Guarding the brand

Saturday, 01 March 2014

Jean-Luc Ambrosi  photo
Jean-Luc Ambrosi

    Jean-Luc Ambrosi explains why an organisation’s branding is a boardroom issue and where a board’s role in branding begins and ends.

    Today, brands can represent a large portion of a company’s intangible assets and are a fundamental tool in driving future revenues. Brands play an increasingly vital role because they help organisations maintain a competitive edge when product categories are being commoditised and barriers to entry are weakening across many industries. They enable organisations to differentiate products and services, create “cut-through” in crowded spaces, enjoy pricing differentials, generate rational and emotional connections with their customers and, above all, drive demand. As the reliance on brands grows, the ability to manage them becomes a critical responsibility for organisations and their boards.

    This raises two critical questions:

    • Where does the involvement of boards begin and end when it comes to brands?
    • How can the board ensure its directors are equipped to manage this aspect of the business?

    The board’s role in managing brands should revolve around two core functions. The first is about ensuring the organisation has a sound brand strategy. The second involves monitoring the roll-out of this strategy over time. The brand strategy is not about logos, look and feel and tag lines. It is about defining the organisational vision, what the brand stands for, what it truly represents and where it is moving to. It is about ensuring all stakeholders are clear and aware of its uniqueness, the difference it represents and how its particular positioning will be sustained over time. This requires clear definitions and a road map. Once this is done, the board must ensure management is rolling out strategic plans and tactical implementations supporting the overall strategic vision and road map.

    It is important for boards to know where their involvement starts and stops. They should think of their role as the ultimate guardians of the brand. They do not need to write the strategy, but they need to provide direction from the outset, be fully engaged during the building of the plan and to provide their unequivocal seal of approval.

    In the implementation phase, they need to focus on the brand’s governance, compliance and risk (as with any other business area). While this sounds easy in theory, it can be difficult. In practice, directors can be distracted by the details rather than the big picture. In my experience, the greatest difficulty is to decide where to draw the line of one’s engagement. The biggest risk often occurs not during the visioning or road-mapping phase, but rather at the implementation phase. The building of plans and activities can derail when discussions move from alignment to the strategy, to personal opinions based on personal preferences about communication aspects such as advertising, logos and campaign themes (the usual suspects).

    The feedback must not be about personal views, but about congruence with the brand strategy and the target audience.

    Branding activities tend to be subject to an unusual amount of scrutiny from all parts of the business, from the moment they are devised to the final execution.

    It is important that the teams building these activities are empowered (within reason) to define the best possible avenue to build and deploy. If managers, directors and stakeholders all attempt to drive their preferences, the risk that activities lose direction, originality, momentum and strength will drastically increase.

    This said, all directors need to have a say. This say should be focused on whether the campaign, advertising or any element being presented complies with the vision and the road map. This is the critical question directors must ask themselves. Is this tactic or implementation in accordance with the brand’s overall strategy? Does it support it? And what risks does it create? There should be very little room for personal preferences. Opinions can be expressed but only as opinions.

    The role of boards when it comes to brands does not just stop with marketing, branding or communication activities. As brand strategies must be reflected throughout the organisation, it is fundamental that they analyse other activities in the organisation with a brand’s lens.

    As brands play a critical role in the future of organisations, they must be an integral part of the organisation’s strategic planning process. Boards must constantly ask questions such as: Is the product strategy aligned with the brand promise? Is the pricing strategy aligned? The servicing strategy? And so on.

    All aspects that affect prospects and customer experience must be considered. Boards, therefore, must fully understand the meaning of brand strategy and that brands must be seen holistically throughout the organisation, as opposed to a communication exercise. Directors do not need to be communication experts, but rather strategic thinkers, with a good sense of how to link strategy and implementation. They are encouraged to seek high-level training on the principles and different aspects of branding. This might better equip them when assessing aspects of the implementation as brand strategies can at times be far more complex than commonplace clichés would have us believe.

    Boards can positively contribute to building and protecting their brands by focusing on the brand strategy, developing a cross-functional view of brand management and ensuring the implementation is aligned to the strategy. Management, on the other hand, must provide the specialist experts to drive the implementation and provide advice on the technical aspects of ongoing programs.

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