The Living Brand Manual

At a British Airways counter recently, I noticed an elegantly attired man trying to squeeze his overlarge luggage into one of those luggage-size-indicator frames. The man gave up trying to make the bag fit and abandoned his reading of the lengthy legal note above the frame. He directed his anger at the check-in staff. Their manner was as frosty and ill-humored as the signage. No natural repartee; no human connection. It’s been replaced by a corporate standard.

Corporate standards are killing brands. So are the brand manuals that specify those standards and the logo-obsessive behavior they prompt. Legal jargon is packed into every email and into the smallest Web site. Just for the fun of it, try printing the legal section of a random site. Odds are your printer will soon run out of paper.

The legal jargon in every communication rarely helps anyone survive the machinations by which the jargon promises to protect the company at the client’s expense. This artificial sense of protection amounts to seeking a divorce before you’re even married. It’s like saying to the consumer, “I don’t know you yet, but I don’t trust you anyway.”

From that point on, a brand’s unconsummated relationship with a potential customer is already on a steady path to oblivion. Rules don’t generally respond to the vagaries of the human condition. And that’s disastrous for brands, which, if treated well, are almost human themselves.

Compare the check-in experience at British Airways with a parallel one I witnessed at Virgin Blue’s counter. I’m sure the younger passenger had an even shorter fuse than the reserved British Airways traveler. Yet he simply smiled when he realized his bag was too large for the cabin. Unlike the British Airways’ luggage frame and attendant legalese, Virgin Blue’s luggage signage snap-happily advised, “You can bring an ego of any size on board — but only a bag this size.” The humorous, human touch dissipated the potential for anger.

Last time I visited the Web site of Virgin Blue’s sister company, Virgin Atlantic, I was greeted with “Hello Gorgeous!” The phrase establishes the tone of voice for the Virgin brand in the air, on the ground, and online.

Similarly, Puccino’s, a café concept born in London, makes an art of converting every detail into an amusing brand experience. Puccino’s puts individual messages on each cup, such as “Take my top off,” referring to the plastic lid. Sugar packets are embellished with: “Serving suggestion: pour in cup and shut up.” Compare that with your last visit to Starbucks. It’s become a boring, impersonal brand, taking the corporate brand manual approach, like British Airways. It simply and superficially adheres its logo to countless millions of cups. Its rapport with customers is seemingly constrained by a corporate style manual.

How do you achieve brand personality? And how do you allow the brand to grow without killing it with conventions? British Airways and Starbucks are just like other top brands: The branding is on autopilot. They’ve lost the individual, responsive touch because the brands were converted by their own brand manuals; documents full of rules, created by committees, leaving nothing to opportunity.

People, not books, are the best brand manuals. A dynamic, humorous, human brand is dynamic, humorous, and human because one person runs the brand, owns the brand, and sets the vision for the brand.

Instead of spending thousands of dollars on brand manuals that prescribe action, spend the money on a living brand manual. A person, whose role is to live and breathe that brand. He should be the brand’s evangelist, growing with the brand, and ensuring it never gets into situations that drain its spirit. A living brand manual should be prepared to change rules, shift guidelines, and adjust the vision.

Some might find this a scary scenario. What if that individual leaves? Well, people do move on. But the contrived British Airways scenario is scarier. For such companies, the brand has turned to stone. It’s immutable, self-justifying, and impervious to its relationship with customers.

The living brand manual, a brand custodian, is someone who wields the brand baton. The role must be accompanied by an exit strategy so, when he leaves, tactics are in place to ensure the baton is smoothly passed to the next custodian. The handover needn’t be artificially smooth, but it should be achieved without the baton being dropped. The point is to keep a real human being in charge of a humanized brand. Identifying and training the right person takes time. Once the position is in place, your brand achieves its own healthy life.

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