Can Trust in a Brand Be Revived?

Wells Fargo logoThe question is… can trust be revived in a brand that is seriously damaged? Almost every year there are brands that amaze us with incredible stupidity… mostly generated by a drive for bigger sales numbers. Volkswagen not only misled consumers and dealers about emissions and gas mileage claims, but
tried to make it a small and inconsequential issue until investigators uncovered an ever-growing circle of management and leaders who actually knew exactly what was going on. Read more →

September 30, 2016   No Comments

Being Yourself is Terrible Advice… Authentic Brands Should Take Note.

The New York Times featured an interesting article by Adam Grant, a contributing Op-Ed writer entitled “Unless you are Oprah, ‘be yourself’ is terrible advice.” It sheds some new light on what individuals need to focus on to “erase the gap between what you firmly believe inside and what you reveal to the outside world”.

UnknownBut doing this, being totally authentic and completely open and honest, has a downside and often a negative effect on advancing in the business world. Said another way, we really don’t want to know everything about the authentic you. There is much truth here for organizations, as well.

In the corporate branding world, professionals have been trying to mine the authentic “self” of an organization… that inner essence which needs to be brought forward to present a brand that is true and honest. While this is a strong starting point, as Mr. Grant points out for individuals, perhaps organizations don’t need to focus on all the warts and truths of their inner self, but define themselves to what they can credibly claim. “Rather than changing from the inside out, you bring the outside in”.

Corporations do need to understand the foundation of where they have come from, but build their brands based on reasonable aspirations of what they want to be. It is a fine line between aspiration and over-promise…and this task has to be very carefully approached. But in the end, if that seam can be found, great brands can be crafted.

The magic is in the synthesis. Understanding the reality of the past blended into a vision of the future.

To quote Grant… “they just want you to live up to what comes out of your mouth.” So spend meaningful time thinking about what that is, and then live it. Amen.

June 8, 2016   No Comments

Political Primaries Spotlight Principles of Strong Brands

Republican logoBrand experts everywhere are scratching their heads about how the candidates (“brands”) in the current primary system are challenging beliefs and apparently re-writing the rules. The candidates in both political parties are exhibiting unpredictable, and in some cases abhorrent, behavior. We have looked beyond the immediate to remind ourselves that there are very true and proven principles about short and long-term brand development. Lest we forget, great, powerful, sustainable brands do share important characteristics. They are:Democratic logo

Clear and focused. Powerful brands know what they stand for and stay focused on their core positioning. Rather than bounce around with multiple promises, they understand the need to be almost singular in purpose. At this stage of the run up to the primaries, some of the candidates have demonstrated clarity and focus, and they are being rewarded for this.

Authentic and true. Great brands are authentic. Authentic brands understand what they are and do what they say. Their behavior is consistent with their promises. That means that the organization making the brand promise must be congruent. So “brand” goes way beyond communications or image. It is a mandate for behaviors. Love a candidate or not, those that rise to the top are true to what they are and do not get distracted.

Truthful and honest. Brands that win, over the long haul, are ones that are true and honest. They don’t duck and weave between claims they make, but say things that they can back up. The gap between truth and fabrication will be a key determinate over the longer run.

 Transparent. Strong brands develop a level of transparency so their key audiences understand that they are telling the truth, and not hiding or shielding key information. They understand that this transparency is the basis of the bond they have with their advocates. It would be fair to say that all the candidates, in both parties, are not transparent enough. Some believe that shouting louder masks the need to be transparent. In the long term, this strategy rarely works.

 Consistent. Brands that last understand the need to be consistent over time. Brands that fail flip-flop from one position to another to satisfy immediate needs usually fail. That is because, in the long term, consumers and voters scratch their heads being unable to attach clarity and purpose to a constantly shifting target.

Delivery focused. Many brands can induce trial by making compelling claims and promises but only brands that actually deliver on promises will endure and develop loyalty. Consumers don’t tolerate bait and switch, and what may push a short-term victory could actually develop long-term detractors.

Shouting the loudest is not an enduring platform for a brand. It certainly gets media coverage and awareness. But in the end, it is the guiding principles above that will shape the outcome and the future.

Voting Booth

We believe that the degree to which a candidate embraces these principles will determine their long-term viability. Not just in their electability, but also in terms of their effectiveness. So while the American electorate is attempting to select one “brand” over another, those that survive over the long-term will have met the test better than others.

March 10, 2016   No Comments

Apple’s Refusal to Unlock it’s iPhone is “On-Brand”

This past week has been a flurry of activity between Apple and the U.S. Justice Department about unlocking an iPhone used in the San Bernadino terrorist attack. It is a profound question, and not a new one. Apple’s response so far has been consistent with the brand bond it has with its loyalists… that the relationship with consumers takes precedence.

apple logoIn the New York Times, Eric Lichtblau and Matt Apuzzo cite that Apple’s refusal “appears to be based on its concern for its business model and public brand marketing strategy” rather than a legal rationale. They are partially correct. Apple knows that it is in the “relationship” business… and will, at all costs, defend that relationship with its consumers.

In a recent post, we focused on “Why Authenticity Matters”. As we wrote, “Authentic brands do what they say. Their behavior is consistent with their promises”. Apple is being true and authentic to its very reason for being. In the face of the immediacy of a legal challenge, it has deferred to its brand before compromising.

coke bottle olderThere is no question that this issue is complex. From a technical and legal standpoint, opening up the code could set a significant precedent that could have broad impact across many companies with strong intellectual property as a basis for their differentiation. Imagine some people being poisoned by drinking Coca-Cola and the company being asked by the Justice Department to reveal it’s 130 year-old, secret formula for the purposes of helping in a criminal investigation. This example isn’t as emotionally loaded as dealing with a terrorist situation, but the precedent is similar.

On the other hand, any way the authorities can gather information to thwart terrorist activities is a good thing to do. So this becomes a thorny problem.

There is no question that Apple needs to find a way to help the Justice Department without compromising its bond with consumers. Reading between the lines, both Apple and the Justice Department have essentially acknowledged this. The question is how to provide this information while protecting the Apple brand. I am confident, once the bluster dies down, this will be accomplished.

February 22, 2016   No Comments

Why Authenticity Matters

One universal characteristic of market leaders and powerful brands is that they are authentic. Business leaders should challenge if they have embraced what authenticity means.


Authentic brands do what they say. Their behavior is consistent with their promises. That means that the organization making the brand promise must be congruent: its business processes have to be designed and aligned to ensure behavior that supports and delivers the brand promise. So ‘brand’ goes way beyond communications or image. It is an organizational mandate.

There have been three recent examples of brands that have broken this trust. Volkswagen completely diluted its brand by not only installing software in cars to cheat on emissions standards, but also hiding and denying this behavior for years. They impeded and obstructed regulators and provided misleading information, and thus violated not only customer trust, but also employee affection for the company. It will take years for VW to recapture its market position.

Takata, a leading supplier of air-bags, tried to duck responsibility for airbags that can explode when deployed by implying that it was a data manipulation issue. The truth did come out, and after years of denial, Takata is now paying the price for misleading customers. Their brand has suffered immeasurably. To quote the lead plaintiff, “The only thing they did not know was the names of the individuals who were going to be injured or killed, and the date it was going to happen.” Ouch.

UnknownChipotle did not appear to react fast enough when it learned about a Norovirus outbreak. Apparently, the procedure for “washing down” produce didn’t seem to be effective. They have subsequently apologized, closed some restaurants and put in place new procedures. The question is whether consumers will believe that they will continue to act in a truthful manner. We give them praise for not denying the problem, but time will tell whether consumers believe Chipotle acted fast enough in the best interest of their consumers. For a brand based on credibility, they are dancing very close to the edge.

One of the benefits of being authentic is word-of-mouth recommendations and repeat purchases. In other words… loyalty. Whether B2B or B2C, understanding what authentic means and living it every day is a mandate in today’s complex markets.

February 19, 2016   No Comments

Stories are the Building Blocks for Professional Service Firm Branding

Brands are ultimately about meaning. Stories are the building blocks of meaning. And stories that connect your brand with a fundamental human need can help you build a powerful bond with your clients.


In our experience, this is as true for management consultants, accountants, law firms and architects as it is for carmakers, technology manufacturers, fashion designers and food brands. The difference is that while we have long accepted that emotional connection can drive consumer purchases, we like to think that business-to-business purchases are driven entirely by cold reason. They are not.

We have spent many years interviewing C-suite executives who purchase professional services. Sometimes one firm has a “silver bullet”, a tool or insight or method that nobody else has, so the choice is obvious. It happens, but it’s vanishingly rare (and quickly copied).

More often, clients have to choose between firms that have very similar offerings, people and approaches. So how do they pick? We have found that they make choices based on the story the brand tells them… the story that the brand allows them to tell about themselves.

Certain narrative patterns or storylines tend to recur within particular categories of professional services firms. The table below illustrates a few of the story patterns we often see in our work with these firms.

StroyLine TableCredit: Archetypal story patterns based on Joseph Campbell’s The Hero With A Thousand Faces, and Carol Pearson’s The Hero And The Outlaw

Each of these narrative patterns enables a brand to evoke and address a deep human need, even when offering an abstraction such as professional advice. And each of these stories can be told in a multitude of different ways.

By understanding these patterns, a professional service firm can drive differentiation and preference.


So how do you discover and then develop your authentic brand story? There are strong clues in your firm’s origin story and in the recurring iconic stories about the firm that your professionals tell themselves. The stories that clients tell about you (and the language they use to tell them) are also powerful sources. In both cases, it takes skilled questioning and astute listening to draw out the truth in the tale.

Once you have discovered the fundamental brand story that reflects the truth of your organization, it can then be developed into compelling market-facing messages, woven through all your communications and crucially, embedded in the culture of the firm and the behavior of your people.

August 7, 2015   No Comments

Mean Something If You Want To Matter

Mean Something If You Want To Matter

Any brand that endures and stands out from the pack does so by connecting with a fundamental human need.

Professional services firms, which deal with abstractions and intangibles, can begin to build and leverage this deep human connection by first understanding what they stand for – what they intend to mean to their clients and employees.

A powerful, authentic brand captures and signals the underlying human images-2meaning in your business – the thing that sets you apart and makes you matter to your marketplace of potential clients and recruits.

Your brand is therefore a strategic business issue, way more profound than issues like name, logo, tagline, or visual style. Those are symbolic expressions of the brand, shortcuts to the meaning in the business: they are not the brand itself.

One of the key challenges for a professional services firm is how to encourage clients to have a committed relationship to the organization, not just to the individual consultant. Brand offers a way to do this, by building a shared sense of the meaning in the business, while at the same time enabling individual professionals to express that meaning in a way that is authentic to them.

Our experience helping professional services firms to differentiate and market themselves effectively has helped us identify three key factors that set professional services brands apart:

  • Relationship is the envelope that wraps the client work. Professional services firms need to understand and leverage the emotional value of the client relationship as a key differentiator
  • Attracting and developing talent is as important as attracting and developing clients. Aligning the internal and external brand is crucial
  • Vision, values and beliefs drive the behaviors that convey the brand. Understanding and clarifying these areas is essential to building a meaningful professional services brand.

McKinsey-BCGTake McKinsey and The Boston Consulting Group (BCG), the top two global strategy consulting firms. They each recruit similar people from the same set of elite schools, and they each address similar business challenges with similar intellectual tools. And yet clients see real differences and make choices between the two. How and why?

The answer lies in the meaning that both firms have built as they have developed their respective brands. McKinsey has come to mean power and control – the stability and order that enables prosperity. BCG on the other hand, has built its brand meaning around understanding and transformation – the insight that empowers you to change your circumstances for the better. Both are compelling meanings that speak to fundamental human needs, but each appeals to a different client mindset.

These two iconic consulting brands have used narrative and story to create meaning and differentiation as they compete for clients and talent. Our next post will explore how to use story as a tool to differentiate your firm, and to create meaning that attracts the right clients and the right recruits.


July 1, 2015   1 Comment

For Professional Service Firms, It’s About Differentiation

Standing apart is always a challenge, especially for professional service brands.

The Arena is Large
These brands generate US $1trillion+ in revenues and represent a very large and growing sector of the economy. Of the U.S. professional services sectors, IT consulting is the largest, followed by law firms and management consulting firms.

Screen Shot 2015-05-20 at 10.21.41 AM

Words Sound the Same
But if you step back and look at the self descriptions and claimed differentiators from the websites of the top ten professional service firms in each of the eight primary sectors, you see “brand blur” on a staggering scale. It’s astounding how many of the same words and descriptions appear. This represents an opportunity for a smart professional services firm.

PS Words

The reason is that professional services firms use generic terms is that they don’t want to lose a prospective client. They believe that if they cover the waterfront and claim everything, they can appeal to the widest array of prospects. But the opposite is true. Brand strength and power comes from being single-minded and consistent.

There is a Way to Differentiate
Successful brands spend great time and energy understanding what makes them different, and how to communicate that difference through marketing and through behavior.

The secret to identifying what sets your firm apart authentically and sustainably is to understand the meaning at the heart of the business. The route to uncovering that meaning lies through story. Stories are the building blocks we (humans) use to construct meaning and shared identity.

In future posts we will dig deeper into the connections between meaning, story and brand loyalty.

May 20, 2015   No Comments

Chipotle does the right thing…as the mainstream tide turns

Wherever you look these days, mainstream brands are engaging in initiatives or taking a stand on issues that were once considered “social or environmental causes of fringe groups”. Social media has given activists a voice and platform to reach the masses like never before. And whether or not there is enough hard data or scientific evidence to categorically support their causes, there are most certainly enough unanswered questions around issues such as the safety of GMO’s, artificial ingredients such as aspartame, red dye 40, and the prolific use of pesticides and herbicides like glyphosate, to name a few. Consumers are no longer in the dark and are asking questions, reluctant to blindly believe the safety claims of corporations. As such, many iconic brands like McDonalds and Pepsi find themselves directly impacted by this growing sentiment. And more than ever before, it is a case of “adapt or die”. There are many examples of brands that have been proactive, or at the very least, quick to respond. Yesterday Chipotle announced that 100% of their ingredients are now non-GMO. On the same day, Pepsi announced that they will no longer use aspartame in Diet Pepsi. And in January 2014, General Mills announced that Cheerios will be GMO free.


Read more →

April 28, 2015   No Comments

Disney World at $105 a day… How Brands Can Successfully Price Up

The recent announcement about Disney raising admission prices at theme parks to over $100 per day points to an important benefit of very strong brands… they can price higher and maintain upwards momentum.

Brands that provide extraordinary quality and a unique experience have enormous leverage to price higher. Said another way, it is possible to raise prices without much of a consumer push-back.


Here’s the rub. In almost every category, where products are essentially at parity, marketers struggle to hold prices, especially when there is a competitor who is willing to cut price to hold on to or grow a franchise. Thus, particularly in highly competitive categories, marketers become hostage to a pricing spiral, and reluctant to take risks or invest. As someone once said, it’s hard to look outside of the swamp when alligators are nipping at you toes. Read more →

March 3, 2015   No Comments