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Editorial: Brands and our times

One of the tricky issues about writ- a very specific focus on brands. Among
ing editorial features for journals, some young audiences, it has even
rather than now-you-see-it-now-you- managed to make being anti-brand
don’t news, is that you have no way of seem cool. While it was relieving and
knowing what will be preoccupying gratifying that a sophisticated and sane
people at the time of actual publica- publication like The Economist ran a
tion. You can comment generally (and front cover and leader columns point-
certainly rather darkly at the moment) ing out the wrongheadedness of the
about an uncertain world situation, ‘anti-brand’ movement, and highlight-
about wobbly economies and, of ing the broad economic and social
course, about the speed of change in benefits of brands,3 it has been disap-
just about everything. But post 11th pointing that so many other intelligent
September, who knows what might be newspapers have either been silent on
the prevailing economic and social these benefits or have even indulged
situation in early 2002? the ‘anti’ arguments in a one-sided
Now clearly one of the advantages way. To add to this, particularly in the
of writing about brands is that they, at UK, so much coverage of ‘brand
least, are the most stable corporate stories’ in the past year has been in the
assets. They are demonstrably the form of ‘lampooning’ corporate name
most powerful and sustainable wealth changes and new corporate identities.
creators in the world, and certainly Look at the press comment around
provide strong economic sandbags for examples like Consignia, Accenture
companies — indeed nations — under and mmO2.
However, we live in strange times ‘A change of syllable from Elan to Elite . . .
for brands, too. Despite their economic is supposed by the McKinsey maniacs to
contribution, and despite their ability make all the difference to volume sales’ . . .
to reassure on quality and consistency ‘if the performance of companies that have
in a volatile world, over the last year or re-branded is anything to go by . . . [com-
panies] should avoid the brand consultants at
two they have been under more
all costs.’4
scrutiny and pressure from the media
and global public opinion than ever ‘British companies have the dubious distinc-
before. Naomi Klein’s book ‘No Logo’ tion of leading Europe in the race to adopt
has sold more than 200,000 copies in new identities.’5
12 languages worldwide;2 it is a nice
touch of irony that the book has been ‘The latest meaningless re-brand.’6
at No. 1 in the Sunday Times business
book bestsellers list. It has been dubbed Now while this coverage is about the
‘the bible’ of the anti-capitalist move- particular case of corporate name
ment worldwide, and managed to changes, it is invariably dubbed
reshape general protests about the ‘rebranding’ and so still contributes to
globalisation of trade and business into the general climate in an unhelpful


way. (It is also rather ironic that we see these particular ‘global brands’
pride ourselves on being a creative and picked up in media debate?
innovative nation, and yet this kind of More generally, while the ubiq-
coverage discourages CEOs from uity of the term ‘brand’ has
high-profile new approaches.) given it extraordinary visibility, this
So what is really going on here, and greater visibility without propor-
why should brand owners and influen- tionately greater understanding has
cers mind so much about this general contributed to many of today’s
climate, even if it does not seem to be problems. Press articles about ‘rebrand-
specifically affecting individual brands? ing Britain’s three million students’,
What could be done — what needs to Tony Blair allegedly wishing to rebrand
be done, if anything — to reframe the the civil service and, most recently and
‘brand debate’ and create the type ridiculously, the claim that Charlotte
of positive climate that brands should Beers, a senior American advertising
truly deserve? We should all mind executive, has been brought in by
hugely. Not just from a ‘professional George W. Bush’s administration to
job’ point of view but, literally, because ‘rebrand Osama Bin Laden’, have
of the health and wealth of nations. equated rebranding with PR repre-
sentation. Rebadging would be a more
accurate term, and again the ‘branding
BRANDS TODAY industry’ could do much more to point
Not long ago Interbrand celebrated its out this distinction.
25th anniversary as a company and, as One perhaps more encouraging ex-
part of this, the staff reminisced ample, however, is to be found in
about how the application of the an unlikely place, in a recent book
‘brand word’ had changed so radically. on personal presentation. It is called
Whereas 25 years ago brand meant ‘Branding Yourself’,7 and is written by
boxes and bottles, packets and cans, Mary Spillane, the image consultant
today the term can equally as well be who brought the world ‘Colour Me
applied to utilities, football teams, Beautiful’. The descriptive line on the
political partners and charities. The front cover reads ‘How to look, sound
recognition by some that charities are and believe your way to success’; an
as much brands as many commer- acknowledgment, in however personal
cial organisations brings some specific a case, that branding needs to be the
ironies. When recently the author was central organising principle, the basis
involved in a panel debate about for a full brand experience, if it is to be
‘Brands: Heroes or villains’, it was sustainably successful.
interesting that when asked which was Again, the vast majority of people’s
her favourite brand, one of the panel- understanding about brands is still tied
lists, who was speaking on behalf of the up in the world of packaged goods —
‘anti-globalisation’ movement, replied with all the implications of surface
‘The Red Cross’. Clearly, this brand, design that can give. It probably also
as with other great global charity does not help when the launch of a
brands like Oxfam, has delivered great new name and logo (usually termed a
economic and social advantage for their ‘rebrand’ by the press) is accompanied
beneficiaries. Yet how often do you by qualitative, over-flowery descrip-


tions of what the new name and logo — is any organisation’s most important
is supposed to signify (eg ‘the pet- asset. In fact, it is estimated that one-
als symbolise the coming together of third of the world’s wealth can be
our organisation’ etc). Now clearly the accounted for by brands, and that is
press will report what it will, and just in their commercial definition.
creative descriptions can be almost ir-
resistibly lampoonable. It is rare to
see a hard and quantitative business THE SOCIAL IMPORTANCE OF BRANDS
case being reported alongside speci- The fact of brands as powerful wealth
fic ‘corporate makeover launches’, and creators is always going to be a
even more rare to see a general case problem for those who look upon the
being included for the extraordinary concept of wealth creation with dis-
importance of branding and rebranding dain. However, it is useful to highlight
to the stability and energy of our their social contribution on a broader
economy. scale. On a basic level, strong brands
It is also rare to see the cost of a generate customer loyalty; this leads to
‘rebranding’ exercise put into perspec- more security of income for the
tive. All too often, the ‘millions’ of company, and so to more reliable
pounds in fees the media claim were earnings. This is reflected in more
paid to brand consultants turn out to security of employment — which is
include the cost of implementation — itself an important social contributor.
a cost that would have had to be borne On a more emotional level, both
by the company anyway in reprinting global product and global media brands
stationery, replacing signage, vans etc. have found ways of uniting people
What is more, the cost is normally a and touching a common nerve (and,
fraction of that charged in legal and indeed, of symbolising an optimistic
financial fees to other professional ad- ‘one world’ view) in a way that
visers. governments have failed to do. We
should always remember that brands
succeed because people want them.
THE ECONOMIC IMPORTANCE OF Far from being ‘bullies’, they are
BRANDS the ultimate accountable institution; if
In the late 1980s, the intangible ele- people do not like your product,
ment (‘goodwill’) that made up the service or corporate behaviour (or
total market value of the FTSE 100 cease to like it), they will stop buying
companies was an average of around 40 you — very quickly. In this way, it is
per cent. Today, it is more than 70 per absurd to say that brands can be too
cent. Now clearly not all the intan- powerful. Frankly, if a brand is produc-
gible asset value can be accounted for ing a great product or service, and
by brands by any means, but even doing it in a way that improves
an originally product- and technology- people’s lives and communities, why
based company like IBM would say should it not grow and prosper? If
that their most important asset is their these ‘good’ brands then become
brand. Today, we can demonstrate that complacent, insensitive or careless,
the brand — whether in the corporate, they will soon be cut down to size
service, product or not-for-profit sector again by ‘voting’ customers and in-


fluencers. Brands, of course, are the these insights, it is also possible to see
best incentive for companies to behave ways in which the brand climate can
well, as it gives them a reputation to be enhanced for the benefit of all.
protect, wherever in the world they Great brands need to show clarity,
operate. consistency and leadership. That
Whatever their motivation, any is clarity of vision, purpose and
brand — any company — has to values, and consistency in the way
operate within the individual national these are applied, wherever in the
culture in which it finds itself either world, through whatever channel and
being produced or ‘sold’. The whatever category the brand extends
complexity of operational decisions and into (this is not the same as
local working practices that this brings predictability, and having to be the
to some global brands does present a same everywhere). But in many ways
potentially vulnerable area, and brands leadership will be the most important
like Nike and Gap have learned from of these characteristics in the future; in
the problems of having less ‘on-the- all the studies it is the most
ground control’ of production. This discriminating factor in driving long-
issue of ‘brand control’ of, and term brand value.
accountability for, the production and What do we mean by leadership?
experience chain will become an even Certainly we do not mean just ‘brand
more critical one for brands in the leadership’, since this is rather old-
future, when the balance between fashioned, category-based speak. It
financial, production and operational does, however, mean trying to be a
flexibility and the need for generating brand that ‘sets the agenda’ and shapes
even greater levels of public trust must markets. Certainly, at the most basic
be resolved. The challenge of being level, this has to be about leading and
clear and consistent about what a exceeding people’s expectations at the
brand’s vision and values are, and how level of product, service and creative
these must be applied across the full quality.
brand experience and behaviour Increasingly, though, ‘leader’ brands
everywhere, has never been so acute. need to show this leadership at the
level of values and social contribu-
tion. Brands with clear and strong
SO WHAT? values are able to transcend and leap
Every brand owner and adviser will categories. While Virgin struggles to
have their own particular way of make economic value from its brand,
expressing what it requires to build a there is no doubting its power in
strong brand, and this is not the place people’s minds; their clarity of ‘cham-
to launch into a comprehensive review pioning’ vision and values has allowed
and synopsis of the different ap- them to leap to categories where they
proaches. However, from almost 3,000 have little or no product competencies.
brand studies worldwide we can sum- Equally FCUK has more recently used
marise the core characteristics that the its new strength of brand to do the
world’s most valuable brands need — same. One of the fascinating things
both now, and looking at what will be about trends in the brand world at
required in the future. From some of the moment is its blurring, fragmen-


tation and the rise of ‘life’ brands. to the wider social and economic
A luxury fashion brand like Versace benefits to society as a whole. Good
is now also a hotel and hospitality brands do have the power to make a
brand; a classic product brand like positive contribution to people’s lives
Lynx has developed a fuller service and individually, and indeed to the world at
retail experience in the form of a large. Brand owners and influencers
Lynx barber shop; and an established should not be cynical or embarrassed
manufacturer/product brand company about this; it is not a fanciful notion
like Unilever has tested service brands but a demonstrable fact.
(eg via the new ‘My Home’ offer) out We all need licences to operate and
of Persil and Cif. No brand is sacred licence to innovate and, indeed, more
in its market-place any more. Leader than licence; brands need supporting
brands know that, and will act first to and encouraging government policies
take more ‘share of person’ than share to thrive for the benefit of all. Politi-
of shelf in a complex world that people cal and media prejudices about ‘fat
need to simplify. cats’, ‘Rip-off Britain’ and so on hardly
Showing leadership at the level of reflect the kind of supportive attitude
values and social contribution does not that businesses would wish for.
just mean spilling a bit of money In the end, of course, the future
into cause-related marketing. It should success of brands is up to the brands
mean treating people who work within themselves, to the way they behave
and for the business well, and standing and to the people who manage them.
for something that allows these people Reputation is, after all, reality with a
to engage their personal and profes- lag effect.
sional energies. Also, since brands are
built on relationships, it would be as Rita Clifton
well for ‘leader’ brands to use more Chairman, Interbrand
personal language in their dealings, References
which encourages relationship building (1) Business Week (2001) ‘World’s most valuable
with all their audiences; all too often at brands’, league table, Business Week, 6th
the moment, companies still talk the August. Also see Interbrand (2001)
‘Leveraging Brand Value in a Downturn’,
language of ‘marketing warfare’, and Interbrand, February.
targets and campaigns. (2) Klein, N. (2000) ‘No Logo’, Flamingo
The final element to leadership is (HarperCollins Publishers Ltd).
(3) The Economist (2001) ‘‘Pro Logo’’. Why
really to do with where this editorial brands are good for you’, The Economist,
started: about taking more respon- 8th September.
sibility for explaining and championing (4) The Times (2001) 12th January.
the positive wider role of brands — (5) Financial Times (2001) 16th January.
(6) The Guardian (2001) 17th October.
from people within companies, to (7) Spillane, M. (2000) ‘Branding Yourself’, Pan
contributing to the success of business, Books/Macmillan UK.