Purpose, strategy and positioning

What challenges do todays’ brand communicators face – in terms of market differentiation, purpose, digital transformation and more?

Photo by Patrik Michalicka on Unsplash

What challenges do todays’ brand communicators face – in terms of  market differentiation, purpose, digital transformation and more? 

Marc Cloosterman, chief executive officer at VIM Group, spoke with Ernst Boekhorst, head of brand, sponsoring and foundation for ABN AMRO,  a bank serves as many as 5.4 million customers worldwide and is one of the top three largest banks in the Netherlands; Fatima da Gloria de Sousa, global brand director of the Air France-KLM Group, which in 2018  transported over 100 million passengers, covering 314 destinations in  116 countries; and Martin Pietersen, global brand director at Atos, a global leader in cloud, cybersecurity and high-performance computing, with  over 110,000 employees in 73 countries.

Interview by Marc Cloosterman

What are your biggest brand challenges right now?

Ernst Boekhorst: My biggest challenge is the culture of the bank: ABN AMRO is an entrepreneurial organisation and our employees have a lot of knowledge and are used to being decisive. New initiatives are started quickly and made successful. This benefits innovation and short-term results, but can at the same time cause fragmentation in the brand. Sometimes our people forget to think and act from a larger, shared goal. And that also means that not everything we do fits in with our strategy and purpose. Ultimately, we want everything we do to contribute to our long-term goals in the right way.

Fatima da Gloria de Sousa: Actually, the challenges haven’t changed that much. Brand management on the one hand is easy because all employees of Air France-KLM Group are extremely proud of the brand they represent and love to make sure that it is expressed in the right way. Everyone is very willing to cooperate, and that is a big gift for anyone who is in brand management.

On the other hand, we run an extremely sophisticated logistics business with all the technical needs and talents that come with it. So at times when you’re introducing a brand or marketing term you have lots of engineers confused about what you’re talking about. Managing a brand cannot come from one person and everyone needs to understand how the Group’s brands are different from each other. I would say that is the biggest challenge we have. With the arrival of Ben Smith as the new Group CEO there is a renewed focus on brand positioning and simplification of the brand portfolio, that certainly helps.

One of the things we have created is a model for brand positioning and a programme for brand performance. These help people better understand the differences between the brands and, for example, choose marketing partnerships for them on an individual basis.

What’s different about your ‘style’ of brand management compared to your key competitors?

Martin Pietersen: A brand is a living thing and the Atos brand excels at being agile and simple. It is essential we keep our brand strategy agile, flexible and efficient, which doesn’t come by itself as we are operating in a complex industry with an extensive range of products, services and solutions.

It’s quite often the case people get very excited about brand strategy but when it comes to execution of the brand it’s done very poorly. The execution of the brand is very important, otherwise the whole process is wasting resources and not optimising ROI.

A brand is brought to life by making sure that it is translated and coherent across every touch point, which means that our corporate strategy is supported by our brand strategy. This isn’t always the case when we look at our competitors. Brand is business so in our day-to-day work our focus is to clearly link them together.

This goes beyond marketing and communications: it’s a key value to use in all our discussions, throughout the whole company, as everyone needs to be connected to the Atos brand.

Speaking about purpose, ABN AMRO has recently employed a new company purpose. What does this mean for the brand?

Ernst Boekhorst: We have had a new board for a number of years and from its inception we have also taken a new path in terms of strategy. We want to contribute something positive to society. That is why the theme "banking for better, for generations to come" has been created. A statement that shows we believe as a bank you can make profit, but that you also have a responsibility to give something back to society. The brand values that go with it – expert, entrepreneurial, future-oriented and socially involved – fit well with what we stand for, with both management and our employees, and are enthusiastic about on a daily basis.

One challenge is to make the outside world aware of this message and to see the ABN AMRO brand in a completely different way from three or four years’ ago. We do this with various initiatives around themes of circularity, sustainable energy and social impact. A good example of this is CIRCL, a building next to ABN AMRO's head office that is completely circular. The building was once created as a bicycle shed, but has now been expanded with a restaurant, neighbourhood facilities, meeting rooms and an exhibition space. In addition, we encourage our clients to invest sustainably and we set up various projects to contribute to society.

For example, we collect tennis balls at major tournaments so that they can be recycled.

Based on your experiences, what tips can you share about brand management?

Martin Pietersen: Branding is a powerful communication discipline to visualise business strategy. The beauty of brand management is that it’s art, science and business strategy, and that’s what makes it such a great area to work in. It’s essential that you get everyone within the company involved in the brand and remembe that the brand is owned by everyone, so there needs to be constant dialogue. Make sure your brand principles aren’t part of a fixed system and you don’t act as the brand police. Flexibility is essential; otherwise you won’t make it in the market as the environment is changing so quickly. You also need to ensure that you keep your brand future-proof in this rapidly changing world.

Fatima da Gloria de Sousa: Working at SkyTeam was like working at a mini United Nations with 20 member airlines from every corner of the world. It was a challenge getting things done, without any hierarchical power, like the SkyPriority branding programme that we deployed in over 1,000 airports. From early on in my career I knew I didn’t want to be seen as the ‘brand police’ and that I wanted a role where I could inspire people. If you spend more time bringing your stakeholders together, you’re getting the opportunity to inspire them. It’s amazed me over the years that there is so much consensus in a group of where a brand should go.

As they live the brand day by day, they seem to know and feel where a brand is heading. By having everyone involved from the start of the process, they become part of and committed to the solution. I have found that this has been the key to success on all the projects I have worked on. As soon as I started at the Group, I introduced a Brand Circle where all brand managers meet on a regular basis. It’s called a Circle on purpose, and it’s proven a great platform to guide our strategies, exchange best practices, and build relationships.

Finally, how do you ensure your brands are seen as a pioneer in digital transformation itself – to remain ‘future proof’?

Ernst Boekhorst: The world is becoming more and more digital, we all see that. This also changes our role as a bank. Personal contact is giving way to digital communication and our offices are disappearing. The brand experience of our customers is therefore increasingly taking place via a screen. That is precisely why our purpose is so important. It provides guidance throughout our communications: The customer no longer sees us on the high street, but receives information about us through various channels. We must ensure that the message we convey is clear and unambiguous.

In addition, it also means that previously tightly organised ‘house styles’ have to progress. Today's UX staff cannot cope with strict corporate identity rules. Your brand guidelines must be able to be applied flexibly across all kinds of (digital) channels. From consistency to coherence: more freedom, but at the same time ensuring that you convey a clear message. Complying with and communicating your purpose must be your main objective. Then I think you're always future-proof.

Martin Pietersen: It’s very important Atos is at the forefront of digital transformation. We need to practice what we preach, and this means reinventing ourselves on a continual basis, rethinking why we exist as an organisation, and reassessing what our purpose is in society.

We’re repositioning ourselves from a pure IT services company to an IT services and technology company which, for example, involves high-investment in new technology and patents. Our strategic alliances with Siemens and Google Cloud help to enrich and transform Atos in areas like artificial intelligence, hybrid cloud and machine learning. . 

Marc Cloosterman

Marc is head of VIM Group, which specialises in delivering brands consistently around the world. The implementation of brand properties across all touch points, both digital and on the ground is VIM’s business. Marc is a regular speaker on these topics and has written several articles on his ambition to create global recognition for brand implementation as one of the process disciplines within the brand management domain. Marc is also EACD ambassador for the working group Brand Leadership.

Ernst Boekhorst

Ernst Boekhorst  is head of brand, sponsoring and foundation at ABN AMRO Bank N.V. He joined ABN AMRO in 2006 as manager of sponsoring and events: prior to that, he was community manager retail at KPN, having joined as manager of the Primafoon franchise in 2000. In addition to his main role as head of brand, sponsoring and foundation, Ernst is director of the ABN AMRO Foundation and member of the supervisory board of Dutch NGO Stichting Sport Helpt.

Fatima da Gloria de Sousa

Fatima da Gloria de Sousa took on her current role of directorgGroup brand portfolio and media strategy at Air France-KLM in 2015, where she was tasked with introducing brand portfolio thinking and brand management tools across the Group. She joined from global airline alliance SkyTeam, where she was director of brand and communications. Prior to that, she had worked at KLM Royal Dutch Airlines in various roles, leading to the role of brand director for KLM.

Martin Pietersen

Martin Pietersen is global brand director at Atos Group, which he joined n 2007 as marketing manager responsible for developing and managing the global Beijing 2008 Olympic Games marketing and sales programme. He moved onto other international roles, culminating in his current position, which he began in 2015. Before joining Atos, Martin worked as a management consultant and project manager at various Dutch based organisations.