Brand Bending

Your organization’s employees would say they’re pretty expert at talking about your brand. They know it. They understand what it stands for.

But do they really?

Familiarity causes territorialism. In a five-person company, this may not be a problem. But as soon as staff numbers increase, so do the segregations between functions and the disruptions to brand maintenance.

As a company grows, so can a culture of inflexibility, a lack of cross-departmental coordination, incomplete communication, and incompatible styles of brand ownership. Discontent begins to simmer uneasily within each department, until those departments drift apart. The marketing department becomes an island, disconnected from its corporate siblings. This severs the most important bond of branding: consistency.

The brand no longer resides just in the marketing department. It resides within every team. But within those teams, attention isn’t always paid to the brand’s best interests and wellbeing.

Too often, each department protects this precious thing independently. To nurture the brand, each department invents and adds new assets to the brand and steers it away from the guiding light of its values. You’ll see this in action on most Fortune 500 Web sites. The navigation panels on each of the company’s many sites differ from one other; the tones of voice compete; the graphic styles don’t coalesce.

Broach the subject of brand pampering, or well-intentioned tampering, each corporate segment inadvertently encourages, and you’ll likely get a defensive response. “We use the logo in approved fashion,” the Web designer may say, ignoring the fact a logo is but the dot on the “i” of the big brand picture. The values and messages around the correctly placed “i” are what’s important.

Don’t assume there’s brand harmony among your teams and communication channels. Print 20 pages from your Web sites, pull pages 4 and 12 out of your latest brochure, and compare this year’s ad with last year’s. Get ahold of the latest company T-shirt, most successful point-of-sale materials, and some older packaging. Hang it all on the wall and cover up the logo. Can you discern any commonalities at all among the paraphernalia? Would a customer recognize the brand behind the products? If you can’t, you’ve been throwing branding dollars down the drain.

It’s a delicate balance. Introducing suppressive house rules and making department heads feel hostage to inflexible decisions won’t do the trick. On the other hand, a laissez-faire management attitude abandons all brand control and results in even more brand inconsistency.

If you take branding seriously, ask yourself if you may have gone off track, despite your support and enthusiasm for your brand. If what you saw hanging on the wall was one big mess, if the brand behind the stuff was impossible to identify, then you and your colleagues are individually and collectively responsible for putting branding efforts into reverse gear.

The best way to fix this? Forward this column to the other department heads. Get together and solve the problem.

This old tale may help: An aged man lay dying. Before closing his eyes for the last time, he called for his first-born son. “Son,” he murmured weakly, “take that bamboo stick and bend it.” In customary obedience, the eldest son grasped the cane and bent it with ease. The old man then called in his second son. His task was to bend two sticks together, which he did with difficulty. Then, the venerable father called for the third son. His task was to bend a whole sheaf of bamboo. Try as he might, the young man couldn’t bend the sticks at all. “You see, my sons,” said the old man, “if you work alone, you are weak, like the single bamboo cane. You will bend in the face of fortune and circumstance. But if you work together, you will be strong, resilient. Others will not bend you.”

Building brands is no longer the exclusive province of marketing or communications. It’s the responsibility of every department across a company. You must all communicate, coordinate, and collaborate. Only by working together can you create a truly unbendable brand.

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