"It's The People, Stupid!" Why Branding Fails To Inspire Loyalty - And What You Can Do About It

'To brand or not to brand?' used to be a decision. Today, it's a given - and branding has been embraced by individuals and organizations across the board. Whether one is overseeing a major corporate brand (James Gregory's Leveraging the Corporate Brand), or simply managing one's own career as a 'free agent' (Tom Peter's The Brand You 50),  'The concept of a brand's value has never had such a high profile,' writes Campaign  (May 3, 2002) 'and as a consequence the role the brand plays in a company's success is being ever more closely scrutinised.... Every sector is getting more crowded and markets are becoming more mature, making the brand instrumental in gaining any competitive advantage.'

The importance of branding to business success has spawned a list of titles that seems to grow longer by the day. These include everything from classic textbooks (Keller's Strategic Brand Management, Aaker and Joachimsthaler's Brand Leadership) to niche advice books (Ragas' The Power of Cult Branding, Meyers'Branding @ The Digital Age) to mass-market 'good reads' (Trout's Big Brands, Big Trouble) and even quick-books designed to get executives up to speed (Vanauken's Brand Aid, Coomber's Branding [Express Exec]).

However, despite the existence of many books about branding, not to mention numerous firms that sell it, the disappointing reality is that branding initiatives often fail. According to a recent survey of 700 business professionals conducted by Tom Peters, more than 90% said they did not understand how to effectively represent their company's brand; 75% don't support their company's branding initiatives; and over 50% say they don't even know what a brand means. Similar findings were published by Prophet; only 19 out of 90 global corporations surveyed said they had a long term brand strategy they were very satisfied with, and 62% of respondents said that senior management failed to support the brand.

All of this points to an unexamined 'failure factor' in branding as it is practiced today. Although companies are well-aware of the need to project the right brand image, they have paid little or no attention to gaining employee commitment to the brand at all levels. Building the brand into the culture is one of the critical elements for brand success, as 'Maximizing Your Brand Value,' a 2002 report from business intelligence firm Cutting Edge Information notes. Yet there is little guidance available for executive who wish to accomplish this. In addition, branding continues to be viewed as a marketing practice even though it is much closer to a management process.

In the marketing literature itself, with few exceptions (most notably Nicholas Ind's Living the Brand) there is a striking lack of emphasis on the critical importance of people to brand success. Moreover, there are few publicly available followup studies on the aftermath of internal branding projects. One such report, written by the author, 'Internal Branding: Does It Improve Employees' Quality Of Life,' (2001) demonstrated that merely introducing a so-called 'brand vision' and 'brand values' to employees is insufficient to convince them of its importance. Rather, companies must get closer to the approach advocated by Scott Bedbury in A New Brand World. As Bedbury puts it, 'Unless your brand stands for something, it stands for nothing.'

What does this mean in practice? Companies and consultants alike must reframe their understanding of what branding is in the first place. The conventional view is that branding is about creating 'image,' changing 'perceptions,' driving 'marketing and sales.' The emerging, more people-centric view, is that branding is about creating loyalty, motivation, and even missionary zeal among customers and employees alike.

Founded on integrity and trust, this kind of branding involves 5 key 'win-win' processes:
  • Creating real, satisfying relationships among stakeholders, rather the appearance of relationships
  • Benchmarking of corporate social responsibility agreements that begin with a commitment to treating employeees ethically, extends to the local community, and radiates outward to the 'global village'
  • Balance-sheet treatment of the brand as an integral part of the business model with consequent prioritization by senior leadership
  • A freestanding brand management department, separate from the marketing department, composed of executives charged solely with championing, communicating, enforcing, and rewarding behaviors that support the brand.
  • Formalization of knowledge-sharing systems that promote collaboration among employees in support of the brand

Branding for the people, not just for the profits, would help companies and individuals alike maximize their often-significant investment in this effort. The truth is, employees are just as likely as customers to resist branding messages, though for a different set of reasons. These include individual and cultural resistance to change; fear of loss of power; and, perhaps most importantly, cynicism rooted in mistrust of management and coworkers' motives. The reality is that branding is a process of organizational change, and requires an understanding of human dynamics if it is to succeed.

To sum up: If they are to be successful, brands must have genuine integrity. Period. Keeping the promise forms the basis of a positive relationship between the organization and the people who work for it, the people who buy from it, the people who partner with it, the people who invest in it, and the people who report on its progress.  As the businesspeople most in touch with consumer behavior, marketers should be first to realize the importance of trust, of humanity to branding. We should be first to recognize that today, unfortunately, we live in a world where people have little reason to trust. In a world without trust, transactions are fraught with fear and hesitation, leaving business to sink under a self-imposed quicksand of litigiousness, regulatory interference, and controversy.

The good news, though, is that people want to trust. They will be loyal if only they are given a reason to be. Be the kind of brand that people can trust, and you will be the brand they buy from - and buy into - as well.

(c) 2002 Dannielle Blumenthal, Ph.D.