• Transform magazine
  • June 22, 2024

Top

The brand era

Transform Q2 Cover1

Ten years ago, branding was a maturing practice, key to building a business and shaping its reputation. Today, empires can be built and destroyed based on the power of brand. What will define the next 10 years of branding? Brittany Golob investigates.

The story behind the stratospheric rise of kale is marketing lore based in actual fact. A kale-loving spin doctor with a passion for food and a desire to see what would happen built a brand and campaign promoting the leafy green. The result was an epic transformation of a once-ignored salad bar garnish into a ‘superfood.’

Contrast that with 2017’s Fyre Festival, which used a powerful brand proposition to ignite a fanbase and effectively swindle people out of handfuls of cash. Years – and several lawsuits – later, the organisers are probably ruing their decision to build a brand on little more than promises.

Brands can make or break a business, an individual or a movement. They can create the foundation needed to build something truly revolutionary. Or they can be contribute to an empire’s downfall.

Branding has matured as an industry, and perceptions of the power of brands have changed in the boardroom. But there is still work to be done to clearly connect business success or failure with brand development in the eyes of corporate leaders.

Brand valuation studies have, for several years, been seeking to prove in business and financial terms that brands have value beyond the intangible.

It’s part of the reason business and brand purpose consultancy Brandpie has sought to understand purpose statements through rigorous academic research. The ‘Purpose Matters’ study examined purpose statements across the FTSE 350 to connect tangible return on equity and return on assets to the investment in the brand and in brand purpose. “Business theory is all about the numbers. Purpose connects to the why…the philosophy of a business. People break through walls when they believe in what the organisation is. Nobody believes in money in quite the way they believe in an organisation with a strong purpose statement that actually connects what they do with what the world needs,” research partner Nick Barter, professor at Australia’s Griffith University said at an online event with Brandpie.

alt

If what the world needs changes, companies – and their brands – will need to change with it.

Consider Blockbuster or Sears. The warning they offer companies is as prescient today as it was in the early days of the digital revolution. Both companies were so deeply entrenched in the promise of their brand and in their existing business models that new opportunities, ways of working and innovation were beyond the pale. Blockbuster couldn’t embrace streaming because people were still renting DVDs. Sears couldn’t become a viable digital player because its homeland was in catalogues and physical stores. Their brands held them back. They failed to allow the flexibility they needed to survive.

If crafted effectively and treated respectfully, brands can ensure business success. And, as the discipline of rebranding and brand development has proven its business value, it can shepherd companies into the brand era.

High-quality branding leads to favourable outcomes

Brand Finance undertakes significant research to connect brand value to business outcomes. It consistently finds that organisational success is linked to effective brand building.

The UAE has undergone an almost unimaginable transformation over the past three decades. Its economic success is built largely on the power of its nation brand and the brands of its individual emirates. Brand Finance’s nation branding research didn’t see the UAE even make the grade 20 years ago. In 2014, the country came in at 31st. This year, it is the 15th most powerful national brand in the world.

But even in tougher times than the boom cycle the UAE is currently in, strong brands can be a huge value to businesses. Mark Crowe, managing director of Brand Finance Australia, says, “This year’s Australia 100 highlights the important role of strong brands during challenging economic times in growing or minimising loss of value and mitigating reputational risk while providing reassurance to consumers confronted by cost-of-living pressures.”

Companies that invest in their brands – even, and maybe especially in difficult financial periods – will see greater long-term value than those that don’t.

Rebecca Sinclair, chief brand officer at Penguin Random House, says, “The challenge with branding is the difficulty of measuring and attributing performance so investment in brand building is often seen as a luxury investment and therefore vulnerable to being cut in times of economic uncertainty. However, we know that brand building when done right and hand in hand with performance marketing, is the most effective way to drive long-term sustainable growth. Airbnb’s investment in brand building during Covid is a great example of that.”

The challenge is in building brands the right way, based on considered strategy, creative thinking, suitable purpose and excellent design. “People can’t help it. They fall really hard for a big vision and charisma. Investors and clients want to hear that you have a really big vision. But then you also need to demonstrate that the business is taking action to deliver on that vision,” says Shannon Gallagher, group director, strategy at brand consultancy DeSantis Breindel. "The crucial change over the past few years is that corporate leaders now understand the power of having a brand and a story to tell about the business. They understand the relationship between that, consumption and investment,” she says.

alt alt
alt alt

Nowhere is the connection between brand investment and tangible outcome more intrinsic than in place branding.

A place in and of itself is nothing more than an entity in space and time. It exists. But crafting a brand based on its culture, values, people and ambitions gives it an identity. With a brand – and the marketing communications to support it – in place, that location can begin to understand the tourism, investment and commercial impact it can have on the world.

alt

“Does every place need a logo?” asks place brand specialist Ryan Tym, founder and director of Lantern. “No. Does every place need a compelling story about what makes them special? And why people should invest or visit or live there? Yes, absolutely.”

Recently, Tym built a compelling story and brand for the Norfolk Coast, Protected Landscape. Previously a collection of disjointed local and national organisations operating in the same space, the new brand creates a strong positioning and proposition for the UK’s Norfolk Coast region.

alt

On the other side of the world, a project for Tasmania’s West Coast achieved similar goals in 2018. Australian agency For the People unified the region’s investment, tourism and commercial operations under one compelling banner. The west coast of Tasmania welcomed 176,355 tourists in 2015 and a whopping 536,800 in 2024, according to Tourism Tasmania.

Embracing brand helps underline a purpose

Part of achieving a high-performing brand relies on corporate leaders to embrace the branding process and prioritise brand development. Over the past decade, brand practitioners and in-house leaders have pushed brand up the corporate agenda. “Brands are being held to public account,” Sinclair says, adding that there’s a reputational element to brand development. “But,” she says, “The smartest businesses are those who are prepared to invest for the long term.” By ensuring evaluation of their brands and brand measurement, organisations can more clearly understand the tangible, fiscal value a brand has on their business.

Gallagher agrees, adding that CFOs are beginning to take a greater interest in brand development. But, this greater spotlight on branding does present a challenge. The democratisation of AI tools has made the C-suite start to challenge the cost of investing in a brand.

alt

Gallagher says branding professionals can combat this, and prove the value of their work, by doing what they do best: storytelling. Branding experts have a unique way to approach creative problem solving and partnership. They need to tell the story of the company and its future in a way leaders will understand. “Branding is an intangible thing. It is a feeling. It's the way that you make people feel. It's their perception of you as a company,” Gallagher says. “Trying to rationalise something intangible with tangible data can be a challenge.”

Sinclair adds that AI is making the value of human craft even more important to organisations. “Human creativity is becoming more important and physical manifestations of brands have taken on a renewed significance in terms of connecting with audiences as a fallout of the pandemic and as an antidote to our increasingly online world,” she says.

alt

When building a brand, Tym points to the ways in which brand experts can get to the heart of the story. They can dig into the nature of an organisation, uncover the culture and people that define it and craft a strategy that tells that story to the world. Brand practitioners can use that strategy to change perceptions and build something stronger than had existed in the first place, he says.

If the brand loses sight of its purpose and the story it tells about itself, it will fail.

Borders was a massive American bookstore chain of almost 700 megastores across the world. One of the key reasons it failed was it over-expanded; it moved into music and couldn’t cope with the digital marketplace. It failed. Its major competitor Barnes & Noble was almost doomed to suffer the same fate until in 2019 bookstore mogul James Daunt took over. He refocused the business on the core of the brand: delivering a personal bookstore experience. The chain is opening new stores and anticipates more growth.

alt

Brand strategy is a valuable thing. It crafts the story of a brand and builds connections between that brand and its audiences. Place branding can quite literally put a place on the map. But once a brand exists, it must also pave the way for the future of the company, place or individual.

The future for brand in an uncertain world

In travel and tourism brands, Tym says adaptation will define the next era of rebranding and brand development. Lantern is currently working with Visit Europe to encourage a shift in the behaviour of its tourists. Over 700 million people visit Europe each year, most in the summer months. Shifting perceptions of shoulder seasons will encourage tourism across more months of the year, with benefits to local businesses, locals’ enjoyment of their own cities and the local environment.

Building a brand with flexibility for future growth is important, Tym says. “We focus on understanding the mindset and character and personality of a place and what makes that special. Because that's what visitors get, whether it's a sunny day or a wet day, they’re buying into the sort of spirit of a place. I think that's what makes a place successful.”

As much as place brands have proliferated, so too have individual brands. Influencers are crafting personal brands and harnessing them for growth. The opportunity is so juicy that TikTok has opened the TikTok Shop, a platform designed for influencers to sell direct to consumers without leaving the TikTok ecosystem.

For Sinclair, individual brands have even changed the way Penguin Random House goes about acquiring and positioning books, particularly in non-fiction genres. While author brands have always played a role in bookselling – think Judy Blume or Stephen King – “the thing that has shifted over the last decade is the ability for authors to build audiences directly through social media and create communities of followers,” Sinclair says. “In an online-first world, authors can develop their voices and content, testing it on potential readers. They can build their brand across different streams and platforms connecting with audiences, extending reach while growing their brand value. That means that when a consumer sees the book in a bookshop or through online search, there is instant recognition and more intent to purchase. Building that traction offline is much harder to do.”

For corporations, the future relies just as much on the power of brand. The uncertainty and geopolitical unrest that has characterised the last few years have put every aspect of a company to the test, not least of which its brand. “While a lot of companies rebrand because of tough times, there’s actually a strategy for them to create more stability,” Gallagher says.

Gallagher points to the tale of kale. It’s so outlandish it could be marketing legend. Its truth proves the power a strong, well-developed and authentic brand has in shaping perceptions. “In this era of living online, we’re deeply in touch with the power of brand whether we realise it or not,” she says. The brand stories that people will tell in 10 years are as yet unwritten. But they will, undoubtedly tell of how a brand – the right brand – can shape the future.

 

This article was taken from Transform magazine Q2, 2024. You can subscribe to the print edition here.