building your brand

Building your brand

Recently the AMBITIOUS team paid a visit to Watershed to attend the first post-covid Bristol Creative Industries keynote event.  

The speaker was Rita Clifton, former chairman of Interbrand, columnist, commentator, and global branding expert. During her insightful session at Bristol’s Watershed, Clifton touched on many of the cornerstones of building your brand, and how they interlink with PR and comms. 

Rita covered some intriguing and informative points, which we documented into a written piece; Rita Clifton Talks Brand Strategy. However, there were still some elements of Rita’s address which required further examination.  

But before we get into those points, a quick recap of some of the core points from our first article:  

  • Brand, and personal brand, are crucial concepts and functions for business success. 
  • While personal brand can involve appearance, to some degree, it is not exclusively about how an individual looks or dresses. 
  • Brands are no less important than they were 20 years ago, however, the customer journey has transformed in that time.  
  • So much of the brand strategy process falls within the PR and comms remit.  
  • Strong brands can outlive individuals, making them incredibly important in the brand/business success process. 

The brand iceberg 

To some of you reading this, the brand iceberg may be a familiar concept, or it may be entirely alien. The premise is a simple. To forge a strong brand, the highly visible elements of that brand must be pre-supported by a strong foundation of practices, concepts and operational principles.  

There are two aspects, the parts you can see, and the parts you cannot see 

What you can see  

The elements of a brand that you can ‘see’ are the highly tangible, often emotive aspects of that brand. The logo, advertising, social pages, brand name even your products and services… all these things sit at the very tip of the brand iceberg. 

What you can’t see  

A brand is so much more than a logo and a colour set. A brand is the sum of a business’s multitude of parts. This means that when it comes to brand strategy, you need to consider things which you may never have placed into the category of ‘branding.’  

The ‘submerged’ parts of the brand iceberg are just as important to a business and its brand strategy as the highly visible elements. What the iceberg shows us, is that brand strategy should be approached bottom-up, rather than top-down. 

A bottom-up approach to branding strategy allows a business to focus on core matters that affect both business operations and brand. Thus, creating a more holistic and insightful approach to branding and brand strategy.  

The brand ‘funnel’ 

The brand funnel is one of the oldest and most adhered to concepts in the field of sales and marketing.   

However, as Clifton attests, with the advent of multiple new technologies and constantly altering new media and consumer landscapes, the funnel is no longer a funnel. 

The idea of a neat and linear customer journey has now become something of a fallacy. The notion that a customer sees your product, and then moves steadily downwards towards a point of purchase is no longer an accurate portrayal.  

The customer experience is now more akin to a convoluted web of various touchpoints; from email, owned social media, influencer engagement, third-party media endorsement, out of home advertising.  All of these elements present opportunities for brand engagement and sales conversion.  

But this increase in volume and complexity comes with the added risk of your audience disengaging from your brand, through sheer overload.  

What this means is that a brand or business can effectively find itself sitting on a knife’s edge, where any point of the customer journey could potentially be the weakest link in the chain, and cause a targeted individual to totally switch off due to overload.   

T-shaped expertise  

T shaped skills is a concept used in management and recruitment to visually show the skills and abilities of an individual. However, it can be a helpful tool in brand strategy. 

The way this model works is that the top of the T demonstrates an individual’s broad experience, while the base is relevant to deep, specific skills and knowledge. The two ought to be complimentary of one another, with core skills feeding into broad knowledge and vice versa. 

How this affects personal brand and brand strategy, is rather a subtle yet effective way of encapsulating and developing a brand. An example of this in action, which Rita gives, is Sir David Attenborough.  

Sir David is, unquestionably, a man of single-minded passion, virtue, and talent. An iconic voice and one of the most impeccable personal brands. His brand, and it is a brand, has been carefully built around his knowledge and experience as a naturalist and biologist. The base of his T-shape. 

Sir David’s work, over many decades, as both broadcaster and director of television programmes at the BBC, has allowed him to serve both his deep and broad experience. Utilising his knowledge to build his brand to, in turn, promote the glory of the natural world.

In his later years, Sir David undergoes something of a brand pivot. As he widens the scope of his focus into conservation. Again, these are matters which marry well with his own T-shape, allowing him to use his existing brand and influence to serve a pressing ecological crises agenda.  

This, as Rita attests, is the utilising of personal brand at its absolute pinnacle. As Attenborough leverages his own brand, for the greater good, rather than for personal or professional gain. In more ways than one Sir David Attenborough has used his own brand, and his own knowledge to shape the world we live in.  

Sir David’s career may not seem like the most obvious exercise in brand strategy. But Sir David is one of the shining examples of maintaining brand presence and awareness and doing so through rigorous adherence to his core skills and principles.   

Investing in ‘brand’  

Every brand has its own worth, and your brand value is hugely important for a business seeking outside investment.  

An example is Warren Buffett, a man who needs little introduction, other than he is one of the single most successful serial investors. As Rita explains, when Buffett was asked what his top criteria were for choosing to invest in a business he said:  

A strong brand 

Management team 

Strong balance sheet   

The fact that Buffett places brand above balance sheet shows the importance of brand in a business. When the most prominent and successful entrepreneurial investor tells you a strong brand is his most important factor, you suspect he might be onto something. 

Once again, we touch upon the idea of the brand iceberg. The brand is more than just a logo. The brand is the sum total of a business’s induvial elements. Buffet, after all, is not seeking out the best-designed logo, or the smartest typeface.  

What an investor is looking for is a business driven by vision and purpose. A bullet-proof set of core ideals, which ripple through every facet of the business. A management team which not only understands these brand ideals but lives by them. These are the key drivers of, as Rita puts it, ‘good businesses.’ 

A ‘good’ business cannot exist without a strong brand, because success is driven by purpose… and purpose is driven by brand.   

Brand in action: Apple V Microsoft  

Apple and Microsoft are two of the most highly recognisable brands on the planet. So, it’s no surprise that Rita often refers to the two tech giants. 

What is most intriguing is Rita’s view on brand perception in relation to their two former CEOs, Steve Jobs and Steve Ballmer.  

Jobs was the elegant showman, his keynote deliveries and launches were done with a downplayed confidence and the 2007 launch of the iPhone, is the perfect example of this. Steve Ballmer, on the other hand, could not have been more different. His brand and his energy were on an entirely different wavelength to Jobs. 

From a personal brand standpoint, Ballmer was erratic and high octane, very much at odds with the quiet calm of Bill Gates and something of a wildcard.  

Jobs, on the other hand, was the Billion Dollar Hippy, and this personal brand leaked into Apple, granting it unfathomable levels of success and brand loyalty.  

Power + Brand = ?  

When someone bought an Apple product, they were buying the brand and Jobs was all too aware of this. Jobs was the creator and the conduit for this brand. He imposed a simple yet highly effective sense of brand, vision and purpose which filtered throughout the business:  

Vision: Man is the creator of change in this world and should not be subordinate to machines or systems. 

Mission: Providing human tools. Dedicated to the empowering of man, helping change the way we work, learn and communicate.  

Values: Individualist, thinking differently, clarity clever. 

These stripped-back concepts fed into everything Apple did and stood for during Jobs’ two spells as Apple CEO. But what is just as telling is the period where he was not at the helm. 

In 1985 Jobs resigned, and between 1985 and 1997, Apple slumped financially and creatively. During this time, Jobs went on to co-found Pixar and created the NeXT computer, which was used by Tim Berners Lee to develop the World Wide Web.  

Jobs return… Apple resurgent  

Apple struck a $427 million dollar deal to buy Jobs’ NeXT in 1996 and Jobs return in 1997 saw not only one of the greatest creative periods for the company but a return to profitability.  

The ten-year window between 1997 and 2007, is arguably Apple’s greatest creative period. During this time Apple became more than just the Apple Computer Company, it became a brand behemoth with Jobs at its centre. 

2011 onwards… Microsoft resurgent  

The untimely passing of Steve Jobs in 2011 led to a refocusing of vision and position within Apple. Jony Ive departed, and Tim Cook took the reins. But something interesting also happened in Seattle, Steve Ballmer left Microsoft, making way for Satya Nadella.    

It wasn’t long after that a 2016 article from Mashable, headlined: Admit it, Microsoft is now a braver, more innovative company than Apple. This was the beginning of a brand shift between the two. 

How did this happen? 

Satya Nadella has a huge role to play in re-routing Microsoft’s brand trajectory, and this cannot be understated. From a personal brand perspective, it is intriguing that Satya is the opposite of his predecessor. If anything, he’s more in the mould of Steve Jobs.  

The transformation of Microsoft, into a bolder, risk-taking brand has coincident with a period of Apple seemingly playing safe. For Apple the old Jobsian, mantras have been replaced with rather dense mission statements.  

  • We believe in deep collaboration and cross-pollination of our groups, which allow us to innovate in a way that others cannot 
  • We believe that we need to own and control the primary technologies behind the products we make 
  • We don’t settle for anything less than excellence in every group in the company, and we have the self-honesty and the courage to admit when we’re wrong and the courage to change. 

The final point around courage reminds us again of that same Mashable article, where its author states: Even Steve Jobs would have to admit that the sex is currently in Seattle. Microsoft has true technological courage, the courage to try selling new things, to risk failure in the marketplace, to learn from its mistakes, to present a coherent vision.” 

Coherency is king  

When it comes to brand strategy, the ability to present a coherent vision is everything. For a business to be successful, its vision must be clear.  

Clarity, or a lack thereof, has a knock-on effect. How can a business succeed in bringing in customers, if its own vision is not understood internally? A confused brand invariably leads to a confused customer. 

Establishing a clear brand strategy is one of the most important tasks any business can undertake.  Of course, we understand that not every business is a billion-dollar unicorn like Apple or Microsoft. But that doesn’t mean that every business can’t learn from them.  

Where Apple, and indeed any hyper-successful business finds great success, is in clarity of thought and the effective execution of a single vision. Something that can only be achieved through a successful brand strategy.