How We Do It: Developing Executive Clarity

I tell my clients that brand leadership work is the softer, more spiritual part of the life of a business. This often makes the leadership team squirm.

Defining the brand essence or promise of a business or non-profit means moving past numbers and spreadsheets toward motivations and associations — not common discussion topics around the board table. Yet, it is a principal role of executives to recognize and catalyze the brand into a living, breathing entity capable of motivating employees and driving market share growth. That process begins inside.

Defining the brand essence or promise of a business or non-profit means moving past numbers and spreadsheets toward motivations and associations.

One of the first things we do in consulting on a company’s brand strategy is bring together the leadership team and take them through a series of exercises aimed at helping them uncover the DNA of their organization — that’s the stuff brands are made of.

We put up a lot of ideas and run through pads of those giant Post-It® pages — sometimes wallpapering an entire conference room. Then comes the hard part. Each wonderful attribute of the organization is filtered using a very fine mesh: Is it unique? Is it sustainable? Is it a true competitive advantage? This leads to a lot of red ink shed, and slowly, the pages are edited down to no more than a small handful of attributes that might just qualify as essential brand foundations.

This exercise sets the stage for the work that will be required of the executive team — arriving at a unified vision of the brand and articulating it in a consistent, high fidelity manner. This isn’t so hard when we are working on a new business start-up and the executive team is a fresh, excited group of say five or six folks. But what happens when the leadership team is larger and more entrenched? Or you are engaging an entire set of city leaders to determine the brand? Things can get complicated.

We’ve lived through each of these scenarios, and I’m happy to say we were able to achieve success for all. All of them experienced our approach of working very broadly to get ideas, facts and issues down, and then filtering that data in meaningful ways to achieve a frame of reference that all could agree with — but that had dimension and direction rather than pontification.

Our first work aims at using careful filters to determine how the business or organization differentiates itself, but this is an insular view. Our next step is always to take these potential brand points of reference and stand them up against the market. For instance, the organization may think that its audience values how hip and new its leadership is, only to find out that customers really value the organization because of its deep historic roots. Some brand attributes that make it through the first filter fly right through the “customer association” filter and live to see another day. But this phase of our work — a blend of qualitative and quantitative market research — further refines the brand and provides the executive leadership with more confidence that they are developing a brand that will win in the marketplace.

But are we done there? Not yet! Because the final filter is the competitive landscape itself. It’s pretty well proven that it will take more cash than most companies are willing or able to spend to uproot someone else’s position in the marketplace. We have to see if our fabulous brand attributes are already living inside our competitors’ brands.

If you take the time to travel this brand journey and filter, filter, filter your ideas, any group of any size can arrive at the true, strong, lasting brand position they need to thrive. And actually, this process of filtering is used again when we explore how the brand will be articulated in color, typography, music, symbols and words. Filtering brand drivers using the good old USAs, evaluating prospective frameworks through the eyes of your target audience and testing all against what your competitors already “own”, provides the basis for achieving full consensus — from the senior leadership team down through the organization.

 

Author Melissa Thoma

Melissa Thoma co-founded Thoma Thoma in 1988, following her experience as a graphic designer. While her focus has evolved to mostly high-level strategy for Thoma clients, she is still not afraid to get her hands dirty and her right brain engaged as the constant creative catalyst of the firm.

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