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3 signs of poor brand management in the digital age

Matthew Loebman
3 signs of poor brand management in the digital age Matthew Loebman

Behind every great brand, there is a strong, visionary leader. Take the usual suspects: Mark Zuckerberg at Facebook, Jeff Bezos at Amazon, and of course, Steve Jobs at Apple. All three are strong leaders who have crafted the enduring experiences that bring their creative visions to life. We live in the world they create for us, and pay good money to do so. But if their bold and beautiful branding is a sign of managerial geniuses at work, is the reverse true? Do weak brands signal weak management?

Without naming (too many) names, let's look at the usual symptoms of managers that are unwilling or unable to effectively manage their company's identity in the digital age. By avoiding these common management minefields, we can build brands that maximize their promises and reach their potential.

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Profit without purpose
A leader's failure to define an organization's unique essential value to the world -- beyond the usual mission statement mumbo jumbo -- is a warning sign of a brand that will quickly become irrelevant to its audiences.

Read the following product launch description: "We share data-driven ecologies by harnessing RSS-capable wikis and integrating social communities." 

Quick, check your product launch press release. Is that your company's pitch? It isn't, but it could be. I created it -- and you can create something similar -- with the "Web 2.0 Jargon Generator."

The problem with this jargon-laden product description is that it only expresses the "me-too" technical elements of what your brand does in the digital space. These expressions of value fail because they use bland, innocuous words like "solution," "platform," and "ecologies" -- generic terms easily matched by the competition. This description says nothing of what is special about the organization's people, products, philosophy, or process -- the elements of the brand that customers flock to embrace.

When a leader can't define a unique point of view in how his or her organization fits into the digital landscape, the brand will inherently be weak, and the experiences that define that brand will suffer.

Take Google's purpose: "To organize the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful." This language clearly and compellingly tells the world why it needs Google, what value Google brings to the world, and how Google is different from every other organization on the planet. With a complete understanding of its purpose, consumers can anticipate what their relationship with Google will be, both now and in the future. As long as it sticks to its mission and doesn't do anything "off-brand," Google will always be relevant whether we interact with the brand on- or offline in the future. All of this meaning, derived from one simple sentence as expressed by two strong leaders: Sergey Brin and Larry Page.

Decisions without deciders
Including too many opinions in the decision-making process around your digital marketing effort can create a political battleground. To maintain your relevance and respond in a market that changes not by the week, but by the second with speed and relevant action, decisive decisions need to come from the top.

These days, the idea of decision making ruled from the top down may sound like an anachronistic relic of a bygone era. Most branding advice in the digital world recommends opening the doors of the conference room to the whole company or, better yet, crowd-sourcing a solution to the long tail of collaborating consumer contributors. And there is a place for the contributions of the crowd, but the core branding decisions aren't really one of them.

When everyone's opinion matters equally, and the leader's goal is harmony and not excellence, opportunities will pass by. I have sat in too many boardrooms watching leadership earnestly soliciting feedback from an entire executive team only to hear later that they feel paralyzed by the number of conflicting ideas on the table to consider. When no one can make a decision, valuable time passes as the organization's brand fades into obscurity.

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For example, Reader's Digest sits in the graveyard of brands that have almost universal awareness, but are no longer relevant. Reader's Digest was the original content aggregator, the original blog. Bogged down by the management's inability to pivot off of a direct mail/print business model, the original content aggregator wasn't nimble enough to compete in the digital age. Where there should have been a willingness to embrace new platforms and expand the brands connection with readers, there was only resistance, leading to the inevitable.

A good manager must accept the mantle of digital leadership, both its responsibilities and its risks, listen to all counsel offered, weigh alternative scenarios, and then make an unambiguous decision and stand by it. Remember: Digital dithering results in dysfunctional brands.

Fear of the unknown
When leaders are fearful of being creative with their image, they fail to provoke emotional reactions. Sure, real provocative creativity is risky, but it's the kind of risk that only a gutsy leader can take. Without these moments of risk, your brand can never reap the rewards of deeper connections with your target audience base. 

Take inspiration from the tried and true examples of Burger King's "Subservient Chicken" and Blendtec's "Will It Blend?" Did these brands know that their digital marketing efforts were going to become huge viral hits when they launched them? I don't think so. But they took a risk, and in hindsight these look like genius ideas, where, in fact, they were just calculated risks. More than anything, Burger King and Blendtec's ability to provoke a reaction and get noticed was a roll of the dice.

I've seen other brands slow down their adoption of new creative solutions to the pace of a crawl because of fear, and what do they do to reassure themselves and cover their behinds? Research.

Don't get me wrong, foundation research can give you some real brand perspective, but round upon round of qualitative and quantitative market surveys will do nothing but strip the life out of a quirky creative idea. Instead of trusting anonymous panel participants and unemployed survey clickers, sometimes a strong leader needs to trust his digital gut and take the creative plunge.

So what can you take away from this diatribe on the importance of strong leadership?

1. Take a stand: when you define your value beyond the usual jargon, your customers can embrace your brand experience
2. Make singular decisions: Avoid missing the bus by pursuing universal consensus
3. Take creative risks: If you want a big reward, be prepared to go with your gut.

These are just a few lessons to be learned about the interplay of digital leadership and brand-building. If there is more you would like to add, I would love to hear from you in the comments, or you can reach me directly at [email protected]. Don't be shy (see lessons 1, 2, and 3).

Matthew Loebman is a strategist for Siegel+Gale.

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