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Why marketing should not own branding

I first came across the problem of who owns branding whilst working, many years ago, as a creative lead and graphic designer. We’d get briefs into our studio which were asking us to paint an image of a brand we knew was untrue. We were asked to veneer the brand. Make it appealing. Even when the offer of what was actually on offer was not in line with that image. When we knew that there was toxic cultures within and things which might actually might leave customers worse off. This, to our horror, we would discover only after we’d been commissioned to do the project in the immersion phases of projects.

But how do we make brands authentic? Many businesses do not set out to create a fake empty brand. Many founders want to truly make a difference. Startups, I find, are usually authentic to their brand cause. When business is young and small everyone can pull in the same direction. But I find, that it’s when time goes on and the startup turns into a scale-up that mistakes are made. That is when brands truly suffer and splinter. People loose sight of why the business originally started. Founders are phased out. New leaders are brought in. Each have their own ideas and agenda. No frameworks are developed to join up thinking to the brand. Customer and employee experience can suffer. There is a disconnect. A splintering in thinking. And eventually some poor creative team unwittingly win a project where they find they are putting lipstick on a monster.

Why is this? Well I believe it comes from the strange idea that Branding should be owned by Marketing. In this post I’m going to suggest this needs rethinking.

Definition of “Brand” and “Branding”

Before we go into this in more depth I always find it helpful to get some definitions out of the way. I define “brand” as “the meaning people attach to you and your offer”. “Branding” is the “management of that meaning”.

If find this definition very helpful for businesses because it helps them think about their actions in relation to what others will think. Meaning is derived in the eyes of the beholder. In the experiences they have. It’s not what you say. It’s what they say. And they will say what they will say based on what they experience.

Leaders and “The Management of Meaning”

For me Managing meaning is something EVERYBODY in an organisation needs to take into consideration. The brand should be understood by all. Ideally it should inspire. Engage. Motivate.

For this to happen though I believe three things need to happen:

  1. Brand principles need to be defined.

  2. The brand principles need to be understood.

  3. Brand principles need to be used to make decisions.

Let’s take a brief look at each of these.

Brand principles need to be defined.

To manage meaning we need to align around what we mean. This has to be defined. So, who does the definition? For me this is a leadership question. Leaders, informed by insights, need to make a call on what their brand stands for. They need to have the vision. They have to lead the company into the future. They lead. We follow. But this definition needs to be relevant to the right audience. So work needs to be done to define that audience so the rest of the business can be designed around the ideal customer. We need to know who they are and why we’re going to make a difference in their lives. We need to know why we are different and why they should care.

This, should not be defined by Marketing. Because Marketing is all about presenting the company in the Marketplace in order, usually, to generate short-term leads that they pass to Sales to close. Branding is not just about attracting customer though. It’s about retaining them. Giving them a great experience. It should be the glue that sticks all parts of the organisation together. It should sit at the very top. On the C-suite. Now don't get me wrong, Marketing and Sales should inform the work. But they should not own it. Their work should ladder into the brand strategy. It should not drive it.

I first came across this idea years ago when I was reading “The Brand Gap” (2006) by Marty Neumeier. In this book he has a section entitled “Where are all the CBOs”? CBO = Chief Branding Officer. He writes “The growing need for internal stewardship has given rise to the appointment of what we might call chief brand officers, or CBOs - highly experienced professional who manage brand collaboration at the highest corporate level. CBOs are rare birds, because they need the ability to strategise with the chief and also inspire creativity among the the troops. In effect they must form a human bridge across the brand gap, connecting the company’s left brain with its right brain, bringing business strategy in line with customer experience. A CBO is the executive who lies awake at night thinking, “How can we build the brand”?”

I heartily agree. Brand needs to set at the top. Not be tucked away in Marketing. Branding is not a campaign. It’s now simply awareness. It is the whole end to end experience. It cuts through the traditional business silos. If this kind of work is solely owned by Marketing it is doomed to descend into nothingness. I’ve found that it only works when sponsored by leadership and is then used to *design* a whole business - from HR to EX to Culture design through to CX to Product innovation and Customer Success. This is why “branding” should not be owned solely by marketing.

The brand principles need to be understood.

Once defined, the brand needs to be understood by our people. For this to be effective we need to express our brand definition in simple terms. I recently came across an article on called “Every Brand Onion” by Tom Fishburne ( In it he states some truths: “The Brand Onion rarely passes the “Factory Floor Test” — could you share it outside of the Marketing Ivory Tower without being laughed out of the room? The strongest business communication is just plain English.” This is a classic example of what happens when a branding is only owned by Marketing.

To effectively ensure the brand is understood, activities have to be deliberately designed within an organisation to ensure people at all levels actually “get” the brand. They need to understand why it exists, why it matters and how their work contributes to that purpose. They need to appreciate the decisions they make in line with the way the brand is going to show up. This does not happen by accident. It takes training. Routine. Design. It also does not happen once and its done. It’s a constant thing. Ongoing. The employee experience (EX) needs to be reviewed and infused with brand thinking (from recruitment to ongoing development). Reward schemes need to be set up to champion and encourage the brand to live. Company and team culture needs to be designed.

Not only this but a brands performance needs to be monitored without. Not just by sales metrics but by what customers are actually saying. How they are perceiving the brand. How they experience it. Are they saying about us what we would like them to? What happens if they don’t? What mechanisms are there to help improve things? Do we need to innovate in particular areas? Are we distinctive enough in the marketplace? What is our long term position? How will we stay relevant?

So - you see how brand needs to sit at the top? It needs to fuse together culture with positioning. It needs to connect the teams focused "within" with the teams focused "without". It is an operating system for a whole business to work from. It should bring alignment and clarity to the work.

Brand principles need to be used to make decisions.

The more the business is designed around the brand the more infused “brand thinking” is within your people. If they see leaders making decisions based on the brand definition they also are inspired to do so. If they are hired because they personally align with the brands purpose and values they are likely to find this inspiring. If they understand the brand principles they can then make better decisions which are inline with the brand ethos. This is at all levels - at a leadership level, right down to people on the front line speaking or serving real customers. This takes time. Especially if an organisation has scaled without the frameworks in place. But ultimately this is the dream. People making the right decisions so our customers create the right meaning about us in their minds. A workforce which sees the relevance of all their activities which contributing to a greater purpose.

This meaning then needs to be handed to Sales and Marketing to ensure they align to it. So that they create brand awareness in a way that reflects the truth of the brand. The reality. The authentic intent. The real experience. They can use this to create a logo, some fonts and campaigns. And when they do they will do so in a joined up way with the rest of the organisation which is aligned at a leadership level on what the brand is and what it stands for.

So - who manages the brand in your organisation? Is it marketing? Is it time to lift it out of marketing and give it its own rightful seat at the top table on the C-suite? Should it be up there with your leaders? I’ll leave it to you to decide!


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