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Solving the Impossible: Systematizing Brand Management – Part 2
Looking at Brand Management as a system isn’t a simple idea, so we’ve broken it up. Part One set the stage for why we think we are living through an immense moment of change. I described the profound impact the technology revolution is having on marketers now. With rapidly expanding computing power, data, and channels for communication, the complexity of marketing is expanding at orders of magnitude faster than ever before imagined.
To approach the problem of scaling marketing at the rate of technology to address the increasing complexity, we have to take a page out of the P&G brand management playbook, Rising Tide: Lessons from 165 Years of Brand Building at Procter & Gamble. It points out how “P&G recognized that building brands is not exclusively or even primarily a marketing activity. Rather it is a systems problem.” This is fundamental. When you’re dealing with a huge amount of change and complexity as tempting as it is to answer the question with a one off solution, the systemic path is always more powerful. This is where we have to start in solving the challenge of rethinking marketing for this new age.
Every system needs an operating framework, and here I believe P&G was pretty aligned with our pyramid. Their ultimate goal was to build a discipline that could help create, grow, and nurture brands in a constantly improving manner. To get there, though, they realized they needed to commit to a series of organizational changes.
“What remained essential, however, was the ability to integrate [R&D, campaign management, and market research] into a single, organic brand-building process.” – Rising Tide: Lessons from 165 Years of Brand Building at Procter & Gamble
The first step in any systemic change is centralization. To build the modern System of Record we need to look across the broad range of marketing activities and think about how we pull them together under a single umbrella. This gives us a platform for visibility, better collaboration, and all the other steps of the pyramid that sit above. Brand management did this by pulling together the departments that had emerged over the 20 or 30 years prior. Today we have software to help do this and the challenge is to find a way to find the common elements and workflows of all these different marketing activities so we can put a system in place to better manage them.
One important point about centralization is that it doesn’t mean that we should move to a model where one person or group is responsible for creating or approving everything. Because of the power of software and the internet, we can centralize our activities within a decentralized organization while still letting the individual regions have their freedom.
One way to think about this is to look at how global marketing has evolved over the years. For those familiar with The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People this should also look familiar. Brands started out with a dependent model: Each region was expected to just put out what they were distributing to them. From there the reaction was mostly to move to an independent model: Regions got annoyed with their lack of freedom and just started doing whatever they wanted. We mostly didn’t know about it until digital and specifically social came along and the off-brand marketing sat front and center. Finally we need to move to an interdependent model. That’s one where information can move both up to global, down to the regions, or between the regions. This is obviously much more flexible, as everyone has access to everyone else. What’s more, although this model looks a lot more complex, it’s actually more simple if you measure the number of jumps a piece of information needs to make as it moves through the organization. Only software can truly allow for this model.
“[Brand managers were] responsible for the coordination of all activities involving their brand.” – Rising Tide: Lessons from 165 Years of Brand Building at Procter & Gamble
Since this is a pyramid, each layer requires the layer below it to exist. To streamline the activities of an organization you must first centralize those activities, just as marketers did with brand management. From there you can start to ask questions about how to allow for better communication and coordination between all the various departments, partners, systems, and channels that a marketing organization communicates with and through.
For modern organizations we can break these into two primary buckets: Systems/channels and agencies/people. The former represents all the systems that an organization uses to manage itself. Today those systems are software-based, but in P&G’s day they were paper. How do we streamline the coordination of the marketing by making it easy to work with those systems and the proper time and in the easiest way? On the channel side this is even easier to understand as we are seeing an increasing number of marketing channels that we can distribute to programatically. While that work gets a bad name for serving remnant banner ads, it actually speaks to a future where every marketing channel is a software system a brand can distribute to directly and get fed back results instantly. Platforms like Facebook or digital display are obviously all over this already, but if you look around you’ll find a number of companies also working on this problem for non-digital channels like radio and television.
On the other side you have people and partners (mostly agencies). Here the question is how to streamline the way people collaborate and interact with better workflows. One useful model for thinking about this type of streamlining is to think about the difference between process and project management. Process management is a way to ensure that the same outcome is always delivered, while project management is a structure for supporting activities where the outcome is meant to be different every time. If we think about different divisions within a company and tried to chart them on a process/project continuum you would have a discipline like finance and HR (the paperwork and benefits side) on the far left and departments like marketing and IT on the far right. To think about how to streamline all these activities we must understand where they sit on this continuum and for those that sit on the project side, we must understand their component processes and map those to systems.
When it all comes together you have a system in place that can streamline the coordination and collaboration of all marketing activities across partners, departments, systems, and channels, just as P&G did 80 years ago.
“The concern of these managers would be the brand, which would be marketed as if it were a separate business. In this way the qualities of every brand would be distinguished from those of every other.” – American Business, 1920-200: How It Worked
This time was basically the birth of brands. While they had existed before the assembly line, mass production really made the idea a reality and a number of innovations, like the supermarket, followed suit. The job of the brand manager was to govern both the quality of the product (the idea of consistent quality products was a very new idea), as well as governing the elements of the brand to help ensure consistency and relevance.
Some 80 years later governance is still top of mind for every marketer. A company’s brand is generally it’s most valuable asset and ensuring that asset is protected is job number one for a modern marketer. As we think about brand governance we’ve got to start with what gets governed and how you make that happen. While many organizations focus on building plans and guidelines that ensure that specific rules are followed, it’s more powerful to instead think about the components that make up those plans and guidelines and how the new system of brand management can work to govern those components individually. The point of this is to eliminate complexity in the system by decoupling the components as much as possible. Put in non-CompSci terms: It’s a lot easier to make sure things work the way you intended when you can isolate the elements and enforce the rules at that level.
The most simple metaphor here is blueprints versus building blocks. While the former is hugely important, it can only be used to build one house. Building blocks on the other hand are the nails, wood, doors, and other components that go into construction and can be used to make anything from a bookcase to an apartment building.
For brands we’ve isolated four key building blocks that every piece of communication must ultimately be aligned with: The brand itself (represented by its visual identity, voice, and key pillars amongst other things), the audience it’s communicating with, the channels its communicating across, and finally the objective it’s trying to achieve with its communications. Not surprisingly this is aligned with classic models of how communications functions. Communication theorist Howard Laswell described the model as “Who (says) What (to) Whom (in) What Channel (with) What Effect?” Whatever model we use, the point here is that to effectively govern the work against that model we must isolate its component parts.
“[Brand managers should] examine carefully the combination of effort that seems to be clicking and try to apply this same treatment to other territories that are comparable.” – Neil McElroy, “Brand Man Memo” (1931)
Analyze provides a good moment to speak to the power of the pyramid structure. Without the three layers beneath it, analysis is all but impossible. In order to be set up to properly analyze we must have centralized functions, streamlined the process they use to work together, and governed their outputs against the building blocks of the brand and company. If we have missed any of these components we either won’t have the data we need to drive deeper meaning or it won’t be worth anything because it doesn’t align with the broader goals of the organization. In order to build an organize that is constantly improving we must be able to analyze the success, and lack thereof, of all the work being done.
When I think about data and analysis I like to break the idea down into two separate functions: Reporting on one side is about delivering data, while analysis on the other is about taking that data and using it to draw context or conclusions. The latter, quite obviously, is more valuable than the former though it couldn’t exist without the data to work off in the first place.
As we think about how we analyze the success of marketing, lots has changed and lots has stayed the same. While digital has provided us some abilities we never had in the past, specifically the opportunity for perfect attribution on digital sales, the stuff people buy in stores is still nearly impossible to tie back to a specific brand message or campaign. Marketers have developed much more complex systems for doing media mix modeling that get us much closer, however, and ultimately speak to the value of being able to isolate as many elements as possible to drive success. Like we discussed with governance, the key here is about isolating elements that went into the final product so we can not only understand what worked and didn’t in the final delivery of the marketing, but we can also start to isolate the brand elements, people, and even processes that drove that success. By understanding both the effectiveness of the final product and the resources that went into creating it, we can actually use analysis to drive change and further success on a local, regional, and global level.
“It was the company’s commitment to brand management, in the end, that enabled P&G to ride out the shift in market currents while keeping its strategic bearings.” – Rising Tide: Lessons from 165 Years of Brand Building at Procter & Gamble
We have finally reached the top of the pyramid. Improve is ultimately the sum total of the layers that sit beneath it. Just as I explained the advantage of being able to measure both effectiveness and resources in the same place, the beauty of a system is that it is able to get better by constantly feeding itself with information about what’s working and what’s not.
Thankfully there’s a whole field of engineering focused on how systems function and why they work the way they do. Control theory describes the way dynamic systems work. Every large organization (and small one for that matter) is dynamic, and therefore this provides a nice model for understand why they work and why they don’t. A core concept in control theory is open-loop versus closed-loop and the concept is relatively simple: An open loop system is one where information isn’t fed back into the system as it’s learned, while a closed-loop system captures that information and delivers it back constantly.
A simple example is to think about your heater at home. If you live in an old apartment in NYC you probably have a creaky old radiator that sometimes sounds like there are people inside it with wrenches. When you turn it on (if you have that option), it blasts heat out with little concern for the temperature you’re actually looking to achieve. When it gets too hot the system doesn’t turn itself off, it relies on you to do so (or, if you’re in one of those apartments where you can’t, that’s when you open the window in February). Modern heating and air conditioning systems, on the other hand, are closed loop systems: You turn them on and set the temperature, they pump out warm air until the thermometer in the system recognizes that you’ve reached your desired heat, and then shuts down the system to maintain that level.
Software, of course, helps solve this challenge in a very scalable way. Whereas when brand management was first implemented there were people and processes for ensuring that information was reported back, databases and software make this information immediately accessible and internet makes it available globally. This allows us to move from hoping that the loop gets closed, to ensuring it does, allowing organizations to be more effective and agile marketers who are better set up for the complex world of modern marketing.