No one questions the importance of having a clear vision and pursuing it relentlessly; determined focus is at the heart of every successful brand. Nor does anyone advise that an organization should ignore its customers’ feedback and desires; engaging and responding to all your stakeholders is also vital to success.
So where do you draw the line between responding and relinquishing control? When do you take feedback seriously and adjust your offer, trying new things and appealing to requests? When do you stand your ground, delivering an experience straight from your imagination — an experience that few could have defined until they were deeply involved — ignoring the critics and pressing forward with innovation.
The not-so-secret secret is that everyone on your team must learn to listen, create and act within the context of the organization’s values.
I know what you’re thinking. This statement wins the consultant-schtick award for most obvious recommendation.
But here’s the first catch: weak brands listen within the context of market forces first, and then work to fit their values into the solution. These brands try to evolve towards a defined market — a gap to be exploited for revenue — rather than seeing an opportunity to deepen the brand experience — growing more relationships. It’s a passive approach to evolution that confuses people instead of inspiring them.
Here’s the second catch: if your values are loosely defined, it’s easy to believe that external market forces are stronger and more important to your long term success than your values (they aren’t) and that people are emotionally connected to your product instead of the experience and brand promise (they aren’t). People may say they want the product, but they’re reassured by an experience rooted in your values (that’s why they keep coming back to you instead of the competitor).
And here’s the third catch: the more successful your brand becomes, the more you’re tempted to evolve by shareholders, customers, and even your own ego. The success you enjoy is rooted in more vibrant connections and increased opportunity, but messing with emotional expectations — the intangible value of the brand — will backfire. If you adjust your values in pursuit of a market opportunity — when you compromise the values that anchor your existing relationships — you reveal to everyone that individual profit, not shared purpose and value, is the only goal that truly matters. Grow outside your values, and you break the relationship.
Brand success is defined by increasingly passionate relationships with all your stakeholders and how they respond to the evolving experiences you deliver.
All brands evolve their experience. What was once considered important and normal can become irrelevant or dated over time. Tastes and trends shift, especially with brands that are measured in decades or centuries rather than years, and strong brand leadership must embrace change. The challenge for the brand is to continuously evolve the experience (the practical instance of the brand experience) within the context of consistent values (the emotional promise of the brand experience).
5 Character Traits of Strong Brand Leaders
1.You are clear on your values and how they are fed by your vision. We’re not talking about abstract ideas about goodness and happiness. For the people who call the shots, it is unquestionably clear which behaviours and cultural ideals are celebrated and rewarded so that clear promises are made and kept for everyone.
2. You are clear on how the multitude of practical experience offered creates an emotional response. Leadership has a firm grasp on the emotional connection that drives the brand and how it manifests within an experience for all stakeholders, but also explore trends, technologies and tastes. You look for opportunities in products, not shifting values.
3. You are prepared to defend your choices, but you probably won’t have to. When decisions are made within the context of values, you aren’t asked to explain your choices. The evolution appears natural and comfortable, and even expected. You accept that some people may not be comfortable with the evolution at first, yet you make no apologies for choices — you merely invite all stakeholders to continue towards the original vision while staying true to the values you’ve always promised.
4. Your evolution is driven by a desire to deepen the experience. It is painfully obvious when an organization is looking to capture more money without increasing the value of the experience. The relationship quickly descends back to “buyer vs seller” rather than a shared vision of a valued experience.
5. You must ignore the disconnected nay-sayers. There will always be those who say it’s impossible, impractical, or that the evolution of the experience cuts at the core of the experience. You will ignore those who are more concerned with protecting the nostalgia of the past than inspiring an experience of the future.
Strong brands boast unapologetic leaders, defining the experience and innovating based on values and a shared vision rather than chasing fickle whims. They invested the time and energy in the beginning to establish a clear set of values upon which to invite all stakeholders and are inspired by their vision.
Strong brands listen and engage all stakeholders within the context of their uncompromising values.
Stephen Abbott is a brand strategist. His role is to bridge the operational strategy with the creative opportunity, bringing an authentic and compelling story to life throughout an organization, increasing the value of the brand and its impact on the organization’s success. To do this, Stephen focuses on the 4 critical functions of brand strategy: culture, communications, experience, and operations. Stephen has worked with well over 100 brands in his career — from grass roots organizations to Royal charities — experiencing a variety of industries and organizational styles first hand. This exposure has given him a healthy perspective on what is known as “the soft side of business” — capturing the excitement of visionary leadership while remaining grounded in realistic goals and being accountable for bottom line success. He is as comfortable in front of an international board of directors as he is working from strategy notes written on the back of a napkin. Visit Stephen Abbott Group and check out his blog.