There have been many outstanding books written about ‘branding’ and yet I find that few are read outside of the public relations and advertising industries. If you were to ask one of those professionals about the topic of branding, they would tell you it is an extremely serious and vital component to the success of a company.
A ‘brand’ applies to all companies. There is always a company brand whether it is intentionally created by the organization or simply constructed by the market. A brand encompasses that company’s reputation and image. It can be creative or stogy; innovative or proven; human or physical, and serves to communicate what the company intends to accomplish through its values.
I have always been completely frustrated with the lack of interest in the branding of technical firms with which I have been associated. Often, their brand attitude fluctuates between total indifference and a desire to be ‘me too,’ copying the claims and messaging of competitors and, thereby, failing to distinguish their own strengths. This approach, or lack there of, to branding often stems from a flawed internal opinion that the brand should reflect your history or portfolio of past work, as opposed to the company’s culture. For engineers, this translates to a brand made up of concrete monuments, usually represented by endless aerial-oblique photographs taken 1000 feet above the structures or cross-lite surface photos of bridge cabling or the winding interior of a tunnel. There is a conviction that, just as the wall of the corporate reception area should be lined with awards for past feats; the company’s identity is physical. Of some 50 technical companies I observe, only about 5% do something different with their brand strategy, giving them a ‘savvy’ image in the marketplace. That 5% usually experiences the fastest growth and is the most likely to be regarded as innovative and futuristic within the industry.
A critical misunderstanding of branding is the notion that a brand is for the current personnel within a company. The belief is that this image is meant to encourage them to take pride in their history and past products. The upper layers of the company dominate opinions and they want their past projects displayed. Yet, the personnel within the company never award the next job to the company. It is clients, who determine who is selected, so why is brand catering to the upper two layers of the internal company staff?
The clients see an endless sequence of ‘me-too’ companies, all very comfortable with their non-distinguishable personas. The clients don’t need the physical photographs of structures to remind them that there are numerous equally competent competitors with impressive and extensive portfolios of work. The clients assume that large and experienced firms are capable. They want to know what value-added characteristics a firm can offer, which go well beyond the structure itself. ‘Savvy’ stands out. It is inviting for clients that want new ideas, as well as value-added results.
The second primary audience a company should direct its attention to is the new talent that it is trying to attract. Much of that new talent is younger, outside your past service area and really wants to work for a company of people. They aren’t drawn to a company that looks like it is still in the industrial revolution. A brand that shows an endless gallery of physical structures does not feel like a personable, warm and nurturing community, but rather a company wrapped up in the past. Younger employees will be attracted to emotion and being part of a movement that they perceive will reward their energies. Drawn by the prospect of a vibrant community that will train them and give them opportunity to apply the skills learned, they want a company that they can be proud to tell their parents they are joining. These virtues cannot possibly be conveyed or supported through a series of physical job photographs.
To me, a brand should draw on emotion, conveying an end value for the client or future employees. Whether clients want cost savings, efficiency, praise for facilitating their corporate goals or the opportunity to be a great partner to the planet’s welfare, the brand should appeal to that desire.
I wanted my company’s brand to depict where we were going, not where we had been. Further, I did not want many words; I wanted large images with word explanations. I wanted intrigue. I wanted the faces of positive, diverse and smiling people to convey emotion.
I found that efforts to be ‘savvy’ were often met with opposition from my management team, who wanted more words, more explanations, less people, less emotion and more project pictures.
I always wanted the ‘edgiest’ brand images and an ad series that would stand out from competitors. I asked our advertising company to look to industries outside of the technology space, exploring the marketing efforts of companies in the management consulting, health care, insurance and banking industries. It did not matter if people liked it or disliked the material; I wanted the viewer to notice and to talk about our ads, thus seeing our company as something distinctly different.
At least twice after developing and adhering to a ‘savvier’ brand series for several years, progressive competitors began to copy it, telling me that it was both effective and time to raise the bar yet again. We wanted to identify with being different, adventuresome and innovative in a society of similar companies that were conservative and conventionally tied to past projects.
A brand takes years to create and a very short time of inconsistency to destroy. A brand cannot be a democratic election by the company’s upper management. It must be driven by strategy and protected by disciplined adherence. Brand compliance yields consistency, which then serves to reinforce the image and impression a company is seeking. Brand programs must be able to withstand the constant internal desire to avoid risks and opt for a look similar to that of competitors. The CEO needs to be steadfast in their desire for innovation and distinction, even in the face of opposition from the upper levels of internal management. Their focus must remain on maintaining appeal to clients and potential new employees.
In short, I think the brand REALLY matters. It displays your values. In a changing world of ever greater impersonal touch, a company that can show emotion and personal connection will be favored by a vast majority of the clients who are tired of their last provider. Advertising should depict story and a soul, not be concrete.
© 2013 Robert Uhler and THE UHLER GROUP. All rights reserved.