© Linda Gorchels (2011)
Although many businesses carefully evaluate who will succeed existing leaders, they don’t always consider the potential impact that choice may have on the corporate brand identity. And the selection can have a profound impact on whether the brand identity continues or dies. What changes have you noticed in Wendy’s without Dave Thomas? What can Apple expect without Steve Jobs at the helm? Is Walt Disney the same company it was when its founder was alive?
Ben & Jerry’s, the Vermont-based ice cream manufacturer founded by Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield, was built on the values of innovative products and social responsibility. These values became part of its brand identity. When Unilever purchased the company in 2000, there was concern that this identity would be lost – and indeed, there were changes. Then in 2001 Unilever hired a new chief marketing officer, Walt Freese, to maintain the corporate culture. According to Advertising Age magazine, Freese was appropriate for this goal as demonstrated by his statement, “I really wanted to work for a values-driven business with a sense of social mission; that was probably the driving factor for me.”
A strong brand has a clear and unique image that stands for something important to targeted customers. Green Mountain Power Corporation has established a reputation as being an environmentally sound energy company. It actively focuses on renewable energy and publishes a sustainability report to demonstrate its environmental commitment – even while striving to maintain competitive rates. Customer communications are wrapped around an environmental message, even to the detail of printing on recycled paper. Several years ago, spruce seedlings were sent to select customers to emphasize the importance of renewing the environment. Not all customers value this approach equally, but those who do are key targets for the company.
As you begin succession planning for your corporate brand, think about who your target customers are. What is the demographic profile of the individual consumers, or the firmographic profile of the business customers? What’s important to them? What keeps them up at night? This knowledge will be necessary to help you refine and deliver your core brand promise.
Developing – and maintaining – a solid core brand is important for most organizations, but particularly so for service and business-to-business firms where the customers are buying the company as much as its products and services. Even when the existing corporate identity is not tied to a single individual, consideration should be given to how to maintain (or modify) the identity throughout management transitions. To accomplish this, existing leaders must work to establish a strong corporate culture that will withstand their departure, select a successor supportive of the culture and brand, and develop performance systems that tie to the brand.
Start by examining the values and culture that exist in your organization. Look at the culture from both an internal and external perspective. Ask yourself the following questions.
- What values does the company embody? Friendliness, speed, attention to detail, work-life balance, integrity – or lack of any of these – can be values.
- Have these values been consistent over time?
- Do you want to continue these values into the future?
- Would your customers describe the firm the same way as employees?
- Is the image as described by customers differentiated from the competition – and do customers care?
Not only is it important to assess what customers believe your values to be, but also to know what they believe those values translate to in terms of performance outcomes. Customers expect Ben & Jerry’s to be philanthropic because of its value system. They expect Walt Disney to provide family-centric offerings. They expect Southwest Airlines to be friendly because of the people-centric policies. What do customers expect from your organization? Really think about it.
- What do customers expect when doing business with your company? Be sure to include both the rational (“I expect consistent quality”) and emotional (“I want to trust you”) expectations.
- Are there implicit promises that, if not kept, would cause customers to lose trust in your firm?
To be able to keep the implicit promises mentioned above, it is useful to have appropriate standards of performance. Bill Marriott many years ago conceptualized the service quality wheel that suggested that true customer satisfaction is not attainable as a goal in that business unless employees are motivated in that direction. This implies the need for a system of training, processes and rewards that support the end-goal of customer satisfaction. Winning brands, similar to the Marriott example, are built on carefully designed business systems and processes that are part of the corporate strategy. If customer service is part of the brand promise, are there performance measures for customer responsiveness? If quality is part of the promise, is there a comprehensive quality control system in place? Consider a few more questions:
- Are customer promises aligned with internal policies and procedures?
- Is there clear responsibility and accountability for these policies and procedures?
By translating promises into standards of performance, you increase the likelihood that employees will live the brand promise – that you will be able to deliver on the promises customers believe you have made to them. An average brand becomes a great brand only when employees live its values, and when the result is ongoing customer satisfaction. A strong brand, therefore, is a deliverable promise of future customer satisfaction.
Stay true to your brand. If the brand promise is safety, deliver on safety. If the brand promise is excitement, deliver on excitement. If the brand promise is trust, deliver on trust. And be sure that any intended successor to leadership believes in the ideals and related policies that are linked to this brand delivery.