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The great brand identity crisis: how to build brand value through focus and discipline

Amidst a crowded marketplace of brands aiming to establish themselves as socially- and environmentally-conscious, it can be nearly impossible to parse out authentic value. Modern brands that hope to enjoy lasting success need to build brand value at the nexus of differentiation and stakeholder expectations, writes Daniel Allocca, managing director at marketing and communications firm Prosek Partners.

“A genius is the one most like himself.” -Thelonious Monk

Famed pianist Thelonius Monk was one of the most influential founders of bebop jazz — unquestionably a genius, having learned how to read music before taking his first lesson and going on to win Amateur Night at Harlem’s Apollo Theater so many times that he was ultimately banned from entering the contest altogether. And that’s just what he accomplished by the age of 13. Ultimately, it wasn’t Monk’s exceptional abilities that brought him fame — it was his inventiveness. After all, there is no shortage of talent in this life — there is a shortage of originality.

Enter: the great brand identity crisis

The last 18 months have been like an awkward coming-of-age story for many professional services brands. We’ve seen so many brands become clones of each other, ultimately doing themselves a disservice and clouding their narrative and sense of focus.

Allow me to demonstrate my point through a quick exercise…name a professional services brand that wasn’t endlessly passionate about ESG, a champion for diversity, a proponent of the climate change agenda and just an overall advocate for all things good over the last year? Can you recall one or two of them and outline some specific steps that they’re taking? Do you remember any of it in detail? Or can you remember a purchase or financial commitment you made as a result?

If you’re like most of us, you don’t remember much of it. This isn’t because these topics don’t matter — they are in fact the greatest opportunities and responsibility of our time. But brands missed the opportunity to differentiate in a way that was authentic to their offering and in a way that met client needs and expectations.

Finding your brand’s value requires discipline

Don’t misinterpret the point here: corporations taking responsibility for the advancement of societal good is an amazing thing. Our world will be unquestionably better as a result. But as communicators and brand builders, we need to be disciplined about nailing our narrative such that we grow reputation and drive revenue through the creation of long-term brand value. The fundamentals of business and brand still apply, perhaps more than ever:

1. Differentiation. Why does our company exist? And what does our company do better than others?

2. Expectations. What do our clients need and expect from us?

At the intersection of these two points lies your economic leverage — your brand value.

Growing and protecting your brand is the same as growing and protecting your business

Whether you’re a small law firm, a hedge fund or a global investment bank, the fundamentals of brand value are the same. Brand value enables you to charge a premium above your costs for services that would otherwise not be possible with a lesser brand.

As a result, brands with high brand value maintain the greatest gross margins — as a result of pricing power — and the greatest loyalty — as a result of consistently meeting needs. Brand value is what your organization is best at and what your clients love you most for. And it should be sacred to your business; without it, you become a commodity, or worse, you might cease to exist altogether. When you deliver messages to the market that don’t enforce your brand value, you’re diluting value, by definition.

I had an MBA professor that would incessantly shout, “Don’t cut price, add value!” Like most profound nuggets of knowledge, the sentiment is short, sweet and memorable. If nothing else, obsess endlessly about enhancing the value of your brand and about how to consistently communicate this value to the marketplace.

Focus, then focus some more

Trumpeter Miles Davis once said, “Sometimes you have to play a long time to be able to play like yourself.” Finding your identity — and maintaining it amongst the forces of competition, evolving societal expectations and client needs — requires a relentless focus.

The advent of modern digital marketing — especially social media — has provided remarkable scale and targeting abilities. But it has also enabled some really poor marketing. And it has allowed many brands to too quickly lose their narrative, which is really their identity. The ability to be reactive and to move quickly has lessened much of the discipline that once existed in a slower-moving world. When print ads, TV spots and the daily news cycle were the primary way to market, brands were required to be methodical planners and to take focused bets on the future.

So, while our expansive and seemingly endless modern marketing tools are incredible enablers, we must approach them with the same traditional marketing rigor that once was. As such, evolving out of the current identity crisis cycle will require brands to set forth a long-term messaging strategy and to be intensely focused. Dare I say we need to make messaging like we used to. Slow down; your brand is meant to last years — maybe even forever — so take the time to get it right, and don’t forget to be authentic and original. After all, “a genius is the one most like himself.”

Daniel Allocca is managing director at Prosek Partners.

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