Losing control

Marketers can’t control every aspect of a brand’s messaging – but they can coach an authentic focus on values

If we ask the question: “Who is responsible for your organization’s brand identity?”, many people would answer “the marketing department”, “the marketing director”, or similar. This is hardly surprising: many organizations operate this way. But today, an organization’s brand identity is too important to be owned by just one function – especially when any shortcomings can be communicated to millions in a heartbeat.

Have you ever been disappointed by your personal experience of a brand compared to the official corporate messaging? It can be as simple as a new website extolling the company value of ‘excellence’ where there are spelling mistakes in the copy, or one customer service representative telling you something different to what a call centre operative told you previously.

How can a traditional marketing department be responsible for all these elements? Jeff Bezos captured it perfectly when he said, “Your brand is what people say about you when you are not in the room.” From a customer perspective, every single outward-facing detail of the organization forms the brand identity, from the experience with employees – including outsourced employees – to the built environment to the digital experience.

Everything counts towards your brand. As marketing guru Seth Godin puts it, “A brand is the set of expectations, memories, stories and relationships that, taken together, account for a consumer’s decision to choose one product or service over another.” Just think about how important customer service employees’ uniforms are as a visual representation of the brand. And it goes even further. Are customers the only stakeholders who are influenced by the organization’s brand identity? Not at all. Organizations have to consider how their brand identity is presented to employees, service partners and local communities too.

Owning the brand identity

In the past, it was commonly accepted that organizations owned their brand identity. The marketing function usually took the lead: it decided what the brand identity was and then used marketing and public relations campaigns to pump out a message to target audiences. Today, in what we describe as ‘the values economy’, this model no longer works. An organization’s brand identity is co-owned by various stakeholder groups, including customers, employees, service partners, local communities and investors.

Across these groups, consistency in messaging is key: in the values economy, there is no place for organizations who try to present one face to one group of stakeholders and a different one to others. As Scott Cook, the Intuit co-founder, has pointed out: “A brand is no longer what we tell the consumer it is – it is what consumers tell each other it is.”

In the business-to-consumer arena, the role of social media is pivotal: in networked communities, information flows more freely and faster than ever. This is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, organizations with a clear and consistent brand identity which is experienced as authentic will be lauded; on the other hand, inauthentic brands might not survive. Honesty, originality and authenticity will become prerequisites for achieving sustained performance.

The key to success is strategic alignment and co-ordination execution. It all starts with brand identity (the first element of our Servicebrand approach). Once there is clarity about all aspects of the brand identity, including purpose and values, it can be used to inform decisions across the organization, focusing on the employee and customer experiences. This ensures the organization’s brand identity is alive and aligned at different levels. It can be seen in purpose- and values-led decisions, in employee behaviour, and in a uniform brand voice across channels and stakeholder groups.

A shining example of the power of a clear brand identity is the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club (AELTC) – best known for the Wimbledon Championships. Wimbledon is the oldest tennis tournament in the world, one of the sporting calendar’s most prestigious events and one of the largest global media events. At a strategic level, the AELTC will not consider betting firms for direct relationships of any kind, because of the value of integrity. At an organizational level, the AELTC remains a private club, and its board is made up of club members, keeping tennis at its heart. And at an operational level, the branding within the grounds is strongly palette-led, evident in the horticulture and staff uniforms, and the absence of brand logos. The Wimbledon brand identity flows through every facet of the organization and operation.

In the future, we believe that the most successful brands will not be focused on direct control of brand messaging. Instead, they will invest energy in being true to their brand identity, led by their purpose and values. They will focus on enabling their stakeholder groups to communicate how they feel about the brand, with these stakeholders effectively acting as an extension of the marketing department – with marketing becoming an ‘authenticity coach’, touching all aspects of the organization. It promises to be a fulfilling future.

Alan Williams and Samuel Williams are authors of The Values Economy: How to Deliver Purpose-Driven Service for Sustained Performance (LID Publishing, 2021)