Brand Is As Brand Does

Throughout history, human beings have deployed pattern recognition skills to ‘read’ situations and make choices. Our most distant ancestors read the signs in things ranging from scat to stars. We use brands. Unlike them, we live in markets, not wildernesses. We do not hunt. We shop. Like them, though, we must rely on the evidence before our eyes to make choices — and core to many of these choices are brands.

Brands go far beyond mere logos. Brand communicates what a company promises — what it stands for across a spectrum of values only one of which has to do with ‘value for money’. Quality, speed, reliability, integrity, feature, function, customer orientation, how employees are treated, whether shareholders come first — these are the more straight forward promises made by brands. In addition, though, are many subtler values: concern for family, political and ideological orientation, environmental, technological, legal, medical and other beliefs and behaviors are there to be read in brands, if we only ask ourselves to take a moment to ask.

Brands increasingly explain much of competitive success. In the overheated equity markets — markets that routinely have earnings per share far exceeding historical averages — some argue that brand accounts for more than half the value. Brand, like ‘human capital’, intellectual property, core competences and other key factors for success in our new world of markets, networks, organizations, friends and family is an intangible asset. It does not trace it’s value to land or machinery or other hard assets one can touch, see, smell or taste.

Instead, brand is the upshot of three related human actions: promising, delivering and experiencing. Employees (a category that includes executives) promise and deliver. Customers (and investors who are not actively involved in companies) experience. Most of us have yet to catch up with the latter two of these activities: delivery and experience. Because we are bombarded with logos and symbols and promises, we tend too rarely to look beyond the promising to the delivery and experience.

That is, until the experience is entirely out of line with the promise. Then we connect the dots. If it’s a negative experience (e.g. a salesperson whose pitch is complete hooey), our reaction could be just a shake of the head — but it’s a shake of the head that spells ‘never again’ for the company and it’s employees. Or, we could go into a kind of rage and take steps to make that “never again” apply to as many of our friends as we can reach.

If the deviation is positive, the reverse is also true. Marketing gurus love this phenomenon. It’s why ‘delight the customer’ is a widespread shared idea within marketing circles. Under promise and over deliver. Do that and your customers will be delighted in their experience of your brand. In turn, they will become loyal customers (the most profitable of all) and are also likely to ‘spread the word’.

The middle verb in all this is: brand delivery. Organizations should be careful about what they choose to promise. But, promises, especially promises in our cluttered world of logos, advertising, PR, sales pitches, word of mouth and more — while actually a complicated choice — are the lesser of the two verbs within the direct control of employees and executives. Delivery against those promises is far more complicated because it demands the effort of an entire organization be seen and acted upon in a way that causes many people — including, increasingly, people in organizations like distributors or retailer or others who are not part of the same organization — to actually act in ways that are consistent with the promises. This demands careful and self-conscious coordination. It is one big reason, for example, that I strongly believe the ‘division of labor’ mantra about organizations is a fundamental misconception in our new world. Yes, organizations divide labor. But, the primary function of organizations is to integrate labor, not divide it.

Brand delivery is brutally difficult to get right. Among the many routine failures most of us experience often is the ‘apology’ from one part of an organization for the screw ups of another part. We get the wrong items in the mail, call customer service and are told, “I’m sorry” in a way that connotes “But I am not taking any responsibilty for their mistake.” The ‘their’ refers to another employee or division or part of the same company. This admission immediately tells us the person on the phone fails to grasp this about his or her organization: it’s a community he or she is a member of. It’s a “we’ of whom he or she is a part. It is not an “I” and a “they”.

Recently, many media organizations have struggled with what their brands stand for in terms of promise and delivery of news. One that hasn’t struggled is Fox News. The irony of their promise — ‘fair and balanced’ — is, of course, that all of us know the real promise is “actively promote the right wing dominance of the United States”. And, they deliver consistently against that promise. We know their brand. And our experience rarely disappoints. We are not surprised to learn, for example, that Dick Cheney instructs his employees to make sure all TVs are tuned to Fox News whereever he stays. We are not surprised that when he chose to go on TV to explain how he came to shoot a friend in the face, he chose to do so on Fox.

Some folks, like Cheney, are loyal customers of Fox because of this consistency across brand promise, delivery and experience. Others detest Fox for the same set of reasons. Regardless of camp, though, it’s important to understand that Fox does have a mission and strategy and brand that is clear — and that, as an organization, they deliver an experience consistent with all that. Shared beliefs and behaviors at Fox — shared values — are highly predictable (regardless of whether any of us might also deem them good, bad or in between.)

By comparison, to take just one example, The Washington Post struggles. It is difficult for us to quickly and accurately describe the brand promise of the Post. And that makes it difficult for folks who work at the Post to clearly understand how they need to work together to deliver. Naturally, this leaves readers and others guessing about how their ‘experiences’ of the Post’s brand match up with the intended brand promises.

Unlike with Fox, customers are confused. Among many implications, is this: individual customers are likely to ‘impute’ promises to the Post brand. For example, people who believe in a ‘liberal media’ look for any delivery of news by the Post to reinforce this belief — reinforce how these customers define their experience of the Post’s offerings. For such folks, the brouhaha over Daniel Froomkin’s blog was a tautology: The Post is part of the liberal media. Froomkin is a liberal. The Post is biased toward liberals.

Others who lament a bygone day when the Post seemed to be an organization grounded in journalistic values dedicated to facts, openness, challenging those in power and so on, now look with equally juandiced eyes at any peccadillo by the Post that reinforces the company’s fall from grace. The writings of Post employees are scrutinized for lack of perspective, lack of facts, lack of challenging power — any indicia that point to a right wing drift and a loss of the journalistic soul.

These are the ends of the spectrum. But what of more moderate customers? How might they respond when, for example, the Post — in the name of ‘balance’ — hires a Bush political operative without any common journalistic credentials and a history of plagiarism to join the blogging at the Post’s website?

What is the moderate customer’s experience about the Post’s brand in this action by the Post? Frustration, of course. It feels like being pushed to an either/or choice to align with one of the extreme groups. Red state. Blue state. Liberal media. Corporate media. Choices that are less about journalism than about propaganda.

Such are implications about our experience of the Post brand at the level of abstract ideals and ideas. Let’s look for a moment, though, at more routine matters in our experience. A friend, upset by the Post’s hiring of this political operative, wrote an email to the Post’s ombudsperson, Deborah Howell.

Here is the response:

“Deborah Howell, ombudsman for The Washington Post asked me to pass this on
to you. The website, washingtonpost.com, hired blogger Ben Domenech. The Washington
Post did not hire him. The newspaper and the website are under different
management. If you wish to complain to the website, write to its editor, Jim Brady.”

My friend, using the email given for Brady, sent the same letter of concern to Brady.

Here’s the response:

“Deborah Howell, ombudsman for The Washington Post asked me to pass this on
to you. The website, washingtonpost.com, hired blogger Ben Domenech. The Washington
Post did not hire him. The newspaper and the website are under different
management. If you wish to complain to the website, write to its editor, Jim Brady.”

(Yes. The exact same, automatic reply.)

What do you draw from this about the customer experience of the Post brand? About the clarity of the Post’s brand promises? About the sense of “we” at the Post regarding what the company stands for? About the effectiveness with which employees in different parts of the company coordinate in ways that are consistent with their brand promises? About the values – the beliefs and behaviors — regarding respect and concern for customers that guide the Post’s brand promises and brand delivery?

Does this anecdote give you confidence that the Washington Post is on an effective path toward figuring out what the promises it wishes to make, how best to deliver them and what it wishes customers to experience when they choose the Post brand?

Posted by Doug Smith on March 24, 2006 12:37 PM | Permalink

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Tracked on March 29, 2006 06:15 AM

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