We are in the midst of a dramatic evolution to the way people and brands interact with each other. Historically, brands held the information advantage over their stakeholders – the brands were controllers of the message. Sure, consistently making lousy products would eventually take its toll. However, most people’s perceptions of a brand were based on the brand image that was broadcast to them, their personal experiences with a product or service, and the opinions of a relatively small social circle.
Today, the balance of power has shifted fairly dramatically. Consumers have access to more information from more sources than at any point in history. And most importantly, the majority of that information is out of the direct control of the organization behind the brand. We’re not that far removed from the time where consumers needed to buy a magazine like Consumer Reports or read the newspaper cover to cover in order to get an “unbiased” review of a product or brand. Now hundreds of those perspectives are little more than a click away. And consumers are putting their faith in the crowd – a 2013 Nielsen study showed that consumers trusted online reviews more than editorial content, such as newspaper articles and any form of advertising.
This changing reality has led to a lot of “award-winning” marketing failing to deliver desired outcomes – because the best marketing in the world can no longer cover up the realities of mediocre, or worse, customer experiences. It has also led to quite a bit of media coverage touting some version of the “end of marketing.” However, although it doesn’t have quite the same tabloid-headline ring to it, we would argue that the real story should be about the rise of Whole Brands instead of some “death of marketing.”
The truth of the matter is that the idea of brand – specifically Whole Brands – has never been more important. In a world where more and more of how people perceive your brand is out of your marketing team’s direct control, internal and external alignment behind your stakeholder experience and obsessive consistency of execution across every part of the business is the only way to have confidence in managing the brand over the long term. Where traditional brand standards had been about ensuring visual consistency for the brand, modern brand standards need to be about making sure behaviors and strategic decisions are consistent.
As the truly great brands have known for decades or longer, logos, taglines, and campaigns are only parts of the story. These organizations see everything they do – from the new products being worked on by R&D to their retail distribution strategies to the people they hire to the way they make business decisions (and, of course, how they market themselves) – through the lens of their brands. For leading organizations, a well-understood brand becomes the guiding force for the entire the organization. And we’re not alone in this belief. A McKinsey and Company article on the evolving role of the CMO said, “The CMO and the marketing organization have the best position to provide market research and training to help with the creation of appropriate responses and the required capabilities. It’s not surprising, therefore, that some companies are asking their CMOs to establish ‘commercial councils’ across business units to coordinate their marketing and customer efforts.”
What does a Whole Brand look like in practice?
- It starts with an in-depth and up-to-date understanding of your competitive marketplace, the profile and perspective of all of your stakeholders (not just customers, but employees, investors, partners, and other groups critical to your long-term success), and the state of your brand among internal and external audiences.
- This knowledge and insight becomes the foundation for developing the right brand strategy – a focused brand promise that is differentiating, relevant, and authentic.
- Then, you need to communicate that promise to your stakeholders in a compelling way. Don’t think that great creative execution – in the form of breakthrough tactics and distinctive creative product – doesn’t matter. If your delivery of the strategy goes unnoticed, it will not deliver the desired results.
- And at its core, your organization needs the infrastructure – in the form of a great culture – that can consistently deliver on the promise your brand makes again and again and provide the ability to innovate over time in a way that enables you to evolve to meet the changing reality of competitive threats and stakeholder needs.
Although the rise of digital, social, and mobile has made the idea of consistent delivery of a brand experience more mainstream than it was when Greenhouse was founded in 2001, our firm has always been focused on building and growing Whole Brands. It is why our business model is the way it is and why we have always hired people from non-traditional backgrounds – business strategists, entrepreneurs, people who have run their own businesses, management consultants – so that we can effectively impact parts of our clients’ businesses outside of the marketing department.
And our Whole Brand approach has played out in numerous ways in the work we have done for our clients over the years:
- In one of our long-term clients’ single-most expensive communications tactic during its first five years of existence being an internal brand book that brought the organization’s greater purpose and behavioral expectations to life
- In the CMO at one of our clients being deeply involved in product development and is accountable for the innovation efforts of the organization – not just marketing
- In several clients who have engaged us primarily to drive internal behavior change, enhancing the organization’s business performance in areas key to brand perception
We look all around us and still see that Whole Brands are continuing to win in the new world order. They still generate outsized loyalty, command premium pricing, and inspire contagious behavior and enthusiasm. It’s just that getting to that point is a little more difficult than it used to be. It’s not enough to have Don Draper in your corner coming up with a magical concept. It’s about creating internal and external alignment and making promises that you can keep. It’s about products that fit with target insights that fit with culture and hiring, and connect with the marketing message. It’s what the Nikes, IBMs, Apples, and Patagonias have been and will forever be focused on – creating a seamless customer experience at every touch point. What these and other great Whole Brands do is not easy – certainly not in comparison to simply putting out a great marketing campaign – but we believe it is the only way to create authentic differentiation, increase efficiency, motivate long-term loyalty, and drive results in this brand new world. If you’re ready for the challenge, Greenhouse is ready to help.
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