Toward sustainable branding


“Realistically, this thing must live for three to five years.” He was the CMO of a rapidly growing technology company and his disclaimer came shortly after he approved our strategy recommendation. He justified it with two reasons. First, he needed a shelf life of three to five years to justify the financial investment. But his second reason was far more interesting. “We’ll be bought by then and we’ll either have to lose the brand or re-invent it to match the new company.”

Welcome to the age of disposable branding. The longevity of the modern brand identity shrinks each year, which is good for strategic branding firms, but not necessarily good for brands and the cultures they serve.

When anything and everything can and will be branded, consumers will place a premium on stability, familiarity, and simplicity. The average westerner is exposed to more than 250 brand interactions daily. If you believe the brand-as-person metaphor, then the expectation is that the average consumer is influenced by those 250 “brand people” they meet in a day. Imagine meeting 250 acquaintances in one day. How many would you actually recall? How many would influence your behavior?

Or, if you subscribe to the brand-as-link metaphor, each interaction should trigger a behavioral link to a point of view, a goal, or an experience. Add a repositioning every five years, and consumers are sorting out thousands of personalities and behavioral clues while going about their lives. It’s small wonder that branding is often scrutinized by accountants and common sense pundits. Shuffling the deck every few years is an unsustainable (and unprofitable) model.

Back to Basics

Branding exists for two reasons: differentiation and efficiency. Cattle ranchers of the 19th century discovered the differentiation benefit when some of the marks they burned onto their livestock for inventory management fetched premium prices at auction. Today, a strong brand still differentiates products and services by connoting quality, style, feature sets, price/value, and favorable associations with aspirational values and goals.

Reduce Complexity

Like every player in the complicated auto industry, BMW introduces new models annually. But it has successfully sustained its luxury brand position by sticking to a simple brand architecture. Its infamous naming system makes it easy for customers to navigate the product line and align with core brand attributes. The sporty 3-series is the stalwart of the entry-level luxury performance category, and has been so for 20 years. 3-series customers think of themselves as distinctly different from their conservative 5-series brethren. And neither 3 nor 5-series customers mix with the über-performance, ultimate luxury preferences of the 7-series culture. All three segments are unapologetically BMW. That simple hierarchy of brand equities has allowed BMW the flexibility to advance its product lines while sustaining the core equities of the master brand.

Reuse Your Promise

Unless major changes require you to do so, stick to the original brand promise. A sustainable brand strategy builds upon the foundation of the promise while expanding and refreshing its reach and impact at relevant touchpoints. The promise is the compelling truth of the organization. It should seldom change.

When Apple launched Macintosh in 1984, the brand promise was to “improve the productivity and creativity of knowledge workers.” Today, Apple still helps people be more productive and creative. In the 25 years since it introduced Macintosh there have been several management changes, product introductions, and iconic advertising campaigns, but the promise hasn’t changed.

Recycle Cultural Equity

Sustainable brands participate in an ecosystem. The promise of the brand translates to a set of values that influences consumer behavior. But it doesn’t stop there. Sustainable brands are owned by their consumers. VitaminWater monitors the progress of its brand by circulating ‘love letters’ to all of its internal marketing teams. The collage of email and written correspondence voluntarily sent to the brand from loyal customers is a cultural sounding board. Though the company has grown exponentially in a short time, its brand has successfully evolved because it incorporates feedback from its brand culture. VitaminWater has never succumbed to the urge to start from scratch (even after being acquired by Coca-Cola). Instead, it follows cues from its most loyal customers to evolve its identity and fuel one of the most astonishing and profitable success stories in the beverage category.

A Mantra and an Agenda

Reduce. Reuse. Recycle. It is the mantra of environmentalists, and it should be the mantra of brand managers. It pushes branding professionals to consider strategy and alignment initiatives that explore the possibilities of the previous work while retaining the promise of going further. It also raises interesting questions. With the advancement of so many online communities, how can technology better connect brands to brand cultures?

How do you recycle your brand platform and maintain currency, especially when competitors are willing to throw everything out and start again? How do you measure the value created by practicing sustainability?

The supply of brands competing for consumer attention already outweighs demand. Until now, the cost of oversupply has been marginal. But in the future, it’s likely to change. Global competition and a drive for scale will favor perennial brands. As proliferation continues, consumers will reward the steady, sustainable brands. The rest will be spam.


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