Last week I was put on the spot when someone asked me for my views on “brand stewardship”. Apart from the fact that its like asking for my view on world peace – I could either just say “I’m in favour of it” or talk for three hours –  the term “brand stewardship” poses a question in itself.  I mean what is it?  What’s the difference between “stewardship” and “management” or “development” and, given that anything to do with a brand touches on every aspect of a business, where should I start (or end for that matter)?

Let’s begin with nomenclature.  My guess is that someone, somewhere, at some time in the past, came up with the “stewardship” concept in order to accommodate the fact that the closest we can ever get to owning a brand is in the role of minder.  But why not “management”?  I assume that this must be based on the belief that “management” sounds a bit too formal and structured for something that is very human and organic.  So far, even though I have a loathing of the terminology that marketing people think up to make themselves appear smart, but actually just confuses everybody, I can live with all of this and if I’m right, I guess I understand the question and whether you call it stewardship, management or development it’s all about caring for a brand.  I’m going to assume that a brand steward is like the steward of a golf club – he’s there to make sure processes are adhered to and everything is kept in shape but he/she doesn’t have an executive role. So, let me try to summarise my views on “brand stewardship”.

I must have explained my understanding of what a brand is hundreds of times, but to this day defining “brand” even among the “marketers” who participate, remains a critical component of most of my workshops and seminars.  Such are the vagaries and inconsistencies within the marketing business.  I view brands as communities, which, like any other is really just a group of people with something (or things) in common.  A large part of this is values and beliefs. Some members of a brand community create a product or services that reflect these beliefs and values and others buy and use them.

People buy BMW’s because Brandenbergischen Motorenwerke belive in things like quality, engineering excellence and innovation and the cars and motorcycles they produce are manifestations of that.  If you need a car and  these things are important to you, its logical that you’ll feel comfortable in the BMW community.  Similarly, Apple is all about innovation and style, so if these subjects are important to you, you’ll probably own a Mac., i-Phone or i-Pad.

These brands and others have taken the time and trouble to drive awareness of what they stand for and as a result the brands themselves have become icons for a clearly defined set of values – you have YUPPIES driving BMWs and then there’s “white van man”.  Provided the reality measures up to the promise you’ll have the reassurance of knowing what to expect from a product wearing a familiar label.  It works the other way too.  Owning a BMW or a Mac is a badge of belonging to a community – a symbol of your beliefs – and because, as Maslow revealed, most of us are insecure, sales of many products are driven by people who have a need to wear a badge denoting our belonging to a group.  Why else would we wear clothing large areas of which are taken up with advertisements for their manufacturers?

However, this is a bit simplistic.  Few people, for instance, will find a single brand community that represents everything they stand for so most of us combine a portfolio of brands to represent different aspects of our belief system.  If you think of a brand community as a residential community you’ll recognise that you choose to live in a place because it is “your kind of place” but because the brand thing is not exclusive, when you move in you bring the trappings of your other communities with you.  In this way, while joining the community may broaden your horizons, at the same time, to some extent, you’ll enrich the community with the stuff you bring with you.  That explains why brand communities are constantly changing.

All truly great brands are like Marmite. However broad and diversified your brand community may be you are never going to appeal to everyone, and you shouldn’t want to.  Brands with broad appeal are inherently weak because, along with the need to belong we also have a need to express our individuality.  That’s where quirky niche brands play their part in life’s rich tapestry.  A strong brand is normally vivid or distinctive and while stark differentiation like this means it won’t be to everyone’s taste, distinctive brands will foster deep relationships with community members (I call these “Brandships”) and strong loyalty.  These factors are the keys to sales, profit and longevity.

Difference is very often synonymous with newness.  Its relatively easy to be different when you are the new kid on the block, but the success that your newness drives will take you ever closer to becoming “the establishment”.  The more successful you become the greater the challenge of maintaining your difference becomes.  A successful brand will recognise that it is the difference of the products it makes rather than the products themselves that is responsible for their success and as their products become familiar and competitors bring look-alikes to market, they’ll find new ways of representing “difference”, just as Apple have done by constantly changing their products and introducing radical new ideas.  Of course, some new products and ideas will fail, but failure is good because it is a product of innovation, change, experimentation.  While longevity can be a valuable and reassuring asset it is important to recognise that having been around for a long time may not count for much if you’ve not changed anything about your business in all that time.

Brand stewardship in many ways is just the same as any kind of management or indeed parenthood.  Its mostly about facilitation, providing the scope, tools and resources and opening the doors to opportunity, guiding where necessary, but avoiding imposing your own values or rules on your charge.  Its about providing opportunities for discourse, listening to what your members are saying both to you and each other, providing what they need to do the things they want to do (Which also means predicting what they will need in the future), offering up suggestions and being around to fix things that go wrong.  In other words, providing access, introducing communications like on-line or social networking, fuelling and being involved in discussion, collecting insights and data, analysing it and developing products and services that because of all of this you can be confident your community will welcome and generally policing.

In order to do all of this you first of all have to be absolutely clear what the brand and its community is all about – its that values and beliefs thing again – and to do this you’ll need a methodology to help you condense, what is a complex thing into as simple a form as possible.  My Brand Discovery programme introduces such methodology and using it any business can create an eleven-element Brand Model that will sum up their brand.  But that’s just the beginning.  You then have to apply it to your business, making sure that the actions you take on every level of the organisation reflect and support the essence of your brand.  That will take a brand Steward into every corner of your business where he/she will influence pretty well everything that is done.  This can be a risky job in organisations that don’t already have a team-playing culture, which is why Brand Discovery also provides an ongoing management system that engages everyone in the organisation, gives them the tools they need to ensure that their decisions and actions are aligned to the brand promise and ensuring they are fully involved in the process of keeping your brand alive.

Good brand stewardship drives things like Cupidtino the new dating service for Apple users, Saturn’s annual owners factory tour, Yeti bikes’ bashes, Harley Davidson’s HOG chapters and many other different elements of the communities of discerning brands around the world.  Good brand stewardship is the reason why innovative organisations innovate and efficient businesses are efficient, but, as I said earlier, it’s a very big subject and this is a very simple answer.  If you want the whole nine-yards we’ll need a much longer discussion.

Michael Weaver
July 4, 2010

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