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Gap’s demise is a warning to any CMO who says ‘the customer is in control of my brand’

How can you take back control of your brand?

It’s time for marketers to take back control, warns Sid McGrath, chief strategy officer at Wunderman Thompson.

The sad news that Gap has shuttered all of its UK stores serves to highlight just how much the retail world has changed. Many of us remember how, in its heyday, Gap ploughed budgets into bold TV campaigns and ground-breaking creative to wide acclaim.

It was indeed a simpler world back then.

But, that said, the root problem behind the death of any brand is, more often than not, fractured brand syndrome. The sheer quantity of communication channels, touchpoints, data points and routes to market today means that brands have become sliced and diced, diluted and lost; sometimes to the point where there is nothing left.

And, with today’s retailers forced to navigate enormous, and continually expanding, marketing ecosystems, it is increasingly difficult to communicate a brand coherently. This complexity has resulted in unparalleled confusion for the customer too. In a recent survey we found that only around one third (34%) of customers felt the connections between the different parts of a brand were consistent.

This fracturing has also been exacerbated by the often siloed nature of teams whereby chief marketers, chief technology officers, chief information officers, chief digital officers and chief experience officers are not only all trying to run the same brand, they’re often competing for the same budget or share of the chief exec and chief financial officer’s attention. What’s more, with the average consumer receiving thousands of marketing messages a day, all too often there is an enormous gap between what marketers think about their brand experience and what end users think.

This lack of consistency and control spells bad news.

In order to take back ownership of brand strategy, and to rectify weakening brand perception, it is important to identify the major pain points. Chances are there will be some. And while the term fragmentation may imply that it’s easy to put the brand back together again, like the pieces of a jigsaw, fracturing is more like a window shattering: a myriad of fault lines occur that end up corrupting what the brand stands for.

Indeed, our survey showed that, in the grocery sector, for instance, only 20% of customers felt the connections between the different parts of a brand across different channels or the buying journey were consistent. Rarely is sufficient time spent in ensuring that employees know why the brand exists and how it operates. What this adds up to is a loss of control for marketing as it struggles to stay in charge of the brand – probably the single most valuable asset on the balance sheet.

Over the years, I’ve also lost count of the times I’ve heard clients say, ‘My brand is too complex to be simple.’ And if I could find the person who first said, ‘You don’t own your brand, your customer does,’ I’d buy them a drink for somehow getting away with the biggest amount of nonsense ever uttered. You, the person charged with the responsibility of presenting your brand in the best light possible – its features, benefits, differentiators and distinctive assets – are not in charge of it? The people that buy your brand are? The people who, deep down, really don’t care that much about your brand as long as it does what it says it will? This statement implies a huge abdication of responsibility.

Marketers have to be in control of their brands. That’s their job.

The answer to all this lies in whole brand thinking. To create unity and consistency – something consumers instinctively seek from the world around them – what’s really needed, first and foremost, is something called a ‘single brand view’. For years we’ve been obsessed by the ‘single customer view’; an attempt to understand who buys the brand, the journey they take, their motivations and how to best influence them. But it’s vitally important to be as obsessed with the brand as we are about the customer.

This single brand view has to sit at the epicenter of experience. It’s how we wish the brand to be witnessed, considered and engaged with.

The first step may also be as simple as admitting there is a problem, and then trying to identify where that problem exists. It’s likely that there is a difference between what you might believe is the intended experience and consistency of the brand and the actual experience. Doing a whole brand gap analysis gives you a clear sense of where you need to focus your efforts. It may sound old school, but to do this it’s always good to actually speak to people.

With all that in mind, here is a four-point survival guide:

  • Identify the brand owner – ideally one person or entity acts as the brand owner to understand, monitor and ensure its correct expression.

  • Audit the difference between what you think the brand is delivering and what the customer actually is experiencing.

  • Consider how you want your brand to be understood and experienced, because you need to lead customers, not be led by them. And deliver this brand experience as obsessively as you believe you need to deliver the customer experience.

  • Put the single brand view – this brand truth – at the epicenter of your thinking and scope out a whole brand blueprint that acts as both marketing plan and investment case for the work you need to do to bring clarity and consistency.

Alternatively, of course, you could decide the customer controls your brand, and assume that it’s their job, not yours.

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