Ding, Ding, Ding. The bell rings and the fighters come out of their corners.
Out the blue corner, with a market cap of $100 billion, steps forward the Fortune 50. Fortune’s been around for a decade, and while they aren’t the fastest puncher, they’ve weathered many a tough round and have learned how to last.
Out of the red corner charges the lighter, faster startup. Startup’s new, but they attack forward, confident that their approach will throw Fortune completely out of rhythm. And it just might. That or the disruptor’s meaningless blows will bounce right off Fortune, and the behemoth will pivot slightly and with one punch leave the startup laying on the mat.
While it obviously isn’t that simple, this is commonly how agencies seem to frame the battle between disruptors and incumbents. Whoever’s corner you are in, you completely change your approach.
And there is admittedly a good reason for this, particularly when it comes to branding projects. Startups speed through product and innovation cycles, hell bent on failing early and often so they can get a product in front of users. Maybe, just maybe, they create a minimum viable brand. But what constitutes viable? How often does a MVB truly represent the essence of a brand, what it believes in, and what distinguishes it from the competitors?
For Fortune 50s, their leaders know digital disruptors are the cool kids on the block, but in many cases their product innovation remains bogged down, forcing them to acquire the startups that succeed (See Unilever and Walmart). Internal brand change happens at the same lagging pace — organizational politics and clashing stakeholders keep brand development from moving fast enough to keep up with today’s evolving digital-first consumer.
But I want to posit that there lies a middle ground that agency partners must focus on instead of the nature of their competition.
Startups must learn to be more thorough in their branding, but large, mature organizations must learn to be agile (with a lowercase a). We must combine the best of both ways of working and redefine what it means to be a minimum viable brand if we want to meet the expectations of consumers that now care less about logos, and more about what a brand represents.
We must consider an approach that forces the disruptor to discover what they stand for, and that gives the incumbent a rally cry to unify stakeholders and accelerate their brand development.
We must design organizations of all sizes from the inside out to brand in the “post-digital age.”
Agencies Can’t Overlook Organizational Design
When you experience a brand, you see it, touch it, hear it, and ultimately feel it — all the stories, touchpoints, and communications add up to one comprehensive experience. Fundamentally, branding is about differentiating yourself from the competition with this singular experience.
If a product is intended to make consumers feel like they go faster, how does everything in the copy communicate speed? What are the top 50 adjectives that people are currently using to communicate the word “faster”? How do people interact with their digital platforms when they are trying to accomplish tasks quickly?
It is more important than ever that this articulated point of view dictate every action that an organization takes, internally and externally. A brand is really just a collection of values. Consumers purchase, interact, and evangelize brands whose values intersect with their own. They are proud to wear a shirt with their favorite brand displayed across the front because they want others to know who they are and what they believe in.
Insights and market factors certainly shape how a brand strategy comes to life, but organizational design must be the foundation from which a brand is built. If the values of an organization don’t square with the values of their market-facing messages, consumers will tune out. Your client will be labeled “inauthentic” and your agency’s marketing efforts will feel fraudulent.
To design the future of your client’s business, start with their organization. What does it stand for? It’s not just their product. It’s not just their service. It’s not just their experience. It’s everything.
In his book, Primal Branding, Patrick Hanlon, CEO and Founder of Thinktopia, explored what separates popular brands from the rest and discovered what he calls the “primal code” — seven assets that construct the belief systems behind the world’s most beloved brands.
The first part of the code is the creation story, which I believe to be integral for articulating the true purpose behind any organization. Every brand or business started because the founder or founders wanted to bring a vision to life. Codify this vision and let it define how you articulate your client’s brand.
Align Internal Culture with External Branding
The customer service at Disney Parks is legendary. The experience that “cast members” provide sends children and adults (bigger children) back year after year. A big reason for this is that every single Disney employee starts their on-the-job training with a study of Walt Disney’s original vision to create the “happiest place on earth.” Job responsibilities and day-to-day minutiae take a backseat to the creation story that will inform an employee’s every on-the-job action.
LEGO lost $300 Million in 2003, the year before Jorgen Vig Knudstorp took over as CEO. Ancillary businesses had taken the toy company far from its brick roots but the company’s fortunes quickly turned when Knutstorp embraced its simple founding vision: to create building educational toys.
He often quotes a T.S. Eliot poem throughout the company, “We shall not cease from exploration / And the end of all our exploring / Will be to arrive where we started / And know the place for the first time.” In the decade since, Lego has posted sales growth each year, including a double-digit growth in 2015.
By aligning your client’s people, processes, and platforms with its original purpose, you are able to give their employees and partners commander’s intent — a military term that describes what the commander sees as the end state of a successful mission. By showing what success looks like, subordinates can improvise under duress, as long as the end result is in line with the commander’s intent.
Meaning, a Disney employee or vendor can ask themselves, “Am I making someone happy?” A LEGO product or experience designer is empowered to ensure their work is true to the brand’s brick beginnings.
One might say, “well that would never scale. I could never do that at Walmart.” But you know what? Consumers prove time and time again that they are willing to spend more on a product for a better experience.
Better brand experiences start with better organizations. Organizations with internal cultures and external market-facing brands aligned to their creation story. Organizations that understand the singular reason they exist, and how that purpose can drive every single interaction that consumers have with a company, whether they are using a product or service, interacting with digital content, or messaging customer service.
Whether your client is a startup, or a Fortune 50, their organization must be designed from the inside out if it wants to stand a chance in the ring. Consumers don’t care whether a brand is the incumbent or a disruptor, they care about whether a brand provides a cohesive experience that aligns with the values they expect.
How Design From the Inside-Out for Your Clients
Great brands are built on great stories, so start by uncovering a compelling, sticky creation story. Finding a compelling brand story to extend throughout your client’s organizational design doesn’t have to be a start-from-scratch process. Interview your client early on in the relationship about their origin story, their values, and what they like about their current branding.
As Simon Sinek says, “people don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it.” Our minds think in stories and narratives, and so should your branding. Sculpting a sticky brand story begins with uncovering why your client does what they do, and how their unique why sets them apart from their competition.
Next, define the outcomes that drive success for your client. Not just for marketing engagement, but for their company as a whole. Anything your agency delivers must help the client reach that broader outcome. Design artifacts that articulate this vision so your client can share it with every employee, partner, or vendor. They’ll thank you when quality of work improves across the board. The last thing you want is your client getting buyer’s remorse.
Once your agency finds the through-line that starts with the why and extends to the customer, you’ll be able to design a brand story that defines your client’s internal organization and public-facing branding.