29 May 2010

How Strong Brands Get That Way

I was flipping through some magazines while on a plane the other day when I came across an ad for luxury brand Louis Vuitton. In this particular execution, celebrity photographer Annie Leibovitz is shown conferring with her subject, Mikhail Baryshnikov, one of the greatest ballet dancers of the 20th century.

Now, this isn't a post about the LV brand (though that is a tasty piece casually anchoring the bottom left of the advertisement). Rather, I'll draw your attention to what caught my eye, on the bottom right corner on the ad.

Look at Mikhail's feet. That's right; the pair of stubbly, calloused cudgels. Thick-veined, powerful paws that pass for feet. Blunt implements that have launched him on a million double tour en l'airs, taking the collective breath of the world away.

Mikhail wears his feet proudly, with no self-consciousness, embarassment or apology. They are his badge of honour. They bear mute testament to hundreds of thousands of hours of practice until he is as close to perfection as is humanly possible. They project his personal brand essence effortlessly, scintillatingly.

Is it any wonder why so many brands fail to manifest themselves consistently through the acts of their brand champions and ambassadors? Companies acknowledge the power of branding; and some even invest in an overhaul of their brand. But nine times out of ten, they stop when the logo is locked down and stationery is done. They put their feet up when the visual communications system is templatized and brand manuals handed out. They have mistaken brand identification for brand internalization.

Think of this as the litmus test of a company's (re)branding program. If it declares success when all the brand rallies are done, the website is overhauled, and memos are sent out, it will not see any permanent change in brand behaviours once the novelty and emotion of the brand (re)launch is but a distant memory. Like the runner who eases up 10 metres before the finish line, it runs the risk of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.

Embedding is the key. Embedding brand action plans that have been developed, into the operational cadence of the business. Cascading the call to do things differently. And inspecting the progress made on action plans at regular intervals. These are the hallmarks of a business that leverages its brand. Just look at how it permeates the culture at Zappos, at Patagonia, at Harley-Davidson.

Branding is hard work. And it's not just the preserve of top management -- though it must start there. At every customer touchpoint, each and every day, it's up to all of us.

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