Brand Humanity

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by: Jennifer Rice

I was chatting the other day with someone who works for a multi-national company with a variety of products and target audiences. The challenge he’s been thinking about is, “What’s our one thing? Every good brand is all about one thing.” So we had an interesting discussion about whether it’s necessary, or even possible, for a large and multifaceted company to have a single point of focus for the brand.

To solve this kind of problem, I’ve always relied on pattern recognition: delving into customer needs, company strengths, and the competitive landscape to find the common denominator. This works great for smaller companies with a handful of customer segments. But for large and diverse corporations, does this still hold true? 

My inclination during this conversation was to question this classic way of developing the brand strategy. What if, in this overly fragmented and customer-driven new world of ours, brands no longer must stand for one thing? In the Cluetrain society, brands must be able to adapt to their various constituencies and become fluent in the many conversations in which it must participate. Perhaps the classic Reis & Trout brand theory – owning one word in the customers’ minds — is dying along with the command-and-control world in which it was born.  

But taken to an extreme, this could lead to brand schizophrenia. How can we maintain a semblance of undiluted brand identity while simultaneously staying relevant to the variety of groups with which the brand must interact? I believe it’s possible when we recognize that corporate brands are not all that different from individuals. 

Let’s look at a hypothetical Jane Doe; she’s not only a wife and mother, but also a VP for a large corporation, a board member for a local charity, a traveler and outdoors enthusiast. Jane is one individual who shows up differently depending on the situation and the “target audience” with which she’s interacting. She may be a conservative suit-wearer by day, a nurturing and attentive mom on weekends, and a tiger in the bedroom at night. She may have a lot of different interests and attributes, but at the end of the day she’s still Jane.  

The question is: what makes Jane, Jane? Daily she changes clothes, hairstyles and the way she talks to different people, but she’s still uniquely herself. It all comes down to beliefs and values. Being, not doing. How, not what. Perhaps in Jane’s case it’s about being honest to a fault, low-maintenance, a good conflict resolver, and curious about the world. People know when she’s acting “out of character.” 

And that’s how we need to view brands. There’s something quite Stepford-Wife-y about an individual who wears the same style of clothes, uses the same style of speech, and tells the same stories over and over, day after day. We wouldn’t be friends with this person; why would we develop static brands and force them into sterile perfection in every situation? Brand owners must allow some flexibility – some humanness – into their brands, while simultaneously holding to core values that keep the brand from appearing too flaky.  

Many of the new social technologies are facilitating this brand humanity. Blogs, forums and other customer communities are enabling employees to fully connect with each other and the outside world… when the executives are brave enough to allow it. First comes the value definition: how we want the company to show up in its interactions with others? Then comes the cultural shift: loosening the reins and giving permission for genuine personality to shine through the cracks in the corporate wall. We reach a level of trust and maturity where value guidelines can take the place of rules and regulations. The company then can maintain a coherent identity while participating in varied – and often radically different – conversations. 

This is what I mean when I talk about the ecology of business: one ecosystem, many parts, all working together. Change and consistency. The one thing – and many things – simultaneously. Somewhat of a paradox, but it works.


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