Is it all about the brand?

Next month I’m lecturing to Sheffield MBA students about the connection between PR and the brand.

Businesses that sell to other businesses, like yours probably, have especially deep branding needs. You are often trading on intangibles, because you are selling to savvy buyers. However, most of the spokespeople I meet are so focused on topical, punctual and transient attributes of their solution portfolio that they fail to connect up what they are doing to the values and personality of their brand.

That’s a real challenge, both for their ability to communicate and for their ability to develop strategy. Without a clear idea of the connection between what they are doing and the values and goals of the firm, managers often fail to show how individual changes are actually more than the sum of their individual significance. And without a clear idea of where their business wants to be, what they are promising to clients and what they want to be famous for, these managers often focus too much on too many opportunities, those that seem easy, rather than focusing on fewer, more strategic objectives.

I think that measurement is often key to this. For example, last year I spent some time with an multinational mobile/cellular telephone network. Their key measure of brand is awareness: how many people have heard of them. Personally, I think that’s mad. As you can guess from the fact that they are in an industry with a very high barrier to entry, that is capital intensive, there are very few firms like that (Orange, Telefonica/O2, T-Mobile, Vodafone). As you can also guess, almost everyone has heard of them. It’s like asking if Coke has more awareness than Pepsi: there’s some useful information there, but the key issue is really the perception people have of those brands. This operator was very proud of their high recognition but, to my eyes, the realities of their market mean that awareness moves up and down within a very narrow band.

In fact, I see many companies that are measuring only in this way. When most people have not heard of you, but do know your competitor, then it’s a great benchmark. But imagine asking journalists or analysts, for example, which of them have heard of powerhouse brands (like Dell, or HP or Cisco): it’s worse than useless. Not only is their awareness all close to 100%, but it’s such a silly question that you look stupid. However, some firms really do track their performance in this way. Partly that is because firms develop highly complex brand definitions which are too detailed to operationalise, explain or measure. If the brand is a primarily a binder, then the binder stays on the shelf.

The key message I want to get across to these MBA students is that the brand has to be simple enough to reduce down to attributes that can be explained and used as a compass by colleagues and customers.

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