Brand Strategy & Design is not just a Popularity Contest

Where’s the Brand Strategy and Design Leadership
A few years ago we were invited to take part in a creative pitch to design a new place brand identity for a local municipality. The project was an interesting one, the City was vibrant, artistic, edgy and had a real pulse – but in the end we declined to be involved. As it turned out, the agency selection criteria involved taking the three pitched identity concepts, displaying them in front of town hall and letting the community vote. On first glance this seemed like an appropriate decision-making mechanism, I mean Council are only there to manage the City on behalf of their constituents, but on further consideration it becomes clear this approach was flawed, and it’s the same flaw we see impact many brands such as Gap just recently.

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The role of brand is to communicate the market proposition of the business. And the role of the brand identity is to communicate the proposition of the brand.
Following the Gap re-brand and brand back-flip last week was like watching a car crash in slow motion. I can only conclude:
• Either there was no good reason to change the Gap brand identity – in which case I ask; ‘why the hell did they do it?’, or;
• There was a good reason to change the Gap brand identity, such as to reflect a new direction for the business relevant to their customers perhaps an evolution of their fashion design philosophy and their agency failed to nail the brand identity design to reflect this – in which case I ask; ‘why the hell did they launch it?’, or worst of all;
• There was a good reason to change the Gap brand identity and their agency got it right, but the Gap failed to communicate the reasons for change to their customers and when under a barrage of emotional, knee-jerk reaction they failed to hold to their strategy and show brand leadership.
Regardless of which of these scenarios was closest to the story, none of them reflect well on Gaps ability to manage their brand – an asset valued at US$3.96 billion this year.

Whilst it’s critical for business that their brands are popular, branding is not a popularity contest.

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When Henry Ford said: “If I’d asked my customers what they wanted, they’d have said a faster horse.” he summed-up the role of the market when it comes to driving business decisions on strategy, innovation and brand. As a truly innovative business, Apple understand the market is not always the right place to look for leadership. The story goes that the ipod tested appallingly with the market, who overwhelmingly could not grasp why we would want a new way to listen to music when we had the CD – the rest as they say is history.

brand designersAlmost a year ago to the day we sat and watched dumbstruck as Australian food brand Kraft, owner of the National treasure ‘Vegemite’ harnessed the power of popular opinion to launch a new Vegemite product spin-off they went to market with the ill-advised, although popularly selected product name of iSnack 2.0. The furore that ensued saw Kraft remove the product from supermarket shelves, pull their National TV and print campaign and beat a hasty retreat to work with the professionals on a plan to harness their customers creativity in a way that actually reflected the products brand positioning.

Though brand strategy and identity design is an inexact science, there are few other professional services engaged by business that are treated with such poor understanding and respect. For many businesses their brand is one of their most valuable assets – the Coke brand was valued this year at US$70.4 billion. We work with many of our clients facilitating their strategic business planning, and being on a board myself I’ve been involved in the strategic planning process from the other side of the table also. Rarely do we see the strategic direction of a company flipped 180 degrees based-on the emotional response of customers, let alone the personal likes or dislikes of the staff, the Chairman, or even his wife.

As with all important strategic business decisions, brand strategy and execution must be well considered, understood and executed with leadership, not on the basis of popular response.

If you’d like clarity around managing your brand asset, we’d love to help you become a brand leader – drop us a line.

Dave Ansett, Brandamentalist
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Fundamentalist Brand Designer


  1. Dave I agree. Brand strategy and identity design is an inexact science that must be respected by business. You have shown some great examples here of big businesses not truly understanding what their companies strategic direction is, and what happens to a companies that skips all the thinking at the beginning. Brand strategy is the backbone to any businesses creative and strategic output.

  2. It is interesting that companies choose to seek feedback from consumers, who for the most part are opposed to change.
    You only have to look at the many polls conducted in relation to Government policy, people essentially prefer the status
    quo. Put a group of people in a room, call it a focus group, ask some questions and all of a sudden we feel there is some
    science driving the thinking. The outcome typically is overly influenced by those most opposed to the idea. But that does not matter, because it provides some real butt covering data!!

  3. It really is an interesting/strange situation. Presumably, the creative agency that designed the new brandmark would be some what suffering at the hands of the (online) mob. Maybe this is a good thing, maybe we will see the decision making and the brand vision be trusted to the design agency, rather than, “the staff, the Chairman, or even his wife.” After all, they are the experts that area.

  4. The brandmark should be a visual representation of the brand DNA of the business. There are strategic reason to change or update it, as you said, if the offer or the relationship has changed. But this must be guided by an understanding of the business and it’s brand, it needs some deep and rigorous thinking behind it. Always remember you don’t own your brand, your customers do, it only exists in there minds.

    One of the main issues seams to be the flippant haphazard nature of the rebrand. The mixed messages coming from the company and the real lack of any clear rational. How can you expect your customers and the market to respect your custodianship of the brand when you can’t get the basics right?

  5. Reg, sounds like you’ve had a bit of market research experience yourself. It’s unfortunate that often market research is run to allay fears of making a mistake, rather than talking in-depth to customers to truly understand where they’re coming from and making brand strategy and brand communications decisions based on that intelligence.

  6. Lachlan, often the design studio can be left holding the can. But I think that a brand design studio worth it’s salt would have been able to play an active role in circumventing this outcome by influencing the process to make sure it was sound. If there was a good reason for change, the creative design agency nailed the visual identity design and then Gap got cold-feet when their customers responded negatively there was not much more they could do.

  7. Derek you make a great point: “One of the main issues seams to be the flippant haphazard nature of the rebrand. The mixed messages coming from the company and the real lack of any clear rational. How can you expect your customers and the market to respect your custodianship of the brand when you can’t get the basics right?”
    It’s an interesting tension formed by handing-over brand ownership by your customers whilst still maintaining the role of leadership. In the end the brand is only there to serve the purposes of the business. When it is equally serving the purposes of the customer you have a real winner.

  8. In my mind, the takeaway is not that we shouldn’t substitute “democracy” for “vision/strategy.” Rather, it is much more important to identify who are the most passionate, knowledgeable, and discriminating consumers/partners/advocates and give disproportionate weight to what they say. Just because 51% of the population says the world is flat doesn’t mean it really is.

    • You make a great point Paul. So often in marketing the 80:20 rule plays out, and that by focusing 80% of your energy on the most influential and committed 20% of your customers you can have a greater impact. However, when enough of your customers are telling you ‘the world is flat’ to all intents and purposes, the world may as well be flat. The balancing act for brands between leadership and following customer preference is a tough one. Typically brands like Apple whose customers are attracted by their cause – for the reason ‘why’ they do what they do – have a much easier time managing the balancing act of customer loyalty.

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