Who are you and why should I care? Since the 1950s, companies have turned to externally focused branding methods to answer these questions that consumers have about their businesses. Today, companies face an increasingly hyperconnected, skeptical marketplace where customers are demanding more. They want to know the substance beyond the sizzle of advertising. For branding to remain the economic engine it has been over the past 70 years, we need to ask: What’s next?
I propose that reimagining organizations as brand ecosystems is the next evolution of branding. This view reaches beyond the shiny veneer of the shallow, superficial efforts focused on external communications first introduced by the men of Madison Avenue, connecting the sizzle to the substance that customers, employees and the world are seeking.
What is a brand ecosystem?
Transparency is the new mantra of communications. This amplifies the importance of a strategic approach that engages every corner of the organization — the whole system — in ensuring the walk and talk are aligned.
The brand ecosystem provides a framework that responds to this need by defining the components of organizations that must be managed in order to build trustworthy brands. Thus, strategy is redefined as a process of choreographing the cohesion of the various elements of the system: identity, image, culture and vision. As in nature, each of these parts plays a unique role, but all must work together for the whole system to thrive. Viewing organizations as brand ecosystems acknowledges the walls that once-separate internal and external audiences have crumbled. Everything is connected, and everything communicates.
This represents an important shift from thinking of branding as a function owned solely by marketing departments or experts charged with pushing out messaging to the realization that brands are a co-creation, dependent upon engaging all stakeholders in shaping the “meaning” that defines the brand.
Ecosystem management as strategy
Well-executed strategy produces a tight coupling of the various elements of the ecosystem. As cohesion is forged between the identity narrative (who the organization says it is) and the other parts of the system, authenticity and trust are strengthened; vital determinants in attracting and retaining the best and brightest employees and loyal customers. This virtuous brand spiral, over time, builds the organization’s most valuable asset — its reputation — by engaging its most important resource: People. On the other hand, organizations unable to create this alignment spin into a vicious cycle that results in dysfunction and distrust of the organization and movement away from the leadership’s vision.
The following gaps in the ecosystem are symptoms of weak brands. Strategies should focus on creating adjustments that reset the virtuous cycle, which in turn will support the realization of the organization’s vision.
When a new vision is introduced that is significantly out of alignment with the existing identity of the organization, a new narrative must be introduced to bring the system into balance. This lack of cohesion represents the most extreme of all these scenarios, requiring the most time and energy to address, because it involves all components of the system.
This gap is evidenced when frustrations emerge among leaders because they feel members of the organization are not, or cannot, deliver on the aspirations for the company. This is often expressed by questions such as, “Why can’t we get everyone on the same page?” On the flip side, employees exhibit increased stress, frustration and lack of motivation because they don’t feel connected to the bigger goals of the organization. This may be because they don’t understand the vision or don’t feel connected to it. In most cases, this also has residual effects on the image of the organization — unhappy employees will ultimately yield dissatisfied customers and, in turn, a negative image in the marketplace.
When the images held by the marketplace are disconnected from the aspirations of leadership, it is difficult for the organization to move to the next level. This misalignment of perceptions results from the failure to deliver consistent, compelling communications that reinforce the desired image. This gap is usually expressed as “we just aren’t telling our story well” or “people don’t understand who we are.”
When the organization fails to deliver on the story told to its employees and the marketplace, we say the culture is out of alignment. This is expressed as skepticism and distrust by those both inside and outside of the organization. Ensuring this alignment is important for all organizations but is particularly important for those positioning themselves as values-based organizations.
Organizations will find the brand ecosystem a valuable framework in producing both a brand that people trust and, over time, a reputation that builds sustainable success. Alignment of these factors are critical in an increasingly skeptical, hyperconnected world where people are looking beyond the sizzle of brand advertising to the authenticity of words confirmed by performance.