Tuesday, April 25, 2006

The Deadly Sins of B to B Branding: Dying On The Sword of Consensus

This post begins a series of entries focusing on the most common missteps we see in B to B branding initiatives.

When compiling a list of the Deadly Sins of B to B Branding, it seems appropriate to start at the top. Not with the most common or heinous branding sin, but on one that begins (and ends) with the company’s president or CEO.

The sin is mistaking consensus for input. And if it doesn’t kill a branding initiative outright, it will erode the initiative’s effectiveness over time.

It happens when the company’s top executive and/or owner concludes that the company’s brand position—how the company needs to be known by all of its key audiences—is something that should be voted on by all internal participants in the branding process.

When internal consensus is an imperative in a branding process, vanilla is almost always the result. Instead of the most strategically sound approach winning the day, what wins are the position and supporting creative that are least objectionable to the most members of the internal review team.

Trouble is, vanilla doesn’t differentiate companies or their offerings. Not when the game is increasing sales, holding price premiums, recruiting and retaining top people and building enterprise value. And definitely not in a marketing landscape crowded with loads of players making similar claims using similar language.

Should people on the leadership team of a company have an instrumental role in determining a company’s brand position? Absolutely. Their input is indispensable to building a credible, effective brand.

Should the thoughts of employees from throughout the company be considered during the branding process? In almost every case I’ve seen, yes.

But there’s a world of difference between soliciting input and promising consensus. The rationale for moving this way in a branding exercise is no different from the rationale for empowering a president or CEO to make any sort of critical decision: ultimately, some one person must make the call, or organizational paralysis will set in.

Of course, the good leaders seek counsel from advisors both inside and outside the company. They carefully consider the possibilities. Then they make a well-grounded decision, announce it with confidence, explain the basis for their decision and move boldly forward.

Branding should be no different.

That’s why the most sensible B to B branding processes incorporate data from a host of sources inside and outside the company. Then, a team of branding experts distills the data down to a single premise that articulates who the company needs to be in order to accomplish its business objectives.

Part of that distillation needs to be making the case for a specific positioning. In other words, the team must show how, if we position the company as X, we’ll be able to account for and address what we heard from our internal and external sources in the data-gathering process. Showing internal participants that their input has been seriously considered is part of making the case for a specific brand recommendation.

Assuming he or she is on board with the findings, the top executive can then declare the exercise done, so the implementation team can get to work on bringing the brand position to life creatively.

All of which beats the hell out of vanilla.

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