As we’re all aware, the digital age has given us the ability to reach an enormous audience quickly and more frequently. Through RSS feeds, Twitter, and the older standbys of e-mail and Web sites, a world’s worth of consumers has become a viable, and fairly instantaneous, target. But while these digital devices have made it far easier to communicate, they fail in one critical respect. They have not made it any easier to decide what to say, or how to say it clearly. Another way to put it: More brands and more people are mumbling their messages in more ways than ever—but mumbling more or mumbling louder is no way to get noticed.
Let me shrink this dynamic down to a more personal level for a moment. Imagine this: You’re at a cocktail party. You fall into conversation with someone who asks you what your company does—why it’s different from your competitors. Quick now: Do you have a crisp, ready reply? Here’s another question: How many of your colleagues would have one? If the answers are “no” and “not many,” listen up: Before you can communicate on a mass level, you need to be clear on an individual basis.
Hopefully, these truths are self-evident. Your company’s productivity and effectiveness depends on a common understanding of goals, customers, capabilities and responsibilities. That’s been the case for a long time. What’s become more critical, in this age of competing messages, is the mandate to develop and communicate a clear, differentiated brand narrative—the “brand story” that defines exactly what your company stands for.
What complicates the issue is that the “story” cannot be a pure marketing effort. It must paint a clear vision of where the company is headed, based on true intent, and be synchronized with actual company strategy. All too often, the marketing team takes the rap for poor execution when in fact the company proper has failed to take the time to do the critical thinking, get everyone to understand it—or both.
A well-crafted and synchronized story can transform motion into progress. One of the most obvious symptoms of dysfunction is an organization that just spins its wheels. Everyone is working hard, but the brand is going nowhere. This sort of problem happens all too easily. Usually, the culture is misaligned, with employees working furiously to solve isolated problems at the expense of a larger, common goal. A clear brand narrative is essential to solving this problem. It spells out what the company is trying to achieve and articulates the values and behaviors that support the brand.
Here’s an example of what I’m talking about. Five years ago I joined a company called Computer Associates. It was a proud company but a troubled one, too. Both internally and externally, people were confused about what the company simply was. CA needed a brand story, and after a while we came up with one. We looked at the biggest headache IT managers faced: the challenge of managing IT environments that had grown extraordinarily complex. So from that point on, we decided that our aim would be to tame that environment, to unify and simplify IT management. That became our story. And it then enabled employees to make decisions that moved the brand forward.
Perhaps, in the past, a company might have been able to manage without this kind of clarity of purpose, but that’s impossible now. Customers are hearing about your brand from many different sources. Analysts, competitors, media, bloggers—all have plenty to say. Obviously, you can’t control the conversation, but a crisp, clear brand story, told by you, can shape that buzz and influence it. Let’s not forget that your own people are, via social networks, participating in all this chatter, too. They’re talking up the company. It’s critical that they say the right things and say them consistently. Once they do, all that other mumbling the consumers hear won’t be as loud or as clear as the one message that truly matters—your own.
Donald Friedman is principal at branding and marketing consultancy Sequel. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.