By Andrew McCowan, strategy and insights consultant.

We live in an era of branding – to the point that we are individually encouraged to have a “personal brand” that we market and manage through the social media space and beyond. People frequently discuss “the brand” and its meaning in relation to everything from venerable institutions, political movements, games, sports, entertainment properties and individuals as well as consumer goods and services.

International marketing guru Mark Schaefer posted on this phenomenon: “You have to have a brand to be relevant today, the world has changed. Anyone with a smart phone is now a journalist, you have computers writing articles, how are you and I going to stay relevant today? How is anyone going to stay relevant today? It’s your brand.”

In such a brand-centric world, it’s ironic therefore that so much of this discussion glosses over the fundamentals of what a brand is, and the role brands can therefore play for businesses, institutions and individuals alike. The starting question should be, what is a brand for? What roles have brands played and continue to play?

Brands are much more than communications

The first thing to say is that brands are not simply about communications and image. Yes they are a powerful tool for communicating – but to paraphrase the great Stephen King, planning pioneer at J. Walter Thompson in London, from his seminal paper “What is a Brand?”, there are three attributes to a brand:

  • It is a coherent totality, not a lot of bits. All the elements of communication (from the name, to the pricing and promotions) must be blended into a single brand personality.
  • It has to be unique and constantly developing to stay unique (and so earn the right to charge a premium and sustain profit)
  • It must be clearly relevant to people’s needs and desires, and immediate and salient. “It must constantly stand out from the crowd; it must spring to mind. This will of course not be a static thing. It will constantly have to develop and take the initiative to avoid me-toosim”.

Brands are a fundamental lever of business

In other words – brands are about the whole business, and how it is organised and managed – the values and standards that drive every action taken in that brand’s name. They are an organising principle that allows businesses to manage their relationship with their customers, and help those customers to establish an engaged and interested relationship back with the business. Despite all the changes brands have undergone – the best and strongest brands still play this central role in the way a business is managed.

Meanwhile, in today’s brand-centric and communications rich world we have more tools to manage that brand relationship than ever before. These range from messenger bots who can talk directly to the customer in the brand’s tone of voice, to technology systems that allow brands to offer tailored and personalised offers to the customer in the most relevant time and place possible, to the whole gamut of “brand experiences” that range from events to stunts to entertainment facilities. Customers are used to navigating this branded world and are prepared to engage when a brand gets the tone and value right.

However, despite all these possibilities – brands are risking fragmenting under a barrage of tactics without the strategic vision guiding that coherent “whole” that will drive consistency and ensure the brand is coherent and easily understood by its customers.

This is the new challenge facing planners at agencies – ensuring the brand is tactically competitive and seizing the promotional and executional opportunities with creative communications planning, without losing sight of the bigger strategic picture. Tactics shouldn’t be the focus at the expense of strategy – the two need to work together, if the brand is to remain a coherent whole.

How we achieve this will involve a blend of the traditional brand planning techniques and the latest thinking about how to connect and engage customers in today’s over-stimulated, cluttered and fast paced world.