Branding – More Than Skin Deep

Posted by on Feb 3, 2011

Over the years, several of our clients have retained advertising agencies to help boost their visibility and image in the market. While clients often think this will be limited to logos, images, slogans and ad copy, many ad agencies view it as an opportunity for rebranding.

This carries a hidden risk. We’ve seen executives approve an exciting new brand before fully understanding its strategic implications and before integrating supporting changes into their strategic plan. At best, this slows the implementation of the new brand. But worse, it may require backing away from the new brand because it has strategic implications executives didn’t initially see and ultimately don’t support.

This post can help you avoid these mistakes. It answers 4 important questions:

1. Exactly what is a brand?

2. Why and when does it matter?

3. How are branding and strategy connected?

4. How should you proceed if your brand needs to be updated?

Read on for our answers . . .

1. Exactly what is a brand?

Ask executives what “brand” means and you’ll hear a continuum of answers. At one end is a traditional definition: “the combination of names, terms, signs, symbols or designs intended to identify and differentiate an offering”. We think of this as “skin-deep” branding. It’s no more effective than a boring banker getting a Born to be Wild tattoo to shake off his conservative image.

At the other end of the continuum is the strategic definition: “the promise a company makes and strives to keep by creating a total customer experience that is fully consistent with the promise”. This requires aligning the entire organization to consistently deliver a customer experience that fits the brand. It is essential to achieve this consistency. To be consistent, our boring banker with the new tattoo must also quit his conservative job, buy a Harley and join a motorcycle gang, or have his tattoo altered to Born to be Mild.

2. Why and when does it matter?

Almost any company can benefit by differentiating itself, its products, and even elements of its strategy. Branding is an important tool to help. A clearly articulated brand promise shapes customers’ expectations about what you’ll deliver. When customers’ brand experience is consistent with your promise, you gain their confidence and trust.

Confidence and trust matter most when customers can’t verify the attributes of your products before they buy (or in some cases, even after they have used the product!) For example, most Volvo owners will never crash their cars, but for decades they trusted Volvo to keep them safe. Despite paying a premium for safety, most owners will never know if they got what they paid for. Yet, in 2007 consumers rated Volvo as the safest automobile brand by a wide margin despite mediocre performance in recent crash tests. Did Volvo’s sale to the Ford Motor Company alter Swedish priorities? Maybe. When Volvo’s ads trumpeted the crush-resistant roof on its XC90 SUV, Ford officials questioned both Volvo’s advertising and its design philosophy, arguing head injuries in rollover accidents aren’t caused by roof collapse. They wanted Volvo to fall in line with Ford’s corporate position.

Why did so many people trust Volvo for safety, decade after decade? Volvo shaped market perception for decades by continuously reinforcing both the safety of its cars and the safety image of its brand. Even today, reports about crash test results and design philosophies may be too esoteric to influence market perception. Whether and when consumers’ perception of Volvo will catch up with the facts remains to be seen. Now that Ford has sold Volvo to the Chinese auto manufacturer, Geely, the effect of this change in ownership on brand perception is anyone’s guess. The abysmal performance of Chinese-made cars in crash tests as seen on YouTube could unravel all Volvo’s good work, even if the Swedish design philosophy remains intact.

3. How are branding and strategy connected?

The marketing concept brand promise is analogous to the strategic planning concept value proposition the promise of value you make and strive to keep for your customers. No organization can deliver consistently on its promises to customers unless its processes, structure, people, plans, priorities and performance metrics are fully aligned from top to bottom and end to end. The more quickly this alignment is achieved, the more quickly the organization will begin to reap the rewards. (Here, lack of speed kills . . . )

When new slogans and brand promises are publicized without this alignment, companies risk creating employee cynicism and customer disenchantment about the difference between what was promised and what was actually delivered. At one organization, the slogan “Quality – we make it a way of life” was prominently featured on company premises, publications and company vehicles for many years. But many insiders believed the company wasn’t providing enough internal support to help front line employees live up to the promise. As one middle manager cynically commented, “Quality – we write it on the side of our trucks”.

4. How should you proceed if your brand needs to be updated?

You don’t need any help with branding if you’re sure your customers already have the right positive image in their minds when your company name is mentioned. But if they don’t, you may have work to do. We suggest the following guidelines.

Make sure you understand your branding needs before you hire an ad agency. Branding or rebranding has so much upside and downside potential that an organization undertaking it should treat it as one of its most important strategic initiatives. Any change to your brand that is more than skin-deep should be fully inte- grated with the remainder of your strategic plan or you may not be able to deliver what you’ve promised.

If you need to refresh your corporate logo and to create a common look and feel in print, find an advertising agency which understands your needs and get started! Your challenge isn’t strategic. But be sure the scope of the assignment doesn’t expand into rebranding.

Rebranding should take its lead from your strategy. If it hasn’t been updated within the past year, update your strategy before you start rebranding. Make rebranding one of your strategic initiatives and ensure it is:

− fully aligned with your value proposition and your strategy;

− properly planned, with clear objectives, milestones, a timeline, and aligned with dependencies in other strategic initiatives;

− sufficiently resourced;

− tracked over time to assess customer perception as well as top- and bottom-line impact.

This will probably reduce your ad agency fees substantially.

This was originally published in our client newsletter, Strategy Cafe, in 2008. We have updated and reposted it here to share it with a wider audience.

Copyright 2008 Knowlan Consulting Group Inc.



  1. I love the mental movie image of my staid banker with the new tattoo.

    A couple of questions:

    What value is there in having an intangible quality (e.g., rarely experienced – Volvo, to something more ethereal – happier) made tangible so a customer has the opportunity to know they have made an excellent choice?

    Would it help in achieving strategy/brand connect to keep the brand message as simple and singular as possible? This may mean elevating the brand to a higher experiential plane(??)

  2. Good questions, but they go beyond my area of expertise. I’ve helped many clients define their value propositions, but I advise them to get help from a branding expert to transform the value proposition into “words and music” for branding.

    I like your idea of making the value proposition something that can be experienced every day. It’s possible that car manufacturers can make it part of customers’ everyday experience with cues that remind the user of safety. One example I’ve noticed is the slight ratcheting sound one hears as some anti-lock brakes go through their routine test cycle upon drive-away after start-up. It always reminds me that the anti-lock feature is there and working. But it makes my wife think she’s run over a squirrel.

    But I think you’re suggesting moving away from an intangible or rarely experience attribute and into something that is reinforced frequently. That seems to me like a very good idea.

    The same with making it simple and singular – the easier it is to understand, the better. But I stop short of trying to help clients define what words they ought to use to define their brand. The best branding experts I’ve worked with have done lots of research on how consumers interpret words. I’m always careful to remember that even though I may be a customer for my clients’ services, I am not a typical customer, and designing a value proposition or brand promise around my likes/dislikes will win only one customer – me.