Nature and nurture: the DNA of successful brands
The contemporary ecosystem in which brands operate is so vast and complex that no brand can control every element of it. James Addlestone, chief strategy officer at Journey Further, argues that nurturing your brand with experimentation while keeping true to its natural DNA is the real secret to brand building.
Journey Further applies the nature v nurture dynamic to advertising, and questions whether the same rules apply
Your brand is the culmination of how people feel when they interact with you.
There’s a linear ‘methodology’ applied in attempts to shape those perceptions. It starts with understanding your purpose, vision, mission and values – collectively, your ‘brand compass.’ This helps you understand the people you want to interact with, and the emotions you want them to feel.
Understanding your brand compass allows you to shape your archetype and personality (the traits you want to display), your positioning (how this compares with other brands) and your identity (the tools to bring this personality to life). This ensures all experiences thereafter are briefed against these defined guidelines.
But this treats your brand like a product created on a production line. It implies there’s a logical, almost scientifically-proven method that can be applied to create a brand from start to finish.
Like humans, brands are shaped by interactions with people and other brands, as much as they shape those interactions. Products can be controlled, with a clear cause and effect. With a brand, the causal link between business decisions and customer perception is more tenuous, more unpredictable and often in reverse.
Nature and nurture in brand building
It’s impossible to predict what emotions will be evoked tomorrow by what your brand does today. Having a fixed view on how your brand should interact with customers will lead to a disparity between emotions you’re seeking to evoke, and the emotions you actually evoke.
On the flip side, changing with the wind lends itself to inauthentic populist brands, hence the rise in brands being called out for greenwashing.
The secret to brand building is understanding what elements of your brand should be fixed (I call these the ‘nature’ elements), and what elements will grow and evolve (the ‘nurture’ elements).
Typically, your purpose, mission, vision and values shouldn’t fluctuate too readily. You can validate this through data and human insight. The key is asking yourself, as a brand, what you really care about.
A lot of people argue that ‘it starts with understanding your customer.’ It doesn’t. It starts with understanding yourselves; anything else strays into populist branding. Once you’re clear about your own purpose, validate it with would-be customers.
The nurture elements of your brand – personality, visual and verbal identity, brand architecture – evolve over time and typically start with human and data insight. Successful brands recognize this.
Take Google. Its original mission, “to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful,” is as true today as it was 15 years ago. But does it have the same personality? Does it have the same identity? Of course it doesn’t. Google understands the need to adapt to the changing landscape.
Nurturing (without messing with nature)
So, how do you effectively nurture your brand while staying true to its natural DNA?
Experimentation needs to sit at the heart of brand building. Brands that test their identity on a few months of qual and quant have no firm view on how audiences will react to that identity, particularly over time. How distinctive was that identity? How strong were the memory structures? These are difficult questions to answer through ad-hoc research.
Having an approach to test in-market, in genuine decision-inducing conditions over a length of time, will build a far more accurate view (without costing much, as this testing is still marketing your brand). The secret is threading performance marketing and brand together.
It’s important to work backward from what you really want to achieve. If the goal is to evoke specific positive emotions (which you’re confident will drive brand equity), start by ensuring there’s a link between brand personality and emotions.
Humans self-reflect after a positive or negative interaction. We instinctively know whether someone bonded with us, what they thought of us and how they feel in our company. For brands, at scale, this is a lot harder but equally important. Understanding how people feel (and ideally why) about your brand’s personality and identity, as well as how that might change their interactions with you, is crucial. There’s no point perfecting delightful experiences if they don’t change customer behavior.
Developing your brand over time and over different contexts for different customers is pivotal to nurture. It is authentic to show a different version of your brand to different people – much like how you behave differently with your in-laws versus with close friends. Understanding how to nurture relationships with different people, while remaining true to your brand compass, is crucial.
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Journey Further is a performance brand agency based in Leeds, Manchester, London and New York.Find out more