Opinion

‘Brand cops’ are diluting the meritocracy of great ideas

Nick Foley, of design agency Landor, says marketers are too focused on command and control – meaning creativity is stifled by 'brand management handcuffs'

The term ‘brand governance’ is one regurgitated regularly when dealing with marketing teams in large, multinational firms. For years we’ve been told, and in the most part believed, that ‘brand consistency is a good thing’.

The creative industry has responded dutifully and accepted that brand consistency is the connective-tissue that binds companies’ marketing efforts together and ensures brand perception is the same around the world. But, does this sentiment still ring true? To be honest, there’s something really quite severe about the term ‘brand governance’. If creativity is the lifeblood of marketing, then doesn’t ‘governance’ of a brand feels out of sync with this?

To be agile, you must accept risk

A worldwide study undertaken by Landor in 2015, The Agility Paradox, determined the key characteristic differentiating high-performing brands from their peers was agility. Essentially, this is the ability to remain true to the brand while adapting to an ever-changing environment. Agility is a risk-versus-return relationship. Brand custodians need to take on more risk, increase their tolerance for failure and let go of some of the processes and systems that may give their superiors comfort, but yet stifle the creative spirit of the very brands they’re charged with influencing.

Since the financial crisis of 2008, companies have favoured risk mitigation. Although branding has never been more important, the reality is that it has never been more marginalised. Within this, it has become apparent that marketing teams are sometimes perceived as ‘brand cops’. This feels a lifetime away from the hotbed of creativity normally required to jump start innovative ideas.

Counterproductive brand guidelines

Brand managers are clinging to brand guidelines and toolkits in a counterproductive manner. Dutifully following every section of a guideline will not lead to the next breakthrough idea necessary to keep a brand one step ahead of the competition. Indeed, it’s this type of myopic hedging that has led to more marketers asking ‘what’ rather than ‘why’. Rather than be consumed with ‘what to do with brand assets’, we should instead interrogate the ‘why’ behind the brand’s very existence. Bearing that thought in mind should lead to a much more engaging idea through significantly less effort.

Letting go

In the modern-day marketing team, there seems to be less desire to experiment or take risks. Somehow we’ve drifted into a retrospective twilight that knows neither victory nor defeat. All decisions are treated as having equal weight. Have we unknowingly diluted the meritocracy of great ideas? Such practices lead to an environment where brands becomes inflexible and incapable of bending to tolerate useful ideas.

Some 20 years ago, I worked as a brand manager at Mars. It intrigues me that such a job title still exists. If marketers want to stand any chance of progressing from this current haze of command and control, then surely we need to adapt to a mindset of ‘influencing’ rather than ‘managing’. As with most things in life, it’s a balancing act.

Although I can’t help but feeling we’re treating audiences as passive and, by implication, just waiting to be governed. Rather, we need to see consumers as active participants requiring nurturing and influencing. Let’s face it, no one likes to be explicitly told what to do. We need to move on from a system of rules and outdated assumptions. It’s time to remove the brand management handcuffs and write a new playbook.

Nick Foley is president of South East Asia and Pacific at Landor

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