Raising Brands: Surviving The Tantrums, Step-Parents And Deliquency

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Parenting and looking after brands don’t appear to be so different, argues DDB Melbourne’s group business director, Sarah Bailey in this opinion piece.

In the crazy world of modern business you may find yourself coming to a sudden halt at times in a moment of mild panic and wonder – just who is looking after the brand? Is anyone watching it? Is it supposed to be me? What is it doing? Has it felt neglected lately? Is it okay?

Don’t worry. This is totally normal. If you work in marketing, the brand under your care is like your baby and it’s completely okay to feel responsible for keeping it alive, healthy and set for a bright future. The problem tends to be whether or not it is actually you that should indeed be doing this.

Unlike humans, brands don’t necessarily start to fray around the edges or forget why they walked into a particular room when they hit middle age. They don’t necessarily go through a tantrum phase, act out in their second decade or start to ‘wind down’ in their sixth. In fact there is no such thing as an average life trajectory or average life expectancy for brands; there are simply too many variables at play to draw a broad consensus. But one thing is certain; brands need constant care and nurturing to remain healthy and grow.

Sounds simple. But just whose job is it? Well marketing’s obviously but as all parents know looking after a child is not a stop/start venture. It requires daily focus. It’s relentless. Being a brand guardian is no different but for several reasons, it seems we have entered an era where brands often find themselves navigating difficult landscapes and challenges alone.

It’s an era where brands are often left to fend for themselves in the big bad business world.

We could stretch the analogy a bit further and term this the era of the ‘Latch-Key Brand’ evidenced by brands now being much less likely to be raised in a traditional nuclear family and instead passed around from CMO to CMO over short periods of time. And these CMOs are often hideously distracted with business issues, as are their agencies, so the brand can find itself neglected, forced to go home alone and reheat its own leftovers hoping for some quality time another day.

The problem is, the brand is the business, just as it always has been.

The complicated structure of many organisations doesn’t help, with clarity being the biggest loser and the confused responsibility of brand baby-sitting often the result. Hence we have situations where one ‘parent’ may not know what the other has agreed to for the brand and vice versa. Sometimes the brand may even sneak out late at night and return before anyone is the wiser – until the incriminating photos turn up on Facebook the next day. And of course there are long stints these days where brands find themselves orphaned, waiting months for a new marketing director to be appointed, reliant on nothing more than a colour-coded timetable carelessly attached to the cork board above the fridge. Sink or swim brand.

If this really was a child we would be very worried.

Should we therefore be worried about the brands?

I think yes. Linear marketing dynasties are essentially a thing of the past. There are multiple departments within most organisations now and they are all responsible for elements of brand. There are stepparents and temporary guardians all over the place. The lines of responsibility are blurred. Which parent is right? Who is too strict and who is too loose? And let’s not even go into the way consumers now shape brands. Needless to say the concept of good old parental control is now filed under nostalgia.

And then there is the issue of tenure. The average CMO stint is 48 months which is half that of the average CEO. Retaining the same babysitter for the brand is clearly tricky these days. Agency turnover has also increased with the average relationship going from seven years in 1987 to approximately three years today. This transience certainly has an impact on brands. The short-term demands, namely the ever present pressure to grow and deliver results, tend to shout louder than the long term, ‘soft’ metrics that diligent investment in brand tend to return.

Surely now, more than ever, it is our job to leave the brands we babysit in a better position than we found them.

Some basic co-parenting rules for clients and agencies should apply:

  • Encourage the brands to make the most of it’s strengths and seek out new ways to grow and learn
  • Work with them to reach for the stars
  • Acknowledge that our brand’s timelines and milestone moments may be very different from our own
  • Too much change can lead to personality disorders
  • What’s best for the brand is the only question we should ask when making difficult decisions

Ultimately if we are clear that the brands we look after should outlive us all, we must ensure that our combined contribution to their report card is recognised as either a critical step change or a fundamental building block that kept the brand relevant. Surely our legacies should be a positive trajectory rather than an odd or ineffective deviation away from the brand’s true DNA.

So let’s make sure we are growing healthy brands together. Let’s remind each other that a bit of stability and firm management is what brands really need from their busy, distracted, trying-their-best babysitters.

 

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