Look at a term like brand identity and you are sure to encounter dozens of different definitions. Many of these are incomplete or superficial, suggesting that a company’s brand identity is found exclusively in visual elements.
When one thinks of the most influential brands, a logo is sure to come to mind. The Nike “swoosh” is a symbol important only because of the meanings attributed to it over time. Those meanings, in turn, are built on the individual relationships between consumers and the brand.
It is undeniable that graphic designers and marketers pour thousands of hours of work into brand development. However, the work has only just begun when the name, slogan, and logo are finalized
To grasp this more directly, think of all the made-up terminology in the digital ecosystem.
The word “Google” meant nothing at all before consumer relationships with the Google brand. Now, this nonsense word calls to mind a host of meanings for virtually everyone in society. It has acquired such a well-known brand identity that it is at risk of becoming the generic term for the very service it pioneered.
No matter whether your opinion of Google is positive or negative, you no doubt have an understanding of what its promised experience looks like – combined with your assessment of how it lives up to that ideal or not.
Over time, individual relationships “solidify” into a sort of average consumer sentiment. Brand identity is both a reflection of that sentiment and, more crucially, a platform to foster dialogue with it. To be useful in this way, the concept of brand identity must be brought into the realm of measurable business results.
To bridge the gap between the tangible and intangible, it helps to think of brand identity thus:
- It is the framework of values and ideals a company consciously chooses to represent in the market
- It is the “promised experience” of operational execution that realizes those ideals in certain ways
- It is the sum total of what consumers believe about the brand, induced by its successes and failures
These may, at first, appear to be three separate and distinct things. Look more closely and it becomes clear they are a unified whole seen from three different levels of analysis. Values and ideals can be communicated by visual identity, for example, but until they are validated by execution, they exist only on paper.
Likewise, there is no brand that lives up to its promised experience in the minds of all consumers at all times.
Setbacks inevitably occur, whether in individual customer service or reading and responding to broad market trends. When the promised experience falters, brands must have a clear narrative to communicate internally and externally, lest a faux pas come to be seen as part of brand identity.
Once brand identity is understood as distinct from visual identity, a complex and worthwhile leadership question appears: If brand identity cannot be completely controlled by within and it cannot be imposed by fiat, what is the best way for a company to author its brand intentionally and effectively?
The answer is this: Understand that brand identity comes from company culture.
Brand Identity Can Become Diluted As Company Culture Changes
Brand identity can be thought of as a lagging indicator of company culture, because as the latter changes, so does the former. Since brand identity is customer-facing and much of company culture is insulated from the outside world, the relationship between the two is often seen most clearly in hindsight.
Even the world’s top brands demonstrate this relationship.
According to Forbes, the two most valuable brands in the world are Apple and Google. Apple has a brand value of about $241 billion dollars; Google’s brand value exceeds $207 billion. Both have grown in the past year, but they have also navigated challenges maintaining their respective brands.
Those challenges arise, in turn, largely from changes in company culture.
At its inception, Google set the template for Silicon Valley startup culture. Like many of America’s most celebrated success stories, it famously started in a garage. Its initial motto was “Don’t be evil.” But perhaps most indicative of its early company culture was 20 Percent Time.
20 Percent Time gave engineers the opportunity to work on projects with no immediate dividends – what would be called “Important But Not Urgent” projects under the Eisenhower Matrix time management tool. Google News, AdSense, and Gmail were all incubated in 20 Percent Time between 2002 and 2004.
20 Percent Time was described as early as 2004, before Google’s IPO, as a driver of “significant advances” meant to enable creativity and innovation. But it is widely reported the concept has metamorphosized into what is derisively called “120 Percent Time,” an obligation on top of one’s full workload.
In recent years, only Google Cardboard and WearOS, both from 2014, are known to have emerged from 20 Percent Time. Google’s technological dominance in its core area of influence – online search – would be difficult for any rival to challenge, but a slower pace of innovation leaves it vulnerable in peripheral areas. It also risks furthering a public perception of being behind the times, a threat to its brand identity.
Nor is Google alone in seeing its brand identity drift off the mark.
Perhaps the biggest challenge to any company is when brand identity hinges on the unique insights of just one person. This is often observed in small, privately held companies. In 2011, it was writ large as the world witnessed Apple’s struggle to define its path after the passing of Steve Jobs.
Lack of clarity on the brand’s post-Jobs direction led to over-focus on the personal character of incoming CEO Tim Cook – that he was, in short, “no Steve Jobs” – when resources could have been better used documenting best practices, deriving lessons learned from Jobs’ tenure, and establishing the right KPIs.
A Structured Approach To Company Culture Reinforces Positive Brand Identity
How can you keep your company culture sound even as you grow?
It is natural that company culture evolves over time, especially with vast growth. However, that should not be a chaotic, ad-hoc process. No matter what changes within the scope of the business or the executive team, effective company culture should be cultivated at every stage in the organizational life-cycle.
Company culture, “the way things are done” in a business, becomes amenable to positive change when it is driven by clear KPIs. Those KPIs allow priority conflicts to be resolved quickly, keeping the focus on the most important objectives at the individual, team, department, and division levels.
At each fork in the road, KPIs equip those responsible for them to identify the course of action that will reach the promised experience, embody the company’s values, and prevent consumer sentiment – and brand identity as a whole – from being left to chance or the vagaries of the market.