What Sustains a Brand’s Identity – Does it Matter?
Chris Houstonon 08 September, 2014 at 02:09
This is the fourth of 5 posts that will explore the dimensions of “Identity as Brand” in the model you see here. This week, we will explore why “Sustenance—what gives drive and motivation, or keeps us going,” is a key aspect of brand.
Commercial aircraft lumber across the sky high above our farm outside of Toronto, following the approved flight path into Pearson airport. Because they are pilots, two of my brothers-in-law can explain to me the principles of lift essential for flight. And yet, even though Gordon and David have explained these principles to me—both in detail and in laymen’s terms, and I have experienced first-hand the force of the air by putting my arm out the car window at 60 mph, I still struggle to understand. There is something marvelous and unbelievable about tons of metal hurtling gracefully through the sky, and so I crane my neck to watch them pass. Brands are a bit like airplanes—something keeps them aloft.
The identity (and reputation) of a company is sustained by the belief that leads first to action, then to confidence, and finally to advocacy.
Those are the four critical stages in the dissemination of a message in a framework suggested by Jon Iwata (Senior Vice President, Marketing & Communications at IBM) in his helpful paper about a new communications model published by the Arthur W. Page Society. In the model, belief comes first, which springs to life as a hopeful idea that a need may be met, an experience may be positive, or a new concept may work. Belief prompts action, for if I believe something, then I am likely to do the work to act upon that belief. In traditional marketing, such action corresponds to the notion of trial, which is preceded by awareness and followed by repeat.
In Iwata’s model, action provides an experience from which learning can be extracted. Negative experiences, like the ones I have repeatedly with my satellite internet provider, undermine belief (not to mention the regular occurrence of unhealthy levels of rage, which several times has nearly led me to scale my office roof in order to hurl the dish from its perch and watch gleefully as it shatters on the ground below!). On the other hand, when belief is confirmed through a favorable experience, confidence in the original belief and the importance of the action is strengthened. Following such an experience, Iwata says, we are inclined to tell others, and advocacy is achieved. As the model suggests, advocacy then reproduces belief, and the cycle continues with others. When it comes to understanding the dynamics of brand and identity, this is a good start.
It seems to me that identity, for both people and companies, obeys the second law of thermodynamics – that is, it dissipates over time unless it is sustained by something external to itself. Sustenance, then, cannot be found or manufactured from inside, rather it must originate from outside and be offered as an infusion – a transfer of energy – that is received. For brands, sustenance can only be derived from those who bestow to the brand its identity and character.
Some years ago, concerned that we might not have enough work, a young associate who had come to join my consulting firm suggested that we should be more actively marketing. I agreed to try the approach he favored, but perplexed him by also suggesting that, in my recollection, the promotional activity he had in mind had never produced a single client enquiry. Over time, I have learned that what sustains or weakens my own personal brand is not how cleverly I manage exposures in the right media channels with the right endorsements from the right people, but rather the extent to which I have served and cared for others and the place I have in their lives, memories and relationships.
I am reminded of one particular client, Kodak, which failed to recognize this truth. It believed it could sustain its identity through the narrow confines of self-declaration and reliance on familiarity. Not so. Earlier this year, another client celebrated its achievement of a huge number of impressions created across multiple media: print, billboard, digital, etc. It was quite an accomplishment, and yet, the sustaining feature of that client’s brand is not how well it trumpets itself from any vast number of rooftops but rather the legacy of its excellence and relevance to customers—its reputation–the fruit of action that either builds or erodes confidence.
When a brand thrives, personal or institutional, it is not because of its own efforts to manufacture reach or construct identity. Rather, the real strategy for a company to find sustenance of brand and identity is for it to actually embody its brand. In other words, the company must know its identity and really live it out. This is what we mean when we use the phrase “identity as brand”.
If embodiment is the strategy for brand sustenance, then its mechanism is reputation. And reputation cannot be manufactured – it is always bestowed. When it comes to marketing efforts for my small consulting firm, my reputation as a consultant and as a person will be determined by how well I live up to the things I claim, because that is where others experience them. The same is true for companies.
A brand will be sustained by others as a “reputation” when it is embodied by company actions. [Tweet that!]. Those are the unseen forces that provide “lift” to keep brands aloft, and the companies that pursue such aims are in the process of recognizing and living their “Identity as Brand”.
What sustains the identity of your favorite brands? Does the company express its brand by simply living it out, or does it treat brand like a product to be fabricated and sold?
For other posts in the Telosity series, click here.