A brand is the sum of every impression left in the minds of people, and every action works to be more lasting or less relevant. Success requires both excellence and alignment, and sets the stage for an “open source revolution” in experience design.

Rethinking what defines a brand

I titled this blog Branding By Being back in the day as I was thinking through the possibilities for active branding at Digitas, and how brands in the digital age needed to do more and say less. But on the other side of the brand transformation for HP, an additive view has popped up: the premise that brands aren’t about what they say, or about what they do today…in truth, it’s all these plus the honest truth of everything a brand is. In a somewhat Kantian way, brands are, simply, being. You might intentionally be about the sports athlete, or you might inadvertently be about run-down strip malls. But you are what you are. And certainly not always what you intend to be. No one at BP wanted to be where they are today. And LeBron’s handlerswould have loved for the fourth quarter(s) to play out differently. But these brands are what, where and who they are.

Brands are the sum of everything they say and do. A proper brand strategy should act as a filter and driver of all that a brand says and does. But this misses something. Actually, brands are the sum of everything they say and do. And are. They are the summation of the entire existence of a company. Because everything matters. By implication, of course, this also means you really can’t “reinvent” a brand unless you intend to make radical changes to every facet of the organization; you can’t change the past, and you can’t reinvent the sum of all of the activities that ever have been. But you can define a new brand intention, and change the behaviors of the entire organization to revolve around that intent. That’s both hard and non-optional. A brand strategy is necessary but insufficient. It must be coupled with an intentional organizational change. The summation of all of the activities of the organization either represent the company you intend to be or they don’t. But the being of your organization — the sum average of every interaction — is what you stand for.

You might leave a mark on this world, but is it lasting?

Not your past, but your path

I quite love Marc Shillum’s piece at Method on Brands as Patterns. The story about coherence across touchpoints is one we’ve talked about at length. Brands aren’t singular or timeless, they’re temporal and in context of a given engagement. The best brands adapt to context to drive relevance, and those that do leave a greater impression that lasts over time. Your brand is leaving an impression, but is it the one you wanted and will it last?Take as a metaphor a moment of a child drawing in the sand. A series of shallow marks that are meaningful to a few but generally superficial and easily washed away. But if the mark were material — for example, Dubai — you’ll have changed the landscape and it won’t wash away. It’s become a permanent impression.

The perception of a brand is a function of what you’ve done recently and what’s left the greatest impression.

Primacy AND recency

What you are in the minds of people isn’t about what they’ve heard the loudest, or what they’ve heard the most recently. It’s actually a combination of the two. If a large gouge in the earth happened a long time ago, it leaves a greater impression than a shallow mark left mere moments ago. Or — as in the case of many brands — the multitude of many conflicting shallow marks.

Apple’s impact is greater as their share of wallet matches their share of mind.

Consider as a case example Apple. It started hot, with a brilliant burst on to the scene. It was loved by many and scorned by few. And then John Scully stepped in. And Gil Amelio. And the mark on the world became weaker and weaker, until which point it was somewhat desperately held onto by a relatively small group. The aperture of their path shrank considerably, but they had a residual halo from back when they made a massive impact. Steve came back into the fold and made a ton of changes. Was it the products? The design? The belief in a higher-order purpose? I think, actually, it’s all of the above. There was a commitment to making an impact. And by any means necessary scaling up the aperture of what’s made and ensuring that aperture stays wide.

Another easy example to point at is Coke. They started strong and have made many adaptations along the way to stay strong. Same with Nike. And how’s Facebook doing?

Example path: Facebook
Clearly, Facebook’s had a hot start that’s not let up.
Example path: Sears
Try as they might, Sears hasn’t been able to re-establish meaning or purpose and predominantly carry forward the equity of long ago.

There’s another case example that helps lend definition to the model, and that’s Sears. Were we to diagram this out, it would look flat for as long as most people can remember. No one I know remembers their heyday…they only remember the residual equity their elders held onto. It’s adrift. Or hopelessly superficial. It’s similar to JC Penney, which is why the new that Ron Johnson has moved to be their new CEO just strikes me as both shocking and notable. How must they have positioned his opportunity to make this make sense?

“Rebranding” has to be as much about forgetting as it is about establishing anew.

The difference between JC Penney and the Apple Store is complex and stark. Can they evolve to attain the position that the investors are now dreaming of? Absolutely. I haven’t a doubt in my mind. But it will take two things: one is a meaningful overhaul in the entirety of the operations to change what the say, do and are to all of their customers; and the second is time. Interestingly Ron’s getting the “customer facing” activities of the company reporting to him, but this runs the risk of being about the veneer rather than the substance of change. And you don’t get more substantive than being. Starts to feel like a long shot. Then there’s the reality of the publicly traded company, and the quarter-by-quarter expectations of returns and time isn’t exactly a commodity. But it will take time to manifest change. Time to change the employee’s expectations of what they can be. Time to reorient the customer relationship. Time to forget what they had been about and truly adopt a very (very) different mindset about the role of a live sales relationship in an increasingly digital-centric world. Oh, and fix the web site too. And the call center. To make a quick break from what had been to what will be, and reinforce that in every single moment the customer has with the brand. Do that, and you make fast progress: your present mark on the world becomes larger and more dominant so you can earn your way out of your past.

Open source experience design

Branding is everyone’s job, because branding is nothing more than the sum of all of the marks made. Everything matters, and because of that fact alone branding is not solely the role of marketing. It may be the role of marketing to establish the trajectory of the brand, or establish the brand intent. But the actual job of branding the company is everyone’s. It’s not my daughter holding the stick that’s drawing your path in this world — it’s the collective daughters and sons that make up the employee base of your company and every agency you’ve enlisted as a steward. Every day they act to carve a mark on this world. Your job is simply to make sure that they’re drawing inside the lines of the strategy.

By implication, this means that the brand experience is something everyone contributes to, and that experience design needs its own open source revolution. No more walled gardens of people drawing up guidelines and rules, but instead a broader body of people from all parts of the organization brought into contribute to the ideas and insights that will carve an enduring impact. Design thinking — maybe more broadly, the power of an idea-driven culture — is an attribute that has to permeate the modern organization in order to leverage scale and drive excellence and coherence across every moment.

I’ve set this as the foundation of our work at HP. More people at the white board, more agencies pooled together. More ideas being expressed and fewer people sitting back to listen and judge. A lot of pens on the white board or sketching out what you intend your words to mean. Most importantly, pulling out the highest common aspiration of all of the contributors and never stopping until the end result work is of the level necessary to leave a lasting impression. At your company, at this moment, you have the chance to be the ambassador of the brand experience. Go grab a fistful of markers and paper and set your sights on the best you can be. Leave an immutable gouge and make your brand relevant now and for a long time to come.

Next up: Part 2, Influencing

I’m a few drafts away from the next part of this story, covering the idea of Influencing. You are what you are, but you’re also not static and you’re not alone. Collaboration, open-source ideas and design thinking are streams of thought that can be brought together to amplify your brand in short order.

The chapters that follow cover Earning, establishing the premise that what you get is a function of what you give (particularly in the world of social), and Changing which is maybe the most challenging bit of all as it has a lot to do with giving up in order grow.

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