The Long Haul of Branding

(Reading Time: 4 minutes)

After a recent presentation, an audience member asked for my opinion on the most common misconception about branding.

It was an easy question to answer. It’s the idea that branding is an initiative.  That it’s something that requires a brief investment of attention and time, and can then be moved down the priority list. This way of thinking suggests that branding is a sprint.  But it’s not.  It’s more like marathon.  It’s a commitment for the long haul.

In the decade-plus I’ve been consulting, I haven’t seen much change in this misguided thinking. Certainly, it was more pronounced during the dot-com boom of the late ’90s. (“Hey, let’s sprint to that IPO!”) But even today, a disturbingly large number of business leaders still think branding is a matter of genius strokes, sudden behavioral shifts and instant results.

It’s difficult to win the game if you misunderstand the rules.

The Long Haul and Good to Great

A better approach is offered by Jim Collins in his 2001 book, Good to Great. I just had occasion to re-read it, and it carries my highest recommendation. Good to Great reveals the findings of a study in which companies that exhibited strong performance over many years were compared with others in the same industry that did not achieve and sustain such results.

A key idea in Good to Great is the “Flywheel Concept.” As Collins articulates it:

“… The good-to-great transformations never happened in one fell swoop. There was no single defining action, no grand program, no one killer innovation, no solitary lucky break, no wrenching revolution. Good to great comes about by a cumulative process – step by step, action by action, decision by decision, turn by turn of the flywheel – that adds up to sustained and spectacular results.”

Later, he adds simply, “There was no miracle moment.”

The Great Brands Are in It for the Long Haul

I don’t have Collins’ mountains of data, but I contend that the same principle holds true in branding. Branding is many little things, and a few big ones, done consistently well and in harmony with a core idea.  Brands are built over the long haul.

Put your consumer hat on. You are no doubt very loyal to a few brands, and much less loyal to most others. What makes the difference? I contend that brands earn your loyalty because they consistently meet or exceed your needs. They deliver, not just once or occasionally, but repeatedly over time.

How to Manage Your Brand for the Long Haul

But most organizations aren’t set up to build brands for the long-term. So what can you do to get and stay on the path?

Define your brand vision. Beyond the numerical objectives, what do you want your brand to stand for? How do you want to serve? How do you seek to make the world a better place? To the extent that you define who you serve and how, you will have a common goal around which the organization can align.

Take the strategic long view. In the current economic environment, much thinking has become reactionary and focused on the short-term. Instead, ask: What would you do if you had five or ten years to achieve your brand goals? (It may take you that long anyways.) What would the result be if you focused on doing the right things, instead of the quick, easy or urgent things?

Think “consistent,” not “shiny.” Your brand is often defined by organizational and cultural factors. These are difficult to change. It’s much easier to tinker with the “shiny objects” – a new website, a revamped logo. You’ll have something to point to, but have you driven change? Your goal is to provide a consistently outstanding and meaningful experience – and that will require some heavier lifting than simply changing the tagline.

Change the dashboard. We often manage by backward-looking measures – those metrics that tell us what has already happened, but not necessarily what will happen. Even an uptick in sales doesn’t mean you’ll sustain that growth. Instead, look to measures like consumer loyalty and word-of-mouth referrals – these are better indicators that you’re doing the things that matter.

A version of this post appeared in the American City Business Journals column “That Branding Thing” on November 13, 2009, and appears here with permission.

About Matthew Fenton: Matthew helps challenger brands to focus, grow and win.  Since founding his consultancy, Three Deuce Branding, in 1997, he’s helped hundreds of brands to achieve “brand clarity.”  His consulting services and speaking engagements help brands to focus on what matters through positioning, strategy and ideation.  Contact Matthew here.  He calls Chicago home.

Copyright 2009 – Matthew Fenton.  All Rights Reserved.  You may reprint this article with the original, unedited text intact, including the About Matthew Fenton section.

One Reply to “The Long Haul of Branding”

  1. Excellent commentary on the “long haul” of branding. It’s a lot like losing weight. Sure, it sounds easy enough; eat less, exercise more. Works great…for about 2-3 weeks. Then it’s quickly back to eat more, exercise less. The only way to have healthy weight loss that’s sustained over time is to change your lifestyle. It’s a lot harder. But it always pays off. Over the long haul.

Comments are closed.