Woolworths’ Valentine’s Day gaffe was a textbook case in how not to manage a brand. A brand is essentially an extension of an organisation’s reputation, and this needs to be managed carefully and with consistency from day one.
The best way to understand branding is to think of it as simply another word for your organisation’s reputation. Last year, Woolworths had to deal with some reputational damage due to their Valentine’s Day ad campaign which came under fire for using gender stereotypes, resulting in Woolworths issuing an apology and pulling the advert from their stores. This illustrates several issues which are at the heart of branding.
Firstly, simply put, your brand is not a toy. You cannot have fun with it in the name of creativity. Of course, creative execution is needed, but the essence of a brand needs to be carefully managed. This includes being sensitive to societal issues and not running the risk of causing offense.
Secondly, branding needs to be consistently managed. Arguably, the Woolworths Valentine’s campaign failed, not because it used gender stereotypes but because it was off-brand. If Nando’s, or a company known for tongue-in-cheek humour, had produced a similar ad nobody would have been offended — in fact it would have been expected from this type of anti-establishment brand. But as a higher-end retailer, the Woolworths brand is associated with quality and value — not humour, and that is why it failed.
Thirdly, one of the challenges of branding is that companies think they own their brand. Granted, they created it and it has an accounting value attached to it, but because a brand is essentially an extension of an organisation’s reputation, it is entirely perceptual. You can’t own perceptions — they sit in the minds of people.
A brand is therefore a shared idea in the minds of its customers — and people who are not customers — shareholders, regulators, vendors and staff. It encapsulates an implied promise resting on all past behaviour. This may be an intangible item communicated over multiple channels, but it is possible — and in fact, crucial — to manage it.
Brands are successfully managed through consistency, relying on a common thread which needs coherence, relevance, integrity and of course appeal. The way to build and maintain a successful brand is to base it on the fundamentals of the organisation — its purpose, culture and core values.
In approaching the skilful art of brand management there are a few core things that marketers and business owners need to keep in mind.
Branding and company DNA are intertwined
Company DNA is not something that a marketer can contrive, a marketing professional may be able to define it, but is just an extension of the fundamentals of the organisation — the truth of what an organisation actually does and why.
Strong and enduring brands are built on the truth of company DNA. Even though brands evolve over time, there is a core purpose and value-set that holds true. If a brand is based on a lie, if it is not aligned to the company DNA, then it will not ring true and will never forge an emotional connection with the audience. Building an emotional connection with a brand — a personal identification at an emotional level — leads to loyalty. And when customers are loyal, they will stick with a company or product during tough times, and even defend it if criticised.
Branding is not just the job of the marketing team
Just as appropriate branding is true to the core business, every aspect of the business reflects and perpetuates the brand. It is a misconception that branding is only the concern of a marketing department, advertising agency or packaging designer. Marketing, design and communications handle the technical aspect of branding but there are two other groups whose role in branding is often overlooked. Firstly, the CEO — or directors, owner, entrepreneur.
Secondly, everyone else in the organisation, whose job is not marketing, plays an enormous role in reputational management, through behaviour and appearance, whether customer-facing or not. The company’s reputation is inherent in every element of what the company does — internally, externally, verbally and non-verbally including every element of user-experience from the state of the office parking to staff interaction at all levels.
Size doesn't matter
Whatever the size or configuration of the organisation, executives and employees need to be aware of the role they play in setting the tone for living the brand’s values. It is a misconception that brand management only applies to certain sizes or types of businesses. If you have customers, your business is built on your reputation and you need to care for your brand. All professionals in all industries can learn from the pitfalls and guidelines around good and bad reputational management.
Start at the beginning
Entrepreneurs often make the mistake of thinking that branding is a marketing function that gets tagged on at the end, after spending time figuring out the essentials of revenue streams, costs, financing and production. But a durable, credible, robust brand can only be built right from the beginning.
Entrepreneurs have a critical window to assess and define the business fundamentals — what they are going to do, what they stand for and what their absolute non-negotiable values are — to give purpose and direction to the budding venture and its brand.
It is vitally important to focus on these existential elements of branding at this stage, because if you get that right, if you understand your purpose, then a strong brand can be built on the components of company DNA. Conversely, if these elements are overlooked in the beginning, they are logistically and financially challenging to fix later on. Entrepreneurs have a rare chance to fix the problem before it happens.
Professor Raymond van Niekerk convenes the Brand Creation for Entrepreneurs programme at the UCT Graduate School of Business.