The sweet smell of brand success

Many different ingredients go towards successful brand communications.

 

 

Back in 2002, Harper US published a book with the bombastic title, The Fall of Advertising and the Rise of PR. The authors opined that “today, great brands are built with public relations, not advertising”, and although their argument may be touched by hyperbole, the role of communications in sculpting, disseminating, and upholding an organisation’s brand is essential, and is the subject of this issue of Communication Director.

To define brand communications is a difficult proposition: is it about engaging with customers? Is it setting out the company’s position on the day’s key issues? Is it promoting the company as an attractive place to work? Corporate branding is rooted in a mixture of image and strategy, cause and effect, expectations and realities. This makes communicating brand such a complicated – and invigorating – subject to contemplate.

Corporate social branding

These are interesting times for corporate branding. The new expectation shared by stakeholders of every description is that today’s corporate brand should be the end result of an integration of marketing, communications and corporate social responsibility. When asked to describe her company’s corporate brand, Katarina Ylikorkala, vice president of brand and marketing communications at Finnish oil and energy company Fortum, answered with a mission statement.

“Fortum’s mission”, she told me, “is to create energy that improves life for present and future generations, and sustainable solutions are at the core of our operations.” In other words, she sees Fortum’s brand as inextricable from its involvement with the drive for sustainable energy. Jesper Frederiksen, corporate brand manager at Danish bio-tech company Novozymes AS, also equates his company’s brand with its position on sustainability – they have even put a name on it: “Novozymes’ corporate brand idea is ‘Rethink Tomorrow’” he explained. “We want to be positioned as sustainability leaders, innovation champions and as offering solutions that will be an inevitable part of the future across industries.”

Two examples, then, of what Guido Berens and Mignon van Halderen, in their article for this issue, refer to as “framing” – defining a corporate brand by linking to a key issue and defining the company’s stance on it.  Sustainable energy is one of the defining issues of our day: Fortum and Novozymes define their brand by stating their relationship to it. Note that this relationship is more than just skin-deep: the link is integral to the companies’ operations.

According to Ylikorkala, “90 per cent of our electricity production in the EU is CO2 free”. And Novozymes offer biological solutions to the harsh chemicals used by industries in their processes. That is why it is difficult, if not impossible, to separate brand from strategy or operations. In fact, successful brand management stems from an alignment between the company’s strategy (as evinced by Novozymes and Fortum), corporate culture and image. As Jasper Frederiksen puts it, “The most important aspect of brand building is to make the company identity, company culture and company image support and enrich each other. The logo, typeface, copy and advertising are important aspects of strengthening the perception of a company, but everything starts with our people and how they interact across touchpoints with our stakeholders.”

Experiencing the brand

The touchpoints Frederiksen mentions are a key concept in branding literature. Touchpoints are the various ways stakeholders interact with your brand: customer service, employee engagement, product design, advertising, and even the company’s logo are just some of the ways that the brand is processed by stakeholder groups. Communications play an important part in ensuring that each and every ‘brand interaction’ or touchpoint embodies the corporate brand.

For example, Cornelia Floimayr is customer experience manager at Mobilkom Austria. Her job is to implement customer experience design inside the organisation, and she led the Corporate Wording programme that overhauled the all-important writing culture within the company, bringing it into step with the corporate brand. There were two pressing reasons for this: the first was the desire to achieve more clarity – “Our goal was to make every letter, all product information and even legal information easily understandable for everyone”, Floimayr explained. The second goal was internal consistency: texts used by the marketing, customer service and legal departments were written in different ways, to the extent that, according to Floimayr “it was hard to tell that all texts are from the same company.” So Mobilkom embedded their brand values into their communications to ensure that the brand would be experienced by stakeholders inside and outside of the company.

A question of language

A new corporate language had to be created, one based on brand values and communicated in every interaction. Brand-based guidelines were drawn up that defined the meaning of Mobilkom’s values for use in general texts and forms. According to Floimayr, they did this by moving towards a more emotion-based communications style “that could be felt by our customers rather than on a rational basis. To show an example, we stopped using terms such as “service leader” in our customer service letters, but wanted to make our customers actually feel our service leadership when reading the text. This means that we always try to be one step ahead and to answer questions before they actually arise. We have done a good job when a reader thinks “wow – they are really good”. So a company’s brand can determine the style and tone of language used in its communications. Furthermore, Mobilkom’s Corporate Wording programme also helped to bring the company’s brand into sharper focus: as Floimayr points out, “we found out new aspects of our brand while analysing it deeply. Additionally, every member of the team became a brand ambassador during the project. They consequently challenged their own texts with the brand wording guidelines and claimed for brand consistent texts when reading others. At this stage we knew our project was successful.”

The importance of design in the over-all scheme

Apart from texts, corporate design clearly plays an important part in the brand experience. But again, it is important that they be aligned with what is essential about the company. Perhaps this is even more urgent in the case of a rebranding programme. Marc Cloosterman is CEO of the Visual Identity Management Group, an Amsterdam-based consultancy with expertise in rebranding. Cloosterman’s group has worked with Toyota, Holiday Inn, DHL and many more, and he confirms that “all the identity components (visual identity, communication, tone of voice) must be harmonious and connected to the new brand identity. The starting point is a good brief to the involved agencies. Therefore you need clarity on strategy and mission of course, but also on core values and the identity of the organisation.” He described the process of putting this into place: “The normal order of things is that you first use a branding agency (to work on identity) and an implementation partner to oversee the whole process, and thereafter other agencies for advertising, digital, engagement etcetera.”

Cloosterman’s description of the visual branding process is confirmed by Dr. Thomas Portz, head of corporate communications and public affairs at pharmaceutical company Daiichi Sankyo Europe. From his office in the Munich headquarters, he describes their approach as a mixture of internal and external support. “First of all”, he explained, “we would rely on a global advertising agency and on global brand and public relations agencies. Of course we have some in house experts also for graphical questions, but they would not be able – just based on the workload – to develop all this by themselves, but they will have a control function. So under our global brand team that develops the global brand and tools, there are of course sub-teams for IT, visual, and so on.”

But Dr Portz sees the visual expression of the brand as being of secondary importance to establishing corporate identity itself; although he agrees that the visual elements must be related to the corporate identity – for him “the most important thing about a corporate brand is that it must be authentic, it must represent your company, and that what you promise to your external stakeholders in your brand must be in line with your internal corporate culture. And to be honest, the visual expression of that – logo, typeface, copy and so on – for me is secondary. Of course those visual elements must express the content of your brand – that goes without saying – but the visual expression is not the most important thing”.

Brand-new brand identity

Dr Portz is in the exciting position of being responsible for helping mould his company’s brand outside its native Japan from scratch. As he explains, “There is no corporate brand for Daiichi Sankyo, there are different regional brands, and we are just about to develop a corporate brand.” Dr Portz is the global team leader in charge of this task. “We have a multinational task force that is composed of head of corporate communications Japan, head of corporate communications US, head of corporate communications India, and me as head of corporate communications Europe.” Currently, he tells me, his team are about to analyse their stakeholders’ expectations together with the internal expectations.

This is an approach supported by the branding literature. Having a good grasp of who your stakeholders are is an important step towards defining and successfully communicating your corporate brand. A clear vision of to whom you are targeting your brand, in a way that supports the company’s strategy and vision, is key, and your brand idea, or ‘value proposition’, should match your particular target group’s needs. In Strategy Maps (HBS Press, 2004), Robert Kaplan and David Norton write that “Strategy is based on a differentiated customer value proposition. Satisfying customers is the source of sustainable value creation.” Differentiating your communications from your competitors, therefore, will also sustain your business.

Dr Portz describes the process behind deciding on the Daiichi Sankyo Europe brand in this way: “The most important question is to analyse who are the most relevant stakeholders; what are their expectations in order to make them behave favourably towards the company, what is the promise of the brand to those groups; and then, most importantly, how is the brand promise and the brand itself aligned with the corporate culture and the corporate value system; and then the fifth question of course is based on this – do you have to undertake any activities to change the corporate culture in order to keep your brand promise. All these points should be aligned.” It seems a dauntingly large undertaking in such a global company - to create a brand, align it within and without, and make sure that the company sticks to delivering that brand on every level. Dr Portz, however, seems unfazed by the challenge. “Once you base the brand on your own values,” he explained, “and once you see that your stakeholders expect you to cling to those values, the question of how you can guarantee that the organisation also adheres to those values, and if the culture is the correct one for that, that comes almost automatically”

Adapting brand communications for global needs

For Daiichi Sankyo, brand communications will have a visceral impact on the business strategy. The company is expanding its business activities outside Japan, and the internationalisation and globalisation of the company is, according to Dr Portz, the “overarching topic” of its current management plans. But is there a tension between having several different stakeholder groups or audiences around the globe, and communicating a clear and consistent brand message? To what extent do you differentiate brand communications when engaging with different peoples around the world?

Again, differentiating your brand, based on an understanding of your target group’s expectations, is the answer, and this is where brand assets come in. For Daiichi Sankyo, research has shown that the company’s Japanese origins are a major brand asset for communicating around the globe. According to Dr Portz, “In Europe, India, North America, South America, we know from empirical data that the fact the company comes from Japan gives a certain credit to the quality of the product. We are considering using this in our communications, but of course this is something that would not probably work in Japan itself.”

Mixing marketing with public relations

Jesper Frederiksen agrees that the job of communicating the corporate brand requires adjustment according to whichever stakeholder group you are engaging with at any given moment. He told me, “Our branding department works with the ‘stakeholder-owners’ in  our organisation, such as human resources, marketing or public relations, to ensure that our messages are tailor made for the stakeholder, and that, at the same time, they help build a coherent perception of who we are and what we offer.” In her article, beginning on page 60, Jan Gooding, global marketing director at Aviva, – one of the UK’s largest insurance providers – details how the company’s marketing and communications departments sit together, an important factor in their recent massive rebranding and reorganisation. Corporate branding carries underlining repercussions for the very structure of the organisation; this is more than just a question of window-dressing.

Storytelling

Having decided on the brand’s identity, target groups and alignment with corporate strategy and culture, attention should be given to the style and tone of voice: after all, this is integral to how stakeholders experience your brand. As advertisers and marketers use imagery and mental associations to hook their products in consumers’ imaginations, the skilled corporate communicator weaves associations from the corporate brand into memorable and clear stories.

Theo Hendriks is a partner at Bex*communicatie consultancy. The author of Corporate Stories (Kluwer, 2007), he has a passion for storytelling, and, in recent years, has written the corporate stories for (amongst others) ABN Amro, the Dutch Red Cross and the Port of Rotterdam, as well as the Dutch Flower Council’s brand story. He also trains board members and management from companies such as KPN, Rabobank and Philips in telling their stories. Like Rachel Davis and Alan Newland elsewhere in this issue, Hendriks believes that compelling, strong storytelling is one of the main ingredients for successful brand communications. “Every brand tells a story”, he said. “Some just tell a better story than others.

Brands that are associated with strong stories have a significant advantage over those with weak or forgettable stories. And successful brands with legendary stories stick to their story.” As a consultant, the most important points that Hendriks imparts to the inhouse communicators who engage his services are to “be very aware of your brand identity (the brand heritage); define, nurture and respect your brand-essence; never under-deliver or overpromise. With these ingredients you will able to build an unforgettable brand-story.”

Brand stories gain their power to capture imaginations by mixing emotion with hard facts, and even uncomfortable truths that may seem to challenge or undermine the brand story can be encompassed and woven into the official narrative. As with Fortum and Novozyme’s linking their brand identities with their strategies of sustainable energy, brand communications must be rooted in tangible qualities. “Story is all about facts, wrapped in emotion”, explains Hendriks. “Even the most uncomfortable facts can be very strong drivers for the corporate story. Storytelling is choosing the right narrative to present the essence of the organisation or the brand. The essence is never only fact-based, it is always more than that.”

As Carolyn Floimayr found with her Corporate Wording brand exercise, Hendriks has found that brand communications is a two-way street. The organisation’s brand identity determines the story, but the act of storytelling can also shape the corporate brand. He told me: “In general I say: ‘First we shape our stories, afterwards our stories shape us’. This means that all corporate stories are based on the organisation’s brand identity. But after it is written, the story becomes alive and that can have an effect on the organisation’s identity” But there is no need to lose the narrative thread: as Hendriks, points out, “successful brands have compelling stories which they stick to.”