Marketing: the brand that matters is the company itself.
Ten years ago, it was generally assumed that if you talked about a brand, you were talking about a product or, perhaps, an easily 'packageable' service. Today, corporate branding has become one of the big trends in modern marketing. Most household spending goes on one corporate branding or another: supermarkets, financial services, cars, utilities, travel and leisure. Likewise, in business-to-business, while companies may give special names to specific products or services, the brand that really matters is the company itself.
At one level, corporate branding is just common sense. Why advertise 10 products when you can put them under one umbrella and just advertise one? But, at another level, they are like chalk and cheese: the real prizes are going to those who realise just how different the two processes are.
The old theory of branding was that you took your product, and then used all the black arts of communication to make it as attractive as possible to your target customer: a distinctive name, easily recognisable packaging, a personality created through advertising, a unique selling point to help it stand out from the crowd, and so on. It can often work a treat. But from the corporate brander's perspective, it is very narrow, overly obsessed with media focus and inordinately expensive.
These days, leading-edge corporate branders realise that everything their organisation does 'communicates', and that their most powerful medium of communication is often the staff (how they treat customers, for example), or the company's style or values. That makes effective corporate brand management a completely different kettle of fish. The downside has been a tidal wave of corporate bullshit. Just look at all those companies adopting a wish list of motherhood-and-apple-pie values such as 'quality', 'service', 'respect for the individual' or 'concern for the environment'.
The plus side, however, is that instead of being an unwelcome added expense, brand management can become a valuable management tool. Instead of picking up a product and asking 'how can I brand this?', managers ask 'if this is what our corporate brand stands for, then what actions should we take, and what actions should we avoid?' Once managers start thinking in this way, they soon realise that it influences everything - from new-product development priorities to recruitment and remuneration policies. A small hotel chain, for example, which calls itself 'the country house retreat', will acquire 'good' properties that fit within the country-house criteria and become an expression of its brand values.
Likewise with recruitment and remuneration decisions. Being serious about brand values forces managers to make real choices about desired behaviours.
If a company decides that a core brand value is 'we put the customer first', it may need to revise salesforce bonuses, which reward volume targets and not customer satisfaction with the sales process.
Having decided that a key differentiating element for its brand is 'integrity', Rolls-Royce (aero-engines) has realised this means training staff to refuse to cut corners - even if the customer asks them to. Another of the UK's biggest corporations has recently decided that part of its senior executives' bonuses will be tied to how effectively they encourage their subordinates to 'live' the corporation's brand values. Another example: to be employed by Trailfinder, the travel firm, you must be a travel fanatic yourself, who has traversed at least three continents. These travel enthusiasts express their excitement in their dealings with customers.
So far, however, only a handful of larger companies seem to be taking such 'full monty' approaches to brand management seriously. But there is no reason why smaller and medium-sized firms cannot adopt the same approach. Of course, some already have a very strong sense of 'the way we do things around here'. But making the brand work as a management tool is far more disciplined. It doesn't involve bloated advertising budgets, but it could help the business excel at what is supposed to make it really special.
Alan Mitchell was editor of Marketing and now works as a freelance journalist.