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Guest blog: A destination without branding is like a balance sheet without goodwill

I’ve worked almost all my life with brands so you’ll understand I’m pretty passionate about their value. There are times, however, when I wonder if the vocabulary that surrounds them is a devaluing one. As I’ll hope to explain, I believe that a corporate brand can be the most valuable strategic tool in the management toolbox. But my Twitter feed is full every day of offers to develop a brand identity for £150.

This reduction of the brand to simply an attractive badge has all kinds of repercussions. I find clients desperate to find other words for it to ensure they can defeat cynical responses within their own organisations. front of satan magazineSo instead of brand we talk about ‘identity’ or (honestly) ‘corporate essence’. We refer not to brand engagement but to ‘organisational behaviours’.  I once worked on an exciting brand engagement programme with the Open University and at times I think some academics suspected I was preaching Satanism.

I’m always tempted to argue that it doesn’t really matter what it’s called. I recognise though that this is not a very secure position for someone arguing for brands. So let me tell you what I think a brand is.

There are lots of definitions of what brands are but one of my favourites is “defining why you are, so that you become the only logical choice for what you offer.” People don’t ‘trust’ concepts and things – people trust people and we trust our friends most because we know what makes them tick – much more than because we know what they do.

So, the real question for companies and organisations becomes: do we or do we not trust the people behind the brand? Do we believe in the integrity of the organisation putting out the product or service? Do those people really believe what they say? Do they mean for their product to serve us? Have they agreed what they’re really about? Or could they just as well be in banking or insurance, because they’re only in it for the money?

That makes sense to me. In the traditional, personal sense of trust, I trust a brand because of what I believe about the people branding it. This has become much more important in a world of constant communication, peer reviews and social media. Our relationship with brands was very different when they communicated by interruption.

poster for madmen showposter for bouquet of barbed wire showGetting all of this right is a complex process but it pays dividends. Defined brand values matter – to provide a guide for everyone that works together and some consistency of expectation for everyone who might be a customer. Brands are a lot about managing expectations. If I was to tell you there’s a great play on TV tonight, the best clue I could give you to what it’s likely to be like is to tell you whether it’s on BBC1, BBC2, ITV, Channel 4, Channel 5, Sky One, or Living. Why? Because we have expectations and those expectations are driven by experience and degrees of trust.

I became involved with Welbeck because I’d worked with a lot of heritage brands and a few historic estates. There are unique challenges and opportunities when it comes to marketing historic estates. Many brands in the wider world are developed almost exclusively from a consumer viewpoint – in other words a ‘truth’ is created. With historic estates, the truth already exists and usually lies in the heritage and aspirations of a family and much of its distinction can be found in their ambitions and personality. In many ways, the family are inevitably the embodiment of any created brand so must be centrally involved in its development and be comfortable with its conclusions. Enduring values mean much more here than marketing-speak as conserving and protecting very real heritage are almost certain to play an important part.

This is all very good news for brand development as distinction is more likely to emerge from passionately-held opinion than from market-responsive craft. Brand values are much more powerful when they reflect genuine human values. An estate brand that has less personality than its owners has missed a great opportunity. The reason it often happens is because values are often taken for granted rather than articulated.

And that brings us nicely to Welbeck. Perhaps unusually, the challenge here was not about attracting a paying public. It was about finding new uses for a whole village of historic architectural treasures following the departure of the MOD Sixth Form College. As one might expect, there was no shortage of suggestions. Interestingly, most of these suggestions were conditioned with ‘as long as it’s consistent with the brand’ somewhere in a lengthy report (the wonders of cut and paste).

Fortunately the family and team at Welbeck wanted to explore this further. Together we explored what could set Welbeck apart, what relevance it could have to its community, what benefits it could offer, and crucially what enduring values it represented. This process helped to confirm that Welbeck’s historic heritage did not mean that it must become stuck in time. As one looks back to centuries of seemingly constant reinvention across the estate, the idea that you can have radical change without losing the spirit of the past seems to be the defining spirit of the place.

The process of brand development helped us define the nature of that radical change and provided the foundation of what has become the Welbeck Project. Defining a brand means searching out the different and distinctive. The process insists that what is found is credible, relevant, and enduring – and importantly rejects what is not. Certainly it helped shape our vision and we trust it will help manage your expectations – and yes, we have designed a logo.

welbeck logoA defined brand is not just about appearance. It must be a strategic tool – to define and guide organisational behaviours; to define and guide a strategic competitive advantage; to differentiate; to unite stakeholders and staff in common purpose; and to enable choice. It must of course also demonstrate a return on investment.

More background about our current guest blogger, Scott Sherrard.  Read his first post: Where do good ideas come from?

Are you interested in guest blogging for Creative Nottingham?