand on these things. I did a lot of work with Glaxo Smith Kline in the vaccines area. They always had a pretty strong conscience but that’s never been more manifest than it is now with their CEO actively involved in malaria and immunisation programmes in Africa and beyond, new pricing structures, new distribution methods, all manner of ways of conducting business that in many cases cost them. But it’s that old Bill Bernbach thing that a principle isn’t a principle until it costs you money.

So maybe a better way of thinking about it is that strong brands are principled ones. If you want to go the next stage and say well, principles come from human beings and if you like ethics, well, fair enough, that’s a reasonable dot to join up. But by and large, yeah, it’s becoming more and more that way.

What are your thoughts about the process of moving from branding to communications now that so much of a reputation is based on external factors such as what people’s experience have been and how they talk about a brand through digital channels.

Not that much changes actually. At the risk of upsetting the entire digital universe by saying this, I largely see it as a multitude of channels. Of course the channels can make a big difference and they do, they impact on people. But in terms of the communications process that’s really what they are more than anything. It still behoves that company to get very clear about what it is that it is trying to be and how it would like to be seen, what it is that it’s happy to stimulate conversation around, and what it is trying to put people straight on. My rather simplistic way of looking at it is to get the board gathered around what I call the single organising principle which is really a mega brand proposition.

Is this different from the advertising single minded proposition?

It is the same except for it applies to a whole company rather than to just communications. And therefore by definition it’s much more complex and obviously has a huge internal dimension to it. So I’m back to inside out really.

So in terms of how this kind of inside out branding ends up being communicated, it starts with a board being very clear about who they are and what it is they’re trying to be, what they’re trying to say. And then firstly that needs communicating  internally to get buy-in and to make sure everyone is on the same page.

After that there are broadly two ways of expressing that externally. One is you go out and make those statements, ‘this is us’, and that acts a sort of umbrella that sits above every other piece of communication. This is increasingly rare actually because there is no direct return on investment or measurable return on investment, it’s air cover in other terms. But I feel it’s very important and actually a bit of a prerequisite in spite of the fact that it might be seen as not affordable and hard to measure.

But then underneath that, and this is where there’s a real challenge within the digital world, is how you make sure every single utterance from the company is coming from the same place, in content alluding to the same things. And that is obviously much more tricky and very complex.

Is it actually possible to have a unifying tone now that we’re moving from one- to-many communications to one-to-many-to-one, or if you believe pundits like Brian Solis, one too many?

It is possible if the central point you’re trying to make is very clear and well articulated in itself. So The Ultimate Driving Machine, how does that translate into the ultimate event, the ultimate webinar, the ultimate whatever it might be. And of course they’ve been at it long enough now to have certain rules and certain codes in how they do things.  So I believe it is possible to manage this multitude of messages in a way that’s consistent.

Do you think this might allow a brand like BMW to address secondary markets in a way that they haven’t done previously?

That’s an interesting point. In the past BMW drivers were treated as members of an exclusive club. As the market grew it developed the notion of mass niche which meant the 3-series started selling tens of thousands of units and you could hardly call that highly exclusive. So yeah, you’re right to suggest that digital might allow them to reach into audiences they might not otherwise have gone for in a slightly more discrete way without alienating existing owners who, of course, are still the primary audience because BMW want them to buy another one.

So how does this process actually unfold and are there any tools and techniques that you use for that?

I have developed a particular approach to how an organisation can arrive at what I call the single organising principle. The discipline of that is to get it down to two or three words, a clear single minded thought. Once that’s there it more often than not needs translating into something more user friendly.

So what was behind It’s Good To Talk was some rather ugly concrete brick but it wasn’t until David Abbott of AMV said ‘oh, you mean that, do you?’ that it sort of came alive. First you get to the concrete brick and then you put some paint on it by going back into culture, products and services, and reputation.

And then the psychometrics is where you do a lot of work to make sure that teams are working properly together. So what does a slogan like The Ultimate Driving Machinemean for the accounts department? And how is the accounts department working with operations, so that between them they’re delivering The Ultimate Driving Machine?

I like psychometrics and I think the use of psychographics in terms of describing target audiences has been expanded through the use of digital. So it’s now more about people who respond to these sorts of things might be our kind of people, rather than people who conform to these boxes.

Do you detect a shift from demographics to people’s psychographics, or is it still possible to rally around a single organising principle?

I feel that the need for a single organising principle is stronger than ever because it’s one of the prerequisites of strong brands that they are not for everyone and that they do stand for something. So organisations need to get very clear and say this is what we believe in, here is our take on the world. It is more about principles, saying this is us.

Of course what digital does in its various forms is that we can hang ‘us’ out there on any number of baited hooks and let those who share some of those sensibilities bite on those hooks and those who don’t move on. In that sense it’s changed things quite dramatically. It goes back to my original assertion, that what it’s done is force in a good way organisations to be all the clearer about who and what they’re about.

Can you think of any good examples of companies who are embracing this within the digital context?

Not really is the short answer but that’s not because they’re not there. The problem with this conversation tends to be that the ones who are doing it well, by definition are the ones that we all know about. The ones that are on their way we don’t know about. I can think of a dozen companies that I helped in the last three years who are fantastic companies that are small and new. One that springs immediately to mind is Dishoom, a Bombay Café, Indian restaurant. I  think that in the next three years that will become a brand that will be known for doing it brilliantly well.

What impact does a change of leadership have on the branding process?

If you think of the alignment line between culture, product or service, and the reputation, new CEOs coming in can make those lines much more wavy. And sometimes old CEOs create a different kind of waviness because they’ve ignored one part, or they’ve pushed one bit more than the other and it’s got out of kilter. Sometimes the most radical thing to do is get those three lines back in absolute alignment.

Coke did it a few  years ago. They started getting lost with all manner of flavoured drinks and they called Neville back, he came back as the CEO, and he went no, we’ve got to go backwards to go forwards and he took them back to being Coke. And suddenly they were much more comfortable, much more fluent, much more real, much more them. So wise leaders will always start with where has this been.

Does the introduction of a single organising principle mean that a company’s narrative becomes more important than some of the other more visual branding aspects, i.e. the logo?

Things like logos get relatively lost in all the noise of digital. It doesn’t make them unimportant. When you do them, you might as well do it right. But it is somewhat secondary.

But logos are more important than ever when you’re talking to internal audiences. So when Deloitte put a green dot at the end of their name, externally no one knows what that means, but you can bet your life on the inside it’s very meaningful. So if everything we’ve been saying so far is true, i.e. it is important to get the inside right first, then it becomes crucially important.

So how do you get from an agreement around the single organising principle to communicating it?

That’s why I like these platforms that look and sound and smell and feel like advertising end lines, but actually are a lot more than that.

Take for example Make a House a Home for Homebase. That came from a piece of work around the single organising principle. We ended up saying to them that you’re not a DIY shed, you’re a home making shop. Which is a big difference and that came from data and analysis of the things they felt they were good at. And from that Make a House a Home the organisation then did a deal with Laura Ashley and had their fabrics and wallpapers etc inside the stores. That is already a very long away from B&Q for instance.  And now they’re doing deals with Farrow & Ball. So they’ve taken this idea and they’ve pushed it and pushed it and pushed it. And it was true to them and natural to them but it manifests itself in those sorts of behaviours.

Finding an expression of the single organising principle can be a platform that you can then build any number of your other satellite communications on. A single organising principle is of such value to organisations, particularly now with this fragmented communications world.

Of course all this within the realm of that which you can control. But if you do control it, and control it well, chances are other people will pick up on it and start playing it back for you, they will repeat The Ultimate Driving Machine or It’s Good To Talk. And while that is less controllable than any sort of direct means, it is highly controllable if you manage your culture and your product and express it.

So for you is branding simply the embodiment of what it is an organisation actually does?

Absolutely. It is a fundamental exercise in self-definition and self-expression and once done that becomes a transportable asset whether it’s for communications, recruiting people against it, developing products and services. That’s why it’s the organising principle, it refers back to it.

So ‘Who are you, what do you do, why should anyone care’?

Those were the old communications premises but I think they still apply. Those questions provide the scaffolding that one would use to mount an advertising campaign. I’m less focused on the communications, more focused on the definition. And once defined and expressed appropriately, then those tenets would apply to running an advertising campaign. Yeah, ask those questions but in the context of we’ve already told ourselves we are The Ultimate Driving Machine or we believe in It’s Good To Talk. That’s the place to get to as the centrepiece that holds it all together.

About the author

Justin is the curator of the Best of Branded Content Marketing (BOBCM) ebook and event series