The Dangers of Guidance Overkill

By Matthias Höckh 

A vital part of our work as strategists is not only to develop brands but also to implement them in organizations. This is a challenging task, especially when we are dealing with large and complex organizations. One key question is always how much information is really necessary to anchor the brand in employees’ minds and hearts.

A lot of large, established companies struggle to recognize the brand’s importance. To change this, the central brand management compiles huge amounts of instructions on how to apply the brand in the employees’ daily work and toward customers. The results are often disappointing.

Complexity Hinders Implementation

I’ve seen brand models comprised of a brand purpose, a vision, a mission, different brand promises, and five (!) more elements. All is interconnected, and every business unit had additional brand dimensions that complemented the corporate brand. Brand management developed an implementation plan that required everyone to study these elements. Furthermore, concrete messages where derived, specifically given to use on certain touchpoints towards different target groups in certain situations. At the end, all (!) employees were to learn everything and live by those guidelines.

I am sure it was a hell of an effort to compile all these elements; it was all beautifully worked out; it all made sense in a mechanistic, logical sense. Sadly, this approach does not (and cannot) work in the real world.

Three reasons:

  1. It is just too much to digest. People cannot memorize those large amounts of information. Especially when it is considered as “on top” to their daily work, which is the sad reality in many large companies. All the clutter blocks the perspective on the truly important. As a result, the brand is probably not implemented at all.
  2. A brand needs to be lived by empowered employees. But too many instructions take away room to breathe, take away creativity and initiative, and lead to mechanistic learning instead of real empowerment. It is also a sign of a lack of trust. If you do not want people to act like they’re using a teleprompter, do not give them one.
  3. Flexibility is important to react to unplanned events and to cater to different requirements of various touchpoints. Like in brand design, coherence − speaking with one voice − is more important than consistency. It is not about an exact definition of what to do when toward whom, but to enable employees to act authentically and adequately. This asks for room for slight individual and subjective interpretation of the brand by its employees.

Successful Implementation Starts with a Well-Crafted Brand

My recommendation when implementing a brand: First up, concentrate on few but very strong elements to define your brand. The important thing here is that the brand model is only the basis, never the full answer, to the brand’s activities.

At MetaDesign, our brand model comprises a strong purpose, a vision, beliefs and experience characteristics, and sometimes also a dimension that describes the brand’s core expertise. When we define a brand, we try to keep it as simple and as brief as possible. Our goal is that every one of our client’s employees should know and act upon the content that is defined within these elements.

Not Everyone Needs To Know Everything

For certain tasks − for developing a communication campaign, for example − a transmission process (e.g. a creative brief) is used to translate the brand model into specific messages and so on. This is where all necessary details are worked out; this is also where creativity comes into play − where the magic happens. But: This process is only relevant to a very limited group of people in the organization, never for all of them.

The Brand Lives Through Interpretation

As said in the beginning, implementing a brand is tough. It requires a deep understanding of what is truly relevant to employees and a delicate balance between individual interpretation and a coherent brand experience.

In the end, it is the employees doing, it is their interpretation – within boundaries – what brings the brand to life, and the organization needs to empower them to act accordingly, not dictate how to behave.

Matthias Höckh is a brand strategist at MetaDesign Berlin. 

1 Response

  1. Good post! Thanks for sharing. “Our goal is that every one of our client’s employees should know and act upon the content that is defined within these elements.” I like that goal: only if all employees are aware that they play a role in creating a customer experience, true brand value can really happen. In fact you say that effective brand design is dependant on effective organisational structures and customer centricity. Can’t agree more!

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