“Innovation Has Been Flogged To Death”, Says Branding Guru

“Innovation Has Been Flogged To Death”, Says Branding Guru

This week, B&T caught up with Associate Professor Karl Treacher, CEO of The Brand Institute of Australia, to talk about his mission of helping big brands behave better.

From working with the Australian of the year, to Hollywood superstars, politicians and more recently Australia’s big banks as they come out of the royal commission, Treacher has been the go-to guy for reputation insights and recovery.

Originally from Victoria, one of Melbourne’s best exports is now one of Australia’s best experts… see what we did there?

Check out all of what Treacher had to say below:

How did you end up in brand and reputation?

I’ve always been fascinated in why people choose things and brands. I launched my first brand when I was 17 as a social experiment – The Racket Man, a mobile racket stringing service. The uptake was crazy and despite it being a very small, hobby business it gave me a platform to test and trial a series of persuasive service strategies and techniques – all focused on doing the right thing, better than the competition. That obsession continues to this day.

What are the biggest reputation issues facing big brands today?

Lack of knowledge and quality insights plague most big organisations, in many cases without them knowing. Many boards and executive teams today are flying blind on a few fronts when it comes to reputation. As a former CMO myself, reputation was simply a task for corporate affairs. On reflection, I now see how connected brand and reputation are, and the opportunities left on the table for organisations that don’t know how to leverage brand and reputation strengths as one. This is precisely why I spent the last five years with a team of analysts and psychologists creating what is easily the world’s most comprehensive reputation insights tool, RepHealth. Gone are the days of companies simply wanting small sample tracking.

What bugs you?

So many things. Donald Trump, Simon Sinek and short-term thinking are just a few off the top of my head. My dislike for the first two should be obvious – people who are popular with people who can’t think for themselves. The last refers to brands that are stuck on the shareholder return treadmill, and have sold their moral compass in the process. Now is a time of wholesale change across the globe and the decisions made by leaders of large organisations have the potential to change the world… in a good or bad way.

What motivates you?

Raising the bar and driving change for good. What I mean by that is I like to help organisations be the best they can be by making well thought-out decisions. For instance, environmentally aware leaders can stem the the stream of climate change damage without sacrificing long-term profit; however, very few recognise this, or more the point, how to do it. I love working with brands that are sincere about their purpose and know the value internally and externally of demonstrating integrity.

What does the next few years look like for big brands in Australia?

Amongst other things, the race is on for corporate Australia to reshape its image. Right now, it’s hard to cite a full handful of organisations actively doing the right thing in a consistently demonstrative manner. Innovation has been flogged to death without the necessary focus on impact. Innovation for impact will be the next frontier, especially as the younger generations begin making decisions with their money. The reasons for people to engage with brands today looks nothing like it did 20 years ago, and yet we see the same old brand strategy and reputation development activities being devised and approved.

Any advice on changes on the way for big brands?

We will see one of two realities win out in the next decade: the separatist, myopic, selfish and ultimately self-destructive reality; or the uprising of the contemplative. The actions of brands will help consumers recognise which camp they’re in. Supporting any brand activity seen as climate-harming or anti-social will hopefully soon be a trigger for mass customer exodus, whereas brands that invest in change for good should be rewarded and trusted. The later is the smart long-term play.

Any secrets on what builds strong reputation?

Organisations with the strongest reputation find something to have a reputation ‘for’ – something that matters to broad audiences, and then align all activity behind it. They deliver on their promises, treat their people and customers with equal respect, and hold their products and services to account, inline with their values. It sounds easy, but even small organisations need help getting this right. Corporate politics are no less destructive today than they were yesterday or a decade ago, and personal agendas have a funny way of interfering with the brand goals of an organisation.

Any common mistakes you see big brand making when it comes to reputation?

Big brands are by default big and often overly complicated in the way they’re led. This means communication can be poor, which in turn means it’s easy for the left hand to not know what the right hand is doing – or worse, to compete against it. Straightforward, meaningful and inclusive leadership is the only answer for companies looking to be recognised and respected. Without this, they are subject to compliance issues, which can lead to misconduct and eventually a lack of community trust – reputation crisis.

What’s the most interesting project you’ve worked on?

Working with the ACCC was great because that brand is all about doing the right thing and ensuring others do the same, but the most interesting for me personally has been helping the tech category in Australia emerge as a world-beater. We have some terrific tech companies operating at a level on-par with the very best globally. Helping build reputation in those cases has both interesting and rewarding, and demonstrated what’s possible when brands respond appropriately and efficiently to consumer needs.


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Innovation Karl Treacher The Brand Institute The Brand Institute of Australia

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