The Tough Brand Trilogy

By Rudo Botha

Much has been made in recent months about cutting costs, hunkering down and ‘just getting through’ the recession. But while employing such survival tactics is absolutely necessary in business, it’s important not to lose sight of the fact that tough times also present an ideal opportunity to focus on the positive. In other words: to consolidate what you have and to invest in what is truly valuable.

And while many might be cutting back on marketing and branding activities, smart companies recognise the value of a strong brand. When Warren Buffet visited Germany in late 2008 to talk to investors about criteria for buying a company, he put a strong brand in first place. Other business leaders agree. UK-based research company, MORI (Market & Opinion Research International), recently conducted a survey among directors from 187 top British companies and found that 94% of them believe that a strong brand is the asset which offers the greatest protection during an economic downturn.

But a brand can only offer a company the protection that the MORI survey talks about if it’s resilient to the kind of market force fluctuations that typify a recession. In other words it needs to have staying power. Whether your company is just beginning the branding journey or you have an existing brand that needs fortifying, there are three branding fundamentals without which a brand cannot be expected to stand the test of time. Each one informs the other.

Fundamental 1: Build your Brand on Truth

Human potential is infinite but it will never be realised if you try to be someone else or something that you are not. The same is true for brands.

The brands that stand the true test of time are built on a truth about the company, entity or individual they represent. That’s not to say its impossible to build an attractive, and even temporarily successful brand on an untruth; Grammy-winning pop outfit Milli Vanilli proved that back in the 80s. But such brands will always be transitory. They will fool some of the people some of the time, but not all of the people and most certainly not all of the time. In the end they will be shown up as fraudulent and their fall from grace will drag the company down with them.

Truth-driven brands on the other hand survive and thrive because their authenticity resonates with their audience. Consider National Geographic as a case in point. Everything about the brand supports its stated mission of inspiring people to care about the planet. It has supported exploration, education and conservation since 1888, a commitment that’s impossible to fake for that length of time.

Fundamental 2: work from the inside out

In order for a brand to be truthful, it has to necessarily reflect something internal, an inherent characteristic that’s unique to the company. Yes, its important to bear the external in mind when creating a brand; competitors, audience and external market conditions should influence but can never be central to a long-lasting brand. As these external factors change (and they will), so your brand will lose relevance if it is defined only in terms of how it relates to them.

Nothing can take away a powerful, self-assured, internally-based identity. So look inside. This might even mean using a perceived weakness and redefining it as a unique differentiator. Take Wimbeldon for example. The brand has used its strict adherence to tradition to set itself apart. In a high-tech, fast-paced, trend-setting global village, many might perceive Wimbledon’s traditions of strawberries and cream, all-white apparel and the royal box as stuffy, conservative and archaic. But tradition is inextricable from what Wimbledon is all about and the brand has embraced this internal characteristic and used it to grow into one of the most competitive sporting event brands in the world.

Sometimes it requires a branding process to uncover what these ‘internal’ assets are, but our experience has shown that once people within a company recognise those things as their own, and are given a platform to express them, there is no end to the enthusiasm with which they’ll keep telling your story.

Fundamental 3: now make it attractive

The first two fundamentals are useless unless they are expressed in a way that inspires and moves people. This means translating a brand’s truth and inherent characteristics into a visually inspiring format, possibly with the help of creative experts. Deciding how a brand looks is where most people start (and in the worst case scenarios they never go any further) but in fact this should be the last step in the branding process.

The reason for this is that brands aren’t made attractive, alluring, inspiring or enticing because of their choice of colour palette, logo or wordmark. After all, Virgin hasn’t lasted this long because Richard Branson chose red as his brand colour; it’s lasted because people are attracted to what the brand stands for. So you need to get the first two fundamentals right before you even think about how your brand will be visually expressed.  Even the best designers can only work with what they’ve got and if the truly attractive underlying qualities aren’t there, no pretty packaging in the world can lend a brand longevity.

Towards a sustainability model
It’s understandable during times of panic that people lose sight of the long-term scenario and look for quick fix solutions. Fortunately, branding isn’t one of these. When it’s done right, it can be the very thing that secures sustainability.


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