Don’t market your brand. Live it.

Here’s a familiar scenario. Your client/agency brand team has worked tirelessly to develop a new brand positioning. The consumer research backs it up. The data backs it up. The whole team gives a knockout final presentation to the CMO and she buys it 100%. She sells it to the CEO and everyone is very excited about the possibilities.

Lesley Bielby

But typically, here is what happens next. The brand positioning makes it onto a creative brief. A campaign idea is developed. At best, all agency partners collaborate to make it a multichannel, fully integrated idea that the client brand team buys. It is then produced and runs – hopefully successfully. Then the media flight ends and attention gets turned toward the next phase of the calendar year. The campaign was a success, the KPIs were moved, and the whole team goes back to the drawing board to redefine the brand positioning – so that it can inform the next campaign.

“Wait, what about the great brand positioning we just developed?” you ask. The response? “Well that was a great campaign, but we have to move onto the next.”

What went wrong?

In our industry, we talk a lot about brand ideas that extend beyond traditional media. We pitch how we collaborate to highlight points of interception along the customer journey and to convey how our ideas invite consumer engagement – not just eyeballs. Because ultimately, we strive to be agencies that truly understand consumer behaviors as well as mindsets.

But here’s the thing. A brand positioning is much more than a brand idea or an external campaign. It’s a philosophy that derives from the corporate brand purpose: that each and every person who touches the brand internally has to believe in and act upon it before anyone externally can be expected to do the same. Otherwise, it’s just another idea that comes from marketing and dies at the end of the annual media spend.

Despite the pace of change in our industry, a good brand positioning should have the potential to last a decade. “America Runs on Dunkin'” has survived multiple internal and external influences and changes. The ad campaigns have changed over the years to keep the brand relevant and to fit with the profound cultural and social changes that have taken place, including the great recession. This brand positioning is much more than a tagline. It has become the North Star of the Dunkin’ Donuts company. Everyone at our agency — and more importantly, at Dunkin’ Donuts — believes in it and lives it every day. It influences everything from product development to store design. And it is true to the brand’s past, present, and future.

This is important, because with the short average tenure of CMOs today, many brands go into a state of perpetually destructive reinvention. With consumers now officially having an attention span that is one second shorter than that of a goldfish, and with the previously unflappable, digitally-native millennials who have now become the most stressed- out generation, this can create chaos when each and every one of us is looking for clarity.

Most of us prefer to choose brands that we believe in and that share our values. The most overused term in advertising and marketing at present may be ‘purpose driven,’ but with very good reason. Purpose matters, and brand positioning is the spawn of a company’s brand purpose.

So how do we ensure our brand’s positioning is authentic and enduring?

Firstly, we need to agree that a brand is actually not created by marketing; it is created by every single person who touches the brand within, and ultimately outside, the organization. In other words, it is created, embraced, and lived by the whole company — from the CEO to the catering department — and then refined by the consumer. (A great example of this is REI’s Cannes Grand Prix-winning campaign, #OptOutside. That wasn’t a marketing idea, it was a company-wide shout-out of their brand positioning on the single biggest retail opportunity of the year. It was risky as hell, and it paid off. )

Next, we have to recognize that when it comes to brand positioning, marketing is the starting point, not the end game. Here is a suggested plan for adoption and action:

1. The CEO must take ownership. That means addressing the entire company with his/her belief in purpose-driven brand positioning and the implications for the entire organization from his or her perspective. This also means including reference to the brand positioning in all HR materials, speeches, reports, white papers, PR events, and panels.

2. The brand positioning must become omnipresent — from email signatures to hallway signage to business cards — so that everyone can easily recall it.

3. Each discipline must take the brand positioning and meet as a facilitated group to establish how their team will adopt, live, and change to match the expectations of the brand.

4. The same disciplines must present their plan, with clear and concise deliverables and action points, to other groups within the organization so that there is clarity and consistency throughout the company.

5. The company should execute an initiative to put the brand positioning into ACTION. A favorite client of mine recently gave employees time off to complete student-type jobs to raise money to help send three students to college. This was totally in line with their brand positioning, so the latter became real and doable instead of simply theoretical.

6. Measure it by making it part of annual reviews. What have you done this year to celebrate the brand positioning of our company?

Marketing is the launchpad for brand positioning, and advertising in all its forms is just the external expression. To wholly succeed, it requires more than the efforts of even the best marketing department. It requires every ear, heart, and mind in the organization to believe in it, act on it, and live it. Every day.

Lesley Bielby is chief strategy officer at Hill Holliday. She tweets @LesleyBielby

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