Every business lives or dies by its brand. Few owners, however, invest the time and money it takes to support their own with a thoughtful marketing strategy
By Steve McKee
Picture this scene: You're sitting in your office, getting some routine paperwork done, when the phone rings. It's your company's law firm. After exchanging a few nervous pleasantries, your attorney gets right to the point.
"I hate to tell you this, but you've been subpoenaed."
"What?! What for?"
"It's kind of complicated, and I'll get to that in a moment. But you should know it's a pretty big deal. Potentially a long and drawn-out affair, too—which will get very expensive. And it will be very public."
"Unfortunately, yes—you can expect to see yourself on TV and in the newspaper, and …"
"And if you don't handle this well, it could have dramatic and dire consequences for the company, not to mention you personally."
"Omigosh. What do we do? Where do we start? How do we get out of this?"
"All good questions, each of which we'll address in turn. But I'm going to need your attention on this one, and it's going to take a lot of your time. I can't imagine anything being more important than this."
"Neither can I. What time can you be here? I'll clear my calendar …"
Not a pretty picture, is it? But probably not too far from what might really happen if you received that type of unfortunate call. You would realize that the consequences of inaction (or an improper or unprepared reaction) would be so significant that you would be willing to invest the time and treasure necessary to properly respond.
Believe it or not, your company is already facing just that type of situation. Oh, you may not have realized it, and if that's the case you probably haven't been responding as you should. The challenge you're facing, like the one above, is complicated. It, too, has long-term implications. It's also expensive, and it's public—very public. Worse, if you're mishandling things, you're already damaging the health of your company. What is it? It's your branding program.
Don't roll your eyes. Think about it. Companies often mismanage their brands by neglect, and doing so harms their top lines, their bottom lines, and their prospects for long-term success. Just because someone hasn't dropped a bombshell on you in a breathless phone call doesn't make it any less true. Like the subtle movement of the hands of a clock, brand neglect happens slowly, almost imperceptibly, which makes it even more sinister.
What makes it so nonsensical is that your brand is the ultimate asset—or should be. Your brand, unlike a building, inventory, or furniture, fixtures, and equipment, needs never depreciate. Quite the contrary—brands can increase in value indefinitely as long as they're well-managed. Consulting firm Interbrand estimates the market value of Coca-Cola (KO)—not the secret formula, not the factories, not the trucks, but the brand alone—to be more than $70 billion. The McDonald's (MCD) brand is worth more than $33 billion. Disney (DIS), $28 billion. Your own brand is unlikely to be worth an amount that staggering, but if you ran it through the same analysis you'd find it to be worth hundreds of thousands or even millions of dollars. Isn't that an asset worth protecting?
Ask some tough questions of your branding efforts. Do you have clear objectives? Have you developed a relevant, differentiated, and credible strategic positioning? Are you faithful to that positioning in everything you do? Are you certain your tactical plan represents the best approach, and have you effectively integrated all of its elements—online, offline, in-store, etc.? Are you investing enough in the program? Are you proud of how your company is represented on TV, in the newspaper, or wherever it is you go public?
No plan is perfect, and there's sure to be room for improvement in all of these areas. If you did (heaven forbid) have to face a daunting day in court, you would never allow your legal defense to be compromised by weak strategy, inconsistent arguments, poor articulation, and lame visual aids. They don't work in the courtroom, and they won't work in the court of public opinion.
Marketing may be considered an expense on your P&L, but the brand it supports is your greatest asset. If you had to go before a jury and prove that your branding plan was smart, strategic, creative, and effective, could you? If not, you might want to consider what you're reading a call from your trusted adviser to clear your desk, make the time, and do what it takes to come out on top.