High on my list of must-read columnists is James Surowiecki of The New Yorker. His “Twilight of the Brands” piece in the February 17-24 edition provides a good example of how he takes apart outworn axioms of business success, then, from the wreckage, assembles a model better suited for the here and now.
Here’s what he does with conventional wisdom about brand loyalty:
It’s a truism of business-book thinking that a company’s brand is its “most important asset,” more valuable than technology or patents or manufacturing prowess. But brands have never been more fragile. The reason is simple: consumers are supremely well informed and far more likely to investigate the real value of products than to rely on logos.
Building on the work of Stanford marketing professor Emanuel Rosen, Surowiecki reminds us that, “historically, the rise of brands was a response to an information-poor environment. When consumers had to rely on advertisements and their past experience with a company, brands served as proxies for quality . . brand loyalty was a way of reducing risk. As recently as the nineteen-eighties, nearly four-fifths of American car buyers stayed loyal to a brand.”
That’s ancient history. Nowadays there’s a broad range of online reviews to turn to, from serious technical analyses to the experiences of folks like us. Surowiecki cites a PricewaterhouseCoopers study suggesting “eighty per cent of consumers look at online reviews before making major purchases, and a host of studies have logged the strong influence those reviews have on the decisions people make.”What’s more, tweeting, Facebooking and blogging of instant reviews of everything from proposed legislation to yoga gear mean brands are in continuous play beyond the influence of brand managers. That’s not so great for Don Draper and his catch-phrase/logo-dependent clients. It is good for consumers, however, provided they can wade through the info overload, much of it irrelevant and irresponsible.
While it’s always been true that everybody has an opinion, it’s only lately been possible to publish them all to provide the same ease of access that used to be controlled by olden-times gatekeepers. That poses a sorting problem for consumers but a much bigger challenge for those who have to secure their brands not only from millions of “real value” reviews, but also assault from online trolls with malice in mind.
What’s a company — or a brand-minded town or county or region — to do? My PlaceMakers partner, Scott Doyon, has a reminder or two about what we’re really talking about.
Scott came to the community planning and development business armed with experience in global marketing with J Walter Thompson. Even before the web rewrote the rules, says Scott, successful brand maintenance was all about closing the gap between how a firm wanted to be viewed by its customers and how its customers really viewed it and its products.
Here, Scott applies the idea to community branding — which has bubbled to the top of public sector wish lists for planning and design projects:
Cities think they can simply position themselves as what people want them to be — A great place to do business! A great place to live! A friendly place to visit! — but they can’t. Because they are what they are.
Their actions define them. And what results is their true brand: What people really think of them.
Which gets us to the real issue masked by all the branding talk: Getting stuff done.
To enjoy the trust of the customers you serve, you have to earn it by actually serving them, by continually demonstrating performance in line with your promise.
It’s a tough task. So tough that most private-sector enterprises flunk the survival test somewhere during the course of a human lifetime, going out of business entirely or merging with other firms. Take a look Main Street storefronts in any photo from a half-century ago. How many of those buildings currently contain the same businesses?
Governments, for the most part, don’t go out of business. But they can feel like it when their brands are diminished by the same widening gap between promise and performance. And they can’t rebuild brand loyalty with a new logo or a social media campaign. They have to prove they can consistently do what they say.
What’s missing in almost all of the public-sector planning processes I’ve watched as a journalist, then participated in as a consultant, is the focus on aligning strategies with action, visioning with implementation. Layers of cover-your-butt rules and inconsistent follow-through have built cynicism and mistrust on both sides of the service counters, undermining capacities for getting stuff done.
Citizen frustration can build into anger. And facing anger, elected officials and senior staff often try to insulate themselves from abuse — and accountability — by erecting more barriers, forming more citizen committees, creating more distance between good ideas and meaningful action. When times get really tough, they get a grant and write an RFP for a consulting team to fix everything with a visioning exercise, a Facebook page and another plan without champions to implement it.
Even though many private sector firms can’t boast consistent success at closing their own promise gaps, business leaders at least buy into the theory. Listen to the advice from Larry Bossidy and Ram Charan in their 2002 book, Execution: The Discipline of Getting Things Done:
Execution has to be a part of a company’s strategy and its goals. It is the missing link between aspirations and results. As such, it is a major — the major — job of a business leader.
That would be a snooze-worthy observation in an MBA course. Yet in planning project interviews with government leaders, we inevitably get this question: How can your team guarantee us that this won’t be just another report sitting on a shelf?
Bless your heart, I want to say. We can give you the plan you need and tell you how to implement it. But the execution phase, as you know, falls to you. It’s not just a major job. It’s the one that defines your reason for existence and secures your brand.
Again, from Scott Doyon:
Heed this warning: If your city branding efforts don’t begin with top down commitment to both your foundational principles and your aspirational goals, you are wasting your time. It doesn’t matter how many chamber of commerce meetings you attend, how many resident focus groups you hold, or how many Addy award winning agencies you interview.
If your community has not done the hard work of building consensus, defining goals and demonstrating commitment through meaningful actions, it just doesn’t matter.
If your leadership fails to engender trust, you can’t sell strength. If your policies are not incentivizing what you want and penalizing what you don’t, you can’t sell vision. If your zoning promotes sprawl and your citizens are disconnected from civic participation, you can’t sell community.
No matter how pretty your logo or clever your tag, you are wasting your time.
If PlaceShakers is our soapbox, our Facebook page is where we step down, grab a drink and enjoy a little conversation. Looking for a heads-up on the latest community-building news and perspective from around the web? Click through and “Like” us and we’ll keep you in the loop.