Brandie was asked by InSource to write an article on Brand Activation. As the former Manager of Brand & Design at Shearman & Sterling, Brandie is familiar with the challenges faced by in-house design and marketing teams. In this article, she outlines some core issues of brand management, and provides key steps and approaches that firms can take in activating their brand.

Knox Design Strategy continues to collaborate and consult with in-house teams across the globe. Below is Brandie’s article, but be sure to grab a copy of the journal!

Nurturing Your Company’s Brand as a Living Thing

Over the years I’ve seen any number of definitions of what a brand is from my in-house and agency experience. There’s the famous quote from Marty Neumeier:

“A brand is not what you say it is. It is what THEY say it is.”

Or consider the words of the Madison Avenue sage David Ogilvy:

“It’s the intangible sum of a product’s attributes: its name, packaging, and price, its history, its reputation, and the way it’s advertising.”

Ask thirty branding experts and you’ll get thirty differently slanted explanations. But in all the definitions of brand that I’ve heard and seen over the years, there’s one idea that invariably seems to get overlooked by the experts, which nonetheless strikes me as utterly essential to keep in mind, particularly when it comes to the all-important task of maintaining a successful brand.

As you develop your skills as a brand manager, you have to remember that a good brand is a dynamic, living thing. It’s not static or inert, nor is it ever enough to simply create a strong brand identity. Recognizing this is essential to our professional success. Like flora or fauna, a brand must be nurtured and nourished in order to remain vibrant and alive.

Once we recognize and embrace brand as a living thing, it has important implications for how we then go about devising and implementing a company’s brand strategy. It’s never enough to simply create brand identity along with a style guide that sits in a place of honor on the CMO’s bookshelf. For any brand to be strong and effective in the market, it has to be actively taken up as part of a company’s culture. Ideally, brand should become part of the company’s day-to-day operating system, part of the atmosphere in which employees breathe and work. That’s the ultimate goal of a brand activation, which is becoming an increasingly important part of brand strategy work.

I should explain that my agency’s primary focus is to provide branding and design services to in-house teams at professional service firms, such as law firms, accounting firms and general business consultancies. In the professional service firm context, brand activation takes on a particular importance because the employees really embody and represent the firm brand every minute in the day of their professional lives. But even so, I don’t think the importance of brand activation should be viewed narrowly or its strategic value confined to the professional service firm context. Obviously it has a similar bearing in any service-oriented business, whether B2C or B2B, where the employees are always on the front lines as the primary conveyors of the brand message.

The importance of the living aspect of a brand has been driven home for me by several recent assignments our design agency has handled. As with many creative shops, we have extensive experience helping clients rebrand or simply refresh and update their brand identity. But in the last few years, clients have begun coming to us with a very different set of business problems and needs. They don’t perceive an immediate problem with their brand position or identity but they want to find a way to reanimate their existing brand internally. In other words, they are looking for help developing tools and campaigns to make their brand come alive within their firm.

Now one thing I’ve noticed is that there seems to be a recurring pattern in these situations – the clients that are coming to us with this sort of inquiry all seem to have undergone a series of mergers, or else an extended period of hypergrowth, in which the firm and its culture have struggled to absorb a large influx of new people. The company’s overall brand strategy may remain perfectly viable but the vast majority of employees have no idea what the brand is or means. If this is true of your company’s current situation, then it’s probably a good idea for you to consider brand activation as a critical next step in moving your company brand forward.

What I have discovered in the course of handling these brand activation assignments is that they share some important elements with more traditional brand strategy work. To start with, I think it is no less important for in-house teams to enlist the services of an outside consultant to help with brand activation than when it comes to developing brand strategy in the first place. An outsider brings an invaluable fresh perspective and helps establish an environment, separate and apart from the usual boundaries of a company’s established management channels, in which employees feel invited and excited to participate.

Another key ingredient for success is to approach brand activation through a well-defined process or methodology, which is very focused on promoting employee engagement in the process itself. Of course, relying on a well-structured process is very important to all brand strategy assignments, but there are a few ways in which the methodology must be adapted in order to better suit the purposes of brand activation:

When it comes to establishing a methodology for a traditional brand strategy assignment one of the most crucial factors is that you manage to include all the key decision makers in the process. But when it comes to shaping your brand activation methodology it is far more often to go wide and deep in terms of deciding who to include. Buy-in from key stakeholders is still important but it’s equally important to be reaching out to potential brand evangelists and ambassadors who are often widely dispersed throughout the organization and not necessarily part of the formal management team structure. Inclusiveness is key.

  • Establishing KPIs to measure performance and success are equally important for brand activation as they are in any brand or marketing assignment but the focus of metrics is redirected to measure internal as opposed to external audience activity. If you are working with a large corporate client that operates with an intranet or enterprise social network (ESN) in place, then collecting data on employee engagement will be fairly easy to do. But many mid-sized firms do not have ESNs, which means you will need to get a bit more creative about how you measure and keep track of employee engagement.
  • Make sure that you establish a process that includes ample opportunity for active participation throughout the firm. Brand activation is all about stimulating employee engagement so make sure to devote considerable time and energy to conducting workshops and brainstorming sessions that permit broad scale employee participation. Brand activation works best when it is approached from the bottom-up rather than the top-down, which means you can’t just be out there paying lip-service to what people throughout the firm think and feel. Brand voice and messaging is not something that can be successfully dictated to employees. They have to discover it, or perhaps rediscover it, on their own. Workshops should be designed to facilitate that process of discovery.
  • As part of your brand activation strategy, focus on finding ways to forge stronger links between the company brand and each employee’s individual brand. This has become an avenue of enormous opportunity for the professional service firms that I work with, because the firm itself has a huge opportunity to amplify its brand message simply by effectively leveraging the network of each professional member of the firm.
  • Develop campaigns that bring the brand activation message to the entire firm in a sustained, creative and effective way. Don’t stint on this effort because the in-house audience is the only target that counts when it comes to the task of igniting the firm’s interest and aligning teams around the brand promise.
  • Don’t be afraid to create formal incentives or rewards to encourage employee participation. And most importantly, don’t forget to make the process
    fun. We typically include a social element as part of our process both in order to encourage participation and to establish the right overall tone–so that connecting with the company brand should be experienced in the most positive light possible.

In sum, a successful brand activation campaign involves many of the same elements that marketers and brand managers are familiar with from other aspects of their work. But there’s an important twist, with the focus of these campaigns being directed inwards, toward stimulating broad scale employee engagement with the company’s brand. This is becoming an increasingly vital part of brand strategy, particularly for service-oriented companies that rely most heavily on employees as day-to-day brand messengers. For the professional service firms that I most frequently work with, brand activation has become absolutely vital as a means of realizing the benefit of the network effect inherent in each professional’s personal network.

But wherever you happen to work, brand activation is something that should be on your radar as a marketing professional. Marty Neumeier may be right that brand is what other people say when you’re not in the room. But for every company, effective brand building can nonetheless begin right at home. One of the most important (and cost effective) levers that will influence what customers and clients say and think about your brand is determined by the level of enthusiasm that your team conveys as brand messengers. Turning Marty Neumeier’s quote on its head–what others say may trump what you say about your brand, but what you feel about your brand will have an enormous influence on how the rest of the world speaks about it.