building your brand

Rita Clifton talks brand strategy

Brand strategy is a term many of you reading this will have heard but what do you know about this highly specialised practice? 

The legend Rita Clifton CBE has throughout a glittering career risen to the pinnacle of this practice. She recently paid a visit to Bristol, as a keynote speaker at the first post-Covid Bristol Creative Industries keynote seminar.  

Not one to pass up the chance to glean pearls of wisdom from the former Vice-Chair of Saatchi & Saatchi and CEO of Interbrand, as well as a woman named the ‘doyenne of branding’ we grabbed our notepads and headed out to the Watershed…  and here’s what we learned:


What is a ‘brand’ 

It’s more than a logo, it’s more than font and a colour palette.  

In Rita’s words, a brand is the single most important sustainable asset any business can hope to possess. A brand should be used to generate reliable influence and funds. A brand should be a magnet for talent, while long outliving the individuals who developed or nurtured it.  

This idea of brands living on is a most intriguing point. Particularly, as the current business landscape is heavy with those implementing a people first approach. Something Rita, was quick to point out, sits slightly at odds with the idea of a brand.  

Brands live on 

This isn’t to say that a people-first approach is a bad thing. Just building a brand on it isn’t the most stable, because people are transient.  

At some point, and one way or another, people move on. People cannot be a part of a brand for eternity. While this is a slightly macabre realisation, it is intriguing to consider that there can be such a thing as brand immortality. 

Personal brand… it doesn’t quite mean what you think it does 

When the idea of a personal brand is brought up, it’s treated as some new-age concept, and one brought about by the ‘Kardashian-isation’ (as Rita pus it) of personal brand.  

Rita even flagged instances where individuals have told her that personal brand is all about physical appearance and is the root of all modern evils. 

While there is a certain degree of appearance factored into a brand, during her session Rita dispelled the idea personal brand is solely an exercise in vanity and fame. Personal brand, and to that extent corporate brand, is more of an ‘organising idea’ which fits into PR and comms actions. 

Personal brand in action  

Yes, personal brand can and does involve a certain degree of what an individual looks like. But it doesn’t begin, and it certainly doesn’t end there.  

This concept of a brand being an organising idea, is a rather intriguing one and something backed up by Clifton, with numerous examples of how ‘personal brand’ is more than just a shirt and jacket combo.  

Damien Hirst

An intriguing individual, with an empire built on controversy. Everything Hirst ever did, including stating that marketing was the greatest art form of the 20th century, was honed and finessed to fit the idea of his own controversial brand. 

Donald J Trump

Trump is an example of utmost brand consistency. The traits themselves, while unpopular with many, he has never swayed away from the hardliner, business-tough-guy brand he has long since cultivated.  

Margaret Thatcher

A leader who changed her brand, from housewives to Iron Lady. Again, a divisive figure but a string of personal brand choices led – the iconic tank image, her hardline stances and unyielding focus led to a dramatic change in perception. 

Jacinda Arden

A leader of modern principles. Arden is unique in this list, as she has cultivated a personal brand which is neither hardline nor aggressive, confrontational or controversial. Rather one of empathy, inclusivity and humanitarian principles.  

David Attenborough

A man whose clarity, vision and very being reflect everything he stands for. Attenborough, as Rita attests, is one of the great paragons of positive personal brand in action… it’s hard not to agree. 

Are brands losing their importance?  

With the advent of a multitude of social media and online content platforms, the changing media landscape and shifting socio-economic statuses and values, some would argue that the idea of a brand is becoming defunct. 

This developing landscape doesn’t make brands less important at all. It makes it harder for brands to reach their audiences. The public is being bombarded with daily messaging by brands, and for an individual to make any sense of it all would require most of their day.     

Therefore, people chose to react and engage with brands they only deem worth their time. This is a major challenge to both brand loyalty and brand strategy moving forward. 


Stand out brands

For a brand to make any kind of positive impact, it needs to be stellar and the conversion funnels, which marketers use to visualise the customer journey are not as they once were.  

Simple top to bottom journeys have been replaced with an overlapping array of brand contact points. Linearity has been replaced with volume and intense competition and any point in the customer journey could be its weakest link. 

For a brand to stand out it must be at its very core ‘a good business.’ 

The meaning of good 

The meaning of the terms ‘good business’ is clearly open to interpretation. A good business is a financially stable one. Those able to glean information from financial breakdowns can spot a good business from a bad one without ever meeting a single employee.  

A good business is also a ‘good’ business. A moral compass is now one of the single most important tools any brand or business can possess. A business that is both good to its people, good to its customers and to an extent, good for the world. 

‘Goodness’ is now intrinsic to business success and individuals within a brand must live and breathe their ethos. Because not too, could be a major brand damager.  

How ‘goodness’ affects the brand?  

Online reputation management is fast becoming one of the most key PR and comms tools and as Rita so deftly puts it, so much of the brand is ‘PR and comms.’ 

In the modern digital age, permanency is a constant risk to any brand’s online presence. An ill-timed company tweet, a badly considered response from a CEO, a hasty PR statement in response to the crisis. Any and all of these now have the potential to live forever and to cause permanent brand damage.  

Reputation vs reality 

While you don’t own your reputation, you do own your brand and reputation is just reality with a delayed effect.  

This is a particularly interesting concept raised by Rita and one that does have ramifications for PR practices. In particular, principles such as brand coms and crisis management. 

The notion that reputation is just reality with a delayed effect seems a delicate yet incredibly powerful way of describing pure brand and crisis comms. In a world of Online Reputation Management where any kind of scandal can be amplified and made eternal, there is only time separating those who seek to mask their true selves in brand spin, and those who seek to undo reputations.  

The brand iceberg  

Logos, colours, Instagram pages and LinkedIn bios, all sit at the very top of the brand iceberg.  

Because of their high visibility, businesses and brands can find themselves in a situation where they place undue focus on those elements. Whereas the truly crucial elements are all underneath the water’s surface. 

Core values, brand promise, R&D, mission statement, positioning, marketing strategy, personality, operational structure, logistics and core messaging. All these concepts make up the foundations of a brand, and this is the real brand strategy.  

Comms comes last  

You may ask the question, when does the comms work come into effect? Well, like the fonts and colours and logos, this comes last.  

While comms’ efforts are indeed peppered throughout the entire brand strategy – comms should be seen as an investment rather than an expense. The actual act of brand communications is the very last step of the brand strategy journey.  

The reason why it is last step is the same reason why we do not build houses on loose foundations.  

Rita Clifton

It’s easy to see how Clifton has gained such renown and prestige in her field.  

Her insight, experience and expertise within the field of brand strategy will, without a shadow of a doubt, would bring fresh new energy to even the most seasoned brand strategist. With a passion for what she does and a clear passion for ESG principles, it’s invigorating to be in the same room as her. 

Something that is also apparent, is how much of her guidance and insight aligns with the services we’re offering and developing here at AMBITIOUS.  As PR and comms develop and grow, there are those, such as Rita Clifton, who act as beacons of principle and practice for each of us to strive towards… so its’s refreshingly reassuring to know that we’re all on the same page!