Martin Thoma: Branding Is Leadership, Not Marketing

by Martin Thoma ([email protected]) 80 views 

A powerful and competitive brand is not something you solely advertise or design. It’s everything you are and do.

This means that “branding” is leadership, not marketing.

Consider this: if you transplanted all the people at Walmart into Nordstrom, would it still be Nordstrom? The walls, the clothes, the displays, the slogan, the advertising would still be Nordstrom’s. Only the people would be different. Is it still Nordstrom? What if you reversed the operation? Is the result still Walmart?

Could you transplant all the engineers at Microsoft into Apple and hope to produce the next iPhone? Could you swap out the team at Southwest Airlines for Virgin’s or American Airlines’ employees and still have Southwest?

The answer to all of these thought experiments, of course, is “of course not!”

It proves the point. Great companies – and powerful brands – have deeply ingrained cultures, customer service delivery models, and modi operandi.

A brand is a living, breathing, evolving thing. A brand is a leadership principle, not just a marketing framework.

A highly clarified brand gives an organization a powerful sense of self and purpose. It aligns and shapes the culture, influences product development and guides the behavior of the organization in the marketplace.

So brand leaders must create compelling, crystalline clarity regarding their companies’ missions, products, purpose and brands. They must develop plans to execute against this strategy, and measure progress toward their brand objectives.

A great example of brand leadership in action is former president of Philander Smith College, Dr. Walter Kimbrough. When Kimbrough joined Philander Smith, the college was on its knees. Alumni engagement was miserable, student enrollment and entering ACT scores were falling, philanthropic support was anemic. Among other critical imperatives, Kimbrough understood that the college had to develop a “unique identity.” That is, a brand.

Through a lot of organizational soul-searching (aka brand research and strategy development), Kimbrough and his team recognized the opportunity to redefine Philander as a “crucible of thought, inquiry and action in social justice.” This wasn’t just a tagline, it was a manifesto. New logo, new tagline, new website, new speeches soon developed.

What happened?

The next entering freshman class was larger and higher-scoring than any class in many years; the following year, freshmen entered in numbers nine percent greater yet. The college was awarded a nearly $1 million grant from the United Negro College Fund to strengthen its development program. Later the Kresge Foundation gave $1 million to seed a new Center for Social Justice.

John Wilson, director of the Obama White House Initiative on Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), paid a visit to Little Rock to proclaim that Philander Smith was doing exactly what all HBCUs should be doing – carving out a differentiated position, claiming unique territory and making themselves relevant to a new generation of young people.

Kimbrough had the brand framework stood up just about the time he left to run Dillard University in New Orleans. The greatest risk to Philander Smith now – as with any organization changing the guard – is seeing its hard-won brand strategy as a program du jour or the work of the ancient regime, something to be tossed aside in favor of a better idea.

More than anything else, brand leaders provide clarity and purpose.

Howard Schultz at Starbucks comes to mind. His vision was about elevating the U.S. coffee consumer to the idealized experience he had enjoyed while touring Italy and sampling its neighborhood espresso bars.

Herb Kelleher, the founder and builder of Southwest Airlines, comes to mind. Sam Walton. Bill Gates. Each of these CEOs had or has a unique and powerful vision for what their companies were in the world to do. They operated from a “north star” that guides and informs every decision.

None of these CEOs started out saying, “I’m going to build an iconic brand.” They said, “I’m going to create the best damn [fill in the blank] the world has ever seen.”

And it’s exactly this paradox that makes the CEO the most important and influential brand steward any organization can have. So what’s required of the CEO to steward the brand?

  • Know what it is
  • Know what it isn’t
  • Be champion, cheerleader, constant communicator

For the CEO and his senior team to be most effective at directing and protecting the brand, it is helpful for them to have a manifesto, a map of the territory, a ten commandments or some other guidance system. Does your company have such a “Brand GPS?” Email me or start a conversation on Twitter.

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