How organisations can harness change to strengthen their brand

5 minutes with Ben Knapp

5 minutes with Ben Knapp, co-author of Disruptive Branding: How to win in times of change

What does it take to stay on top and really weather times of change?

To survive in an ever-changing world, organisations should embrace a spirit of constant reinvention when it comes to their brand. For a brand to stand the test of time, it needs to be able to evolve in step with the people it is trying to attract - whether that’s customers, employees or investors.

This doesn’t mean abandoning the ingredients that made the brand special in the first place; rather, it is about adapting these elements to new realities and audiences. In other words, tweaking the brand in order to continue sending the same message, updated for a new context. The world’s leading organisations know that branding is not a one-off activity – it is a mindset that puts brand at the forefront of everything they do. At Saffron we refer to this as changing in order to stay the same.

What are the current trends brands need to be aware of?

It used to be the case that a brand would live in one or two touchpoints - in a storefront and packaging, perhaps. However today’s brands need to live in many different places - online, offline, in the mall, on social media - across many different countries. It is therefore essential to create cohesive experiences that bring the brand to life in a recognisable way. This approach to experience is especially interesting given the changing role of physical retail environments - when everything can be bought online, brick and mortar stores have to be able to offer something else in order to justify their importance. Leading organisations know that these spaces are an opportunity to bring the experience of their brand to life; this can be seen by the way that even digital-first giants are interested in owning physical stores - see Amazon Books and make-up brand Glossier’s transition from online-only to offline.

Transitioning between channels in this way shows the need for a brand to have a clearly-defined set of experience principles. Organisations need to understand what elements make their brand unique and then find a way to apply these across all touchpoints. We often say that a brand is a promise delivered - today’s brands need to ensure this promise is kept in more places than ever before.

What dangers do brand managers overlook?

Often, when companies think about engaging people with their brand, they only consider their customers. However, in our experience, ensuring that everyone is engaged internally is just as important - and a lack of engagement amongst staff can seriously undermine the long-term health of a brand.

Building a successful brand isn’t just about persuading outsiders to buy your product - it’s also about ensuring that insiders believe. If they don’t, the ramifications can be severe. Employees that don’t understand the long-term vision for a brand are more likely to be demotivated and dissatisfied, resulting in poor service and experience for the customer. This is why we tell brands to focus on internal engagement. The world’s most disruptive brands know that motivated staff are a core part of maintaining the perceptions of a brand, and as a result they work hard to engage their teams internally.

What can places learn from disruptive branding?

In many ways, place brands are very similar to commercial ones. Today, places have to compete to attract commerce, investment and talent on a global stage. In order to do so effectively, cities and countries must now build, manage and measure their brand in much the same way that commercial companies do. The “consumer” (which can be classified as any person who travels to or lives in a city or country) is increasingly well-travelled and, as a result, sophisticated in their expectations. As such, it is important for places to consider their brand and the experience they provide. The elements which make commercial brands disruptive - great design, excellent customer service, seamless experience, a clear sense of purpose - are also relevant when crafting world-leading place brands.

What is the one thing today’s brands can’t live without?

For us, the weakest brands lack a tangible purpose or reason for being. Whether a bank, search engine or restaurant, brands need to be able to tell some kind of story about why they exist. This is partly because today’s brands live in hyper-competitive times, and in order to cut through the noise and attract attention from internal and external audiences they need an answer not only to ‘what do we do?’ but also ‘why do we do it?’. They need to be able to explain what makes their brand more special than the thousands of other brands clamouring to be heard in the market.

A purpose is also essential for guiding a brand as it grows. A purpose is the central organising principle and driver that directs everything a brand does; it is the impetus for business decisions and a litmus test for defining whether actions throughout an organisation are ‘on-brand’ or not. Marketing, communications, hiring (and firing), acquisitions and divestments, customer service – all start from the brand’s purpose.

‘Disruptive Branding: How to win in times of change’ is co-written by Jacob Benbunan, Gabor Schreier and Benjamin Knapp and available from Kogan Page.