Think Tank

Taking Control of the Brand Narrative

In conversation with Kiran Khalap, Author, Teacher, Co-founder and Managing Director, Chlorophyll Brand Consultancy

Creating brands and sustaining their relevance for consumers has always been a CMO remit that that calls for the highest calibre of input. Creativity, intellect and customer insight must all come together to create brands, and their vehicles of outreach to end consumers. This is now even more complicated because in a digitally-networked consumer community, nothing can remain hidden. On top of this, brand narrative is shifting from its legal custodians (the brand managers) to multiple stakeholders, requiring processes, outreach and most of all, mindsets to change to ensure that the perennial strength of brands is protected, and the needed ‘new’ is incorporated. At an India CMO Forum session in Mumbai, IMA India asked Kiran Khalap, Founder of Chlorophyll, and one of India's leading brand practitioners, to outline the imperatives of brand creation in the digital century.

The evolving brand landscape

Brand is an intangible idea that guides business…

…and allows companies to grow their business with lower investment

A company is only a legal owner of a brand…

…but a brand’s psychological ownership rests with multiple stakeholders

A digitally connected community of stakeholders influences what a brand can and cannot do

  • Research indicates that between 1975 and 2010, intangible assets drove as much as 65-70% of the market value of S&P 500 firms.
  • A brand is an intangible idea. If managed well without changing its core values, it can not only guide the business, but can also become immortal. Some of the world’s oldest brands, such as Eternal Mewar (1,400 years old) and Weihenstephan (1,000 years old) are still relevant today.
  • Well defined brands allow companies to enter into multiple categories and grow the business at a lower cost. As a case in point, FMCG brands like Tata and Godrej have seamlessly entered the real estate market.
  • While companies may be the legal owners of brands, over time, their ‘psychological ownership’ has shifted to multiple stakeholders, including employees, shareholders, and activists.
  • This shift in ownership has taken another dimension in today’s digitally-connected world, where all stakeholders can communicate with all other stakeholders. As a result, most people trust product and brand recommendations from their friends and families more than they do a brand message.
  • Before the advent of social media and digital, the brand landscape included three stakeholders: brand owners (entrepreneurs, institutions, NGOs, religion, government), brand facilitators (channels, retailers, communication partners, suppliers) and consumers.
  • In the age of social media and digital, a new stakeholder – the ‘online community’ – has entered the landscape. The features of social media reinforce a phenomenon called ‘homophily’ – the tendency for humans to connect to and bond with people with common backgrounds, interests and values.
  • There are many case examples to highlight how stakeholders are influencing what a brand can or cannot do:
    • In 2009, Tropicana launched new packaging for its best-selling product in North America – Tropicana Pure Premium, with annual sales of over US 700 million. A few days later, consumers started criticising the new design, especially on social networks. Two months later, sales dropped by 20%, representing a loss of USD 30 million.
    • In 2010, Gap ditched its new logo after only one week, following an online backlash.
    • A new breed of socially responsible investors (SRI) makes investments after filtering for a range of social and environmental criteria. Clothing firms and retailers, including marquee names like Wal-Mart, Reebok, and Nike, have adopted codes of conduct for their suppliers as a result of pressure from such shareholders.
    • According to employee reviews on Glassdoor, grocery store chain ‘The Fresh Market’ is the worst US company to work for; in India, Quikr ranks at the bottom of the list.
    • In 2011, Unilever agreed to halt animal testing of its Lipton tea when 40,000 supporters of PETA and its affiliates around the world registered a protest on Facebook.

Sustaining brand relevance

CMOs can manage a brand’s narrative effectively by operating as brand stewards as against brand owners

Social media is a reverse tool that Marketers can leverage to get a deep understanding of their stakeholders

Marketers should think of a brand as part of an ecosystem with numerous participants…

…who should constantly be engaged

A brand should stand for a greater purpose that goes beyond the product

Using the right communication channel to drive a brand’s message maximises a marketing campaign’s outcome

Today, a brand’s behaviour is influenced by multiple stakeholders – and CMOs must therefore operate as brand stewards rather than brand owners. The key is to understand both the changing (communication, segments and products) and the unchanging (name, logo, values) aspects of every brand. CMOs must guard the unchanging aspects and manage the changing ones by leveraging social media to understand the stakeholders, inviting consumers into the brand experience, driving a purpose beyond product, and engaging stakeholders via the right communication media.

  • Use the same lens to understand stakeholders: Social media is a reversible tool that marketers can leverage to better understand their key stakeholders. Tesla CEO Elon Musk responded to a customer complaint on Twitter within 30 minutes. He made no excuses, nor did he shift the blame or responsibility to another department. Instead, he showed active listening and a bias for action by acknowledging the issue and offering a solution. McDonald’s announced a ban on of plastic straws in the UK in response to an online consumer-led campaign that targeted the company as a polluter of oceans.
  • Make the brand an ecosystem: Nike has changed the brand narrative from talking about its product to talking about the attributes – fitness, sports, a healthy lifestyle – that consumers associated with it. Nike promotes an online community of runners and athletes through its Nike Run Club and Nike Training Club apps, and documentary films like ‘Breaking 2’.
  • Shift from story-telling to ‘story-living’: Tata Mumbai Marathon introduced an ‘inspirational medal’ to honour those who inspire the finishers every step of the way. By encouraging people to share their stories of inspiration online, the campaign struck a chord with marathon runners, and gained traction organically.
  • Think 365, not 360: Rather than trying to surround consumers with 360-degree communications, a brand must build long-term platforms to become an indispensable part of people’s daily lives – such as by providing either entertainment or utility 365 days a year. The need is to shift from a ‘campaign’ to more ‘conversational’ approach.
  • Create a purpose beyond product: More and more consumers want to shop for brands that have a ‘purpose beyond product’, and which inspire social and environmental change. Jessica Alba founded Honest Company, which makes non-toxic baby products. Similarly, KIND Snacks makes snack bars from non-mashed foods, and sells them in transparent wrappers to emphasise their quality. Coupled with a campaign built around kind acts, the firm has created a successful movement attracting millions. Separately, P&G began shifting its investments so as to link its corporate brand to a higher purpose. For the 2010 Winter Olympics, it launched a campaign – ‘Proud sponsor of moms’ – to honour athletes’ mothers. This brought it USD 100 million in incremental sales, pushed up its US market share, improved its brand awareness, raised product brand recall by 30%, and achieved greater long-term equity with the target audience (mothers).
  • Use the medium the audience prefers: Marketing campaign outcomes can be maximised by using communication channels that engage the targeted audience. Snapchat is popular among millennials because it allows picture and video sharing, and then automatically deleting them after a few seconds. WWF and Snapchat teamed up to raise awareness of endangered animals through the ‘#LastSelfie’ campaign. It leveraged Snapchat’s uniquely ephemeral content format to convey the message that, just as ‘snaps’ disappear within seconds, endangered animals can also vanish in an instant. Within a week, it received 40,000 tweets and was seen by roughly 50% of active Twitter users.