Over the past few weeks I’ve happened upon a number of brand strategy exercises carried out by the design industry. While I am convinced that the design derived from this thinking was terrific, I have to say that, without exception, I found the strategic work unconvincing and clumsy. Why? Because, surprisingly, no creativity had been applied to the strategic thought. Brand management formulae, models and processes had been applied apparently unthinkingly.
Why, I asked myself, do designers believe that they can be brand strategists or, come to that, write copy? After all, copywriters and brand planners don’t try to design. Do they?
Once upon a time, some bright individuals recognised that it was more than just the product that made a sale. Something else was affecting the purchase decision and, for the sake of ease of understanding, they called it ‘personality’. These two things, they argued, the product and the personality, combined to influence buying behaviour, and could be summed up in the single concept of the ‘brand’.
As time went by the importance of the brand, and the vital need to manage it actively, became universally recognised. This encouraged more bright people, predominantly in the larger agencies and consultancies, to establish brand management tools. These took the form of models, processes and structures that developed and manipulated brands to their client’s best advantage.
The critical point, however, was that the originators of these models recognised that brands can be fragile and fickle if they are not indulged with intimate understanding. And, for this reason, the originators constantly evolved and delicately developed their models to eke the most subtle and compelling brand benefit.
But what happened was that the colleagues of these brand gurus saw the strength of these models and took them from the big consultancies to their new smaller employees, and, in turn, became the brand gurus in their own, smaller pond. The problem, of course, was that they applied these branding processes irrespective of sector, competition, parent company, product, opportunity or anything else.
This systemisation of brand management has now reached epidemic proportions, and everyone (sorry if this does not apply to you) in design is putting themselves forward as brand experts. The reality is that brand models are purely being ‘filled in’ for each new client, because the authors do not understand that brands need personal attention, and that brand models and processes need to be evolved constantly and developed to meet the needs of the individual brand and the market that they compete in.
Brand thinking has moved on, but the models used by many ‘branding’ consultancies are stuck, formulaic and impotent. I would suggest that this lack of understanding is putting our own brand, that of ‘UK design’, at risk. Brands exist in the mind of the consumer – nowhere else. And brands are trust.
So, if the UK design industry is putting itself forward as brand experts, but in truth is purely rolling out unthinking process and brand models, then our consumer, the client, will see through us, and lose trust. If that happens, our colleagues in other marketing services disciplines will be the first to step into our shoes at the client’s top table. Our business is at risk if we stop being experts. Claiming expertise where our knowledge and skill is marginal is a recipe for disaster. Let’s stop it.
The ‘UK design’ brand is what we rely on (very few design groups can be named spontaneously by our clients) and it is made up of a collective of hundreds of different consultancies. We therefore have a responsibility to each other to represent the industry as a whole to the best of our abilities. And, truth is vital.
If you’re not great at something, why not tell the client and then find someone to work with you who is great. The client is better off, and, consequently, so are you. The temptation is, of course, to say ‘yes’ to every opportunity and then to work out how you are going to fulfil it. So, how do we capture and make money from that marginal business opportunity that is slightly outside our skill-set?
I challenge you to find the best-in-class specialist consultancy, and then to introduce them to your client. In fact, I would go further than that and suggest that you go out and find specialist partners now, and be prepared for opportunities to work together.
Tim Greenhill is strategy consultant of Greenhill McCarron
Making Money the Smart Way
In order to claim brand insight consultancies are applying a ‘one size fits all’ approach to brand strategy that delivers homogenous brands, rather than creating unique and distinctive personalities. This is, of course, the antithesis of what a brand process should deliver. How can consultancies make money from opportunities that can be outside their core skill-set?