A slower approach to branding shouldn’t be such a rare bird

With the pace of change at the forefront of our minds, it’s more important than ever to stop, reflect and think carefully about the long-term future of the brands we’re building.
Rob Coke
Rob Coke
Founder & Client Director

We all like to think we’re focused on the future – seeing what’s ahead and making the adjustments required to help brands stay in-step with their audiences. But a culture of disruption puts pressure on marketers to make short-term gains that create immediate value. It might be in an individual’s best interest to make a big noise, but at what cost to the brand?

The eagle has landed

The pressure builds from the top, with the people ultimately responsible for a brand tending to not stick around long. Often expected to deliver quick wins, the average tenure of a CMO is just four years – the shortest lifespan across the C-suite. A change in leadership often leads to a new strategy and focus. That might mean a shift in positioning, or a full rebrand, as two of the options available for creating impact.

But brands rely on repetition and recognition if they’re to permanently ink the subconscious of their audiences. Humans aren’t wired to constantly change our perceptions, so it’s unreasonable to expect audiences to keep up. Constantly churning ideas comes at a risk to audience engagement and, as a result, long-term brand equity.

Don’t be a cuckoo

We can all feel a little ‘cuckoo’ sometimes. When our brain can’t quite catch up with our own self-reasoning, we make decisions without fully considering the consequences. A lack of mental bandwidth, impatience for success and not feeling in control of a situation are some of reasons why this happens. Brand owners are often exposed to all three.

Of these, control is perhaps the most common reason for CMOs or Marketing Directors changing the direction of a brand. We trust our own instincts and decisions more than anyone else’s, and certainly more than our predecessor. Making an immediate mark might be top of the agenda for newly appointed brand owners, but that doesn’t mean they have to completely reinvent the wheel – maybe just replace a few spokes. Brands are far more effective when they’re built and maintained over time rather than screeching intermittently for attention.

The canary in the coalmine

Continuity and longevity are often interpreted as synonyms of boring – the antithesis of creativity. But I’d argue that both are fundamental elements to brand-building. They protect brands through change, guide them through challenges and focus creativity to build long-term value.

Information Technology has been a sector under intense pressure to adapt. The companies that kick-started the digital revolution have been well and truly disrupted by faster, younger and slicker challengers. But IBM has stayed the course by staying true to itself.

At IBM’s heart is a simple but enduring idea: THINK. First used by Thomas J Watson in 1911, and trademarked in 1935, THINK has helped IBM stay at the forefront of an ever-evolving industry. It’s how IBMers approach problems, and the window the brand looks through to consider everything. Apple mocked it in 1997, but it’s as relevant as ever.

It may be simple, but the word has given IBM over a century of inspiration. From ThinkPad to Smarter Planet, Watson to PartnerWorld, THINK has guided IBM to support businesses from intelligent healthcare and concierges, to fantasy football and creating your own granola. Each subtle adaptation or brand expression has flowed into the way IBM looks and feels. The visual articulation of the THINK idea is clear to see.

It’s a case in point for building brands around a single, timeless idea that can adapt to platforms and technologies yet remain recognisable over time. Despite all the potentially poisonous gas that’s come its way, the IBM canary continues to thrive.

The magpie’s gold

So, what can we borrow from IBM’s success?

Firstly, there’s the importance of putting a single-minded idea at the heart of a brand. That idea should stay true over time but be adaptable, and broad enough to build a lasting commitment to steer a brand through change. It shouldn’t hinder creativity, but should help people make decisions and balance aspiration with reality. When done right, it should attract people who want to build more meaning into it – not rip it up and start again.

It’s also about developing an adaptable identity that can communicate the idea wholeheartedly. One packed full of potential and play. By encouraging freedom around an organising idea, a brand’s identity should naturally adapt over time. The Smarter Planet brand expression from 2011 is a good reminder.

IBM ‘Smarter Planet’ 2011 campaign designed by Office

An identity is only as effective as its execution,  so ensuring it stays coherent across every touchpoint, channel, device and platform is paramount. It’s great having a future-facing core idea, but if a brand’s identity is living in past it’s not fit for purpose. That means flowing personality through digital products, and using a core idea to build magic moments that bring user experiences to life.

IBM’s design language philosophy sets this out nicely. Apart from thinking deeply about design to ensure its ingrained across everything the brand touches, the philosophy translates THINK into tangible and practical principles.

The expression of our philosophy may evolve and expand over time, but our principles are designed to endure, ensuring everything IBM is distinctly IBM.”
IBM Design Language Philosophy

While it should be simple, none of this is easy. From needing buy-in from above, to finding the bandwidth to make an idea stick, there will always be reasons to look for short-term gain rather than long-term value. But your brand will thank you in the long-run if you continue to think fast, but brand slow.

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