The Biggest Disruption May Not Be A Technology

Cultural disruption, brands and branding

In these disruptive times, many companies are focusing their efforts on digital transformation programmes as they take on board any number of new technology advances. Having perhaps paraded through the hallways of CES in Las Vegas or attended any number of digital conferences, executive teams are importing management concepts such as agility, open innovation, growth hacking, open space offices and distributed workforces, in hopes of accelerating growth and/or cutting costs. Yet, for all these new technologies and digital opportunities, the vast majority of companies will do, at best, average. That’s because they haven’t worked enough on the fundamental premise of why they should be doing all this change. Sure, it’s to drive innovation and to make more money. But why should your entire organisation, all external stakeholders and your customers wish to follow you through this change? The answer to this question lies in your brand.

I steadfastly believe that the biggest disruption is cultural and that most companies are failing to adapt their brand strategy. For most startups, the notion of brand is, at best, a name, a logo and an URL. And for big business, commercial brands are caught up in the confusing crosshairs of corporate brand, commercial brand, employer brand and personal brands. Without working on the underlying values, codes, behaviours and language (i.e. the culture) of a brand, marketing techniques will perpetuate the biggest underlying issue in business today: a burgeoning lack of trust. This mistrust is exhibited not just by consumer of marketing messages, but by employees of their chief executives. If brand content and automated marketing are all the rage, brands too quickly err on the side of product-selling versus authentic story-telling. As a result, trust continues to be frittered away.

Working on your brand is as awkward a subject as working on your company culture. It’s ‘soft’ and often seems abstract. Brand and culture are, of course, intimately related. With the onslaught of new technologies and exciting avenues to generate innovative products and services, companies are dashing out new ideas to see if they stick. This is never clearer than in the way companies communicate, especially on social media. A perfect case in point is Wendy’s, the 3rd largest fast food chain. Up until May 2017, its Twitter account was managed by a rather sassy team led by the witty Amy Brown, who did the job there for four years. Wendy’s Twitter profile carries a hint of the attitude:

“We like our tweets the same way we like to make hamburgers: better than anyone expects from a fast food joint.” Over Amy’s reign, the Wendy’s account garnered much attention and a large following (well ahead of the #2 fast food chain). The only issue is that nothing in the Wendy’s culture, stated values (Food, Family & Community) or commitments seems to warrant the sass.

Granted the founder, Dave Thomas, did serve up with a punchy tone in Wendy’s famous “Where’s the beef?” communication, which was revived in 2011. But, cheeky and hilarious are (a) not part of Wendy’s operating mojo and (b) Wendy’s cannot own it any more than McDonalds or Burger King. In other words, unless Wendy’s had sass and attitude up and down their history, in the way they run their outlets and on their website, then it’s just a rather empty marketing ploy. Not that the large drop in revenues in 2016 (versus 2015) and the ongoing slide in revenues quarter/quarter are related to the Twitter account, but I believe it highlights a disconnect between the tactic of grabbing eyeballs and a strategy of building a sustainable brand.

So, this brings me to the disruption of brand and branding. The definition and purpose of brand has not changed, but the way a brand comes alive, who is involved and how it is evaluated has fundamentally shifted. In the past, a company was able to communicate via one way mass channels to install a message and a presence in the mind. The bulk of the experience of the brand was generally via the product and the physical outlets in which it was sold. Customer service, if it existed, was painfully analogue. Now, the tables have been turned. Communications are two way, rated and out in the open. Brand interactions are a much higher proportion of brand building and word of mouth is more powerful and far faster. Thus many more employees are involved in the way a brand is brought to life.

What is a company to do differently to build a powerful, lasting brand? It starts with accepting three key tenets:

– Brand is all about trust.

– You do not own your brand, but you can contribute to shaping it.

– The #1 fans must be your employees.

These tenets lead to a series of important questions:

– To what extent do the senior management team live and exude the values and mission of the brand?

– How does the community of broader stakeholders around your brand value your contribution?

– How likely and positively will your employees talk about your brand publicly and to their closest friends?

– How much do ex employees remain fans of your brand/company?

– How much do your customers refer and/or recommend your brand to their most important friends?

– How much do your prospective customers admire your brand and what it stands for?

– How much do non-customers actively dislike what your brand stands for?

In the wake of these tenets and questions, I prescribe a series of actions:

– Identify a meaningful purpose that will unite and motivate your employees and key stakeholders. What does your brand stand for? How is that different and better than your competition? How would the Earth be worse off if your brand disappeared?

– Evaluate how your brand is expressed across the multiple platforms and departments. Look at language, tone, rituals and behaviours to make sure your brand is being lived and communicated coherently and congruently by at least the core stakeholders.

– Revisit the overall brand strategy to make sure it is universally understood throughout your organisation.

– With a clear and well-shared strategy, explore and experiment with new technologies that can enhance/help implement your strategic intentions.

– If you have not done so already, establish a way to measure your employee fulfillment and engagement, including the highest levels of the team.

-Identify partners and potential collaborations to help upgrade your skills and knowledge where needed.

– Verify that internal communication systems and practices are aligned with the way you wish to interact externally with your customers.

– Create a short and supple social media policy that encourages your employees to participate in the public conversation.

Bottom line –

You have first to make sure brand purpose and the strategy are clearly enumerated and shared throughout the organisation to help winnow down the vast choice of new technologies. Secondly, you need to establish a corporate culture that is adapted for constant learning, fluid collaborations, frequent testing and failing. Only then will your company be ready to take full advantage of the opportunities to drive the business using these exciting, disruptive new technologies.