A CEO’s Guide To Masterbrand Building

It should be clear by now that the CEO is the flag bearer not only of the company, but of the brands of that company as well. During the past ten years, it has also become clear that companies that become masterbrands carry the most leverage and firepower into the marketplace when they do battle with competitors.

The following are some suggested questions CEOs can ask of their people to prepare for the development of a masterbrand, and some specific actions they might consider taking to bring the masterbrand to life in their organizations. (The following is based on The Masterbrand Mandate by Lynn B. Upshaw and Earl L. Taylor, John Wiley & Sons, 2000).

Questions To Consider:

  • How important is brand building to your company’s overall mission? Do all the key players use the same definition for the term “brand”? Is brand building considered central to the welfare of your organization, or is it seen as one of several important sectors of the business.
  • Is it clear what your company-wide masterbrand is all about? What is the “essence” of the masterbrand, your company’s core competencies, values and disciplines? What proprietary benefits does it offer each of your supporter groups? Why is it superior to alternatives, and what does it mean for your entire company to be lived as a single brand? What is the value proposition that underlies your brand community?
  • Are marketing and customer service still relegated to functions, departments or groups of “outward-facing” employees, or are they literally wired into every aspect of your transparent organization? Are you using an intranet merely to save paper on company newsletters, or are you actively managing it as the essential tool of masterbrand building that it is, informing and involving employees within the context of the masterbrand value proposition?
  • How well are you measuring not only the “trailing indicators” of improved financial performance, but also the cost and time savings created by your use of the Internet? Can you identify—and do you reward—those responsible?
  • Are you employing the Internet and other communications technologies only to strengthen one-way or exclusive relationships with selected customers and suppliers? Or, are you (also) creating online “ecosystems” that link you to multiple potential customers and intermediaries?1 Do potential customers actively seek you out, as well as by other organizations that want to partner with you? (Does your better mousetrap catch mice and attract cheese salespersons?)
  • Do you still view relations with customers and intermediaries as a “zero sum game” (their gains being your losses), or do you operate within a brand community that collectively creates and equitably distributes value for all members? Are you willing to bend over backwards and turn inside out to serve your customers and other brand community members? Are you using the Internet merely as one more channel to promote “your” proprietary brand or have you begun to create and interactivate a masterbrand that can be owned collectively by a true brand community, whether online or off?
  • Do you have an active, explicit commitment to, and strategy for, creating value not only for customers but also for the suppliers and intermediaries who are part of your brand community? Are you as open to converting competitors into allies as you are in beating them at their own (old) game? Have you created an extranet capability that allows you to protect proprietary information behind a sturdy firewall, but still permits allies/competitors to interact productively with the organization? Do all members of your brand community know and live the brand promise that aligns them in their values and actions, allowing them to create value through and for each other?
  • What is the quality and frequency of dialogues between employees and customers, and employees and other members of your community, using available online tools? The only situation worse than failing to capitalize on the enormous potential of interactive vehicles is failing to use them to their full potential. What potential brand building channel is not being pursued, or only with limited enthusiasm. What effects are those shortcomings having on the business, both current and potential?
  • Is there a communications and operational structure available to support an internal marketing program? Are there existing interdivisional groups that could be employed to encourage the commitment of your employee-partners on the new directions for your masterbrand? Are there communications channels that are open and free-flowing, which could be used to create grass-roots marketing efforts?
  • Are individual groups, team, and divisions within your company working toward a brand-oriented goal, or are brand issues low on their priority lists? Do they see the strengthening of the masterbrand as a vital step toward gaining a stronger foothold in the marketplace, or basically someone else’s problem? Do they see the link between how a company is organized and how a brand is “lived” by the company’s people?
  • Are the roles and duties of your brand builders clearly delineated within the organization, and do they extend well beyond the marketing teams? Have the terms “brand champion” or “brand coach” ever been spoken in the halls of your company? If so, have they referred only to those responsible for individual product and service brands, and not the company-wide masterbrand? Is it assumed that those individuals must have marketing backgrounds? Does a brand council exist, i.e., an interdisciplinary group of decision-makers from around the company? Are those roles possible to create, or would they generate resistance from others?
  • Is the current brand architecture within the company (intentionally or not) promoting cooperation, or less-than-healthy competition? What is the relationship between the company-wide brand and individual product/service brands? Is there a firm, but flexible strategic plan for how these two sets of brand should synergistically work with one another to build total company business? How are decisions made about the role the parent and individual brand should play? How are marketing support funds allocated to each? When a new brand is introduced, what is the process for determining how it will be supported and positioned relative to the overall company-wide brand?
  • What information do you have or offer customers that currently appears to give your company a competitive advantage in specific markets? What is the value to your customers of this information? Who “owns” this information and how does it create value for you and your customers? Is it “proprietary” and valuable only if you maintain exclusive ownership (zero sum game), or does its value to you and customers alike grow the more it is used and shared by your brand community and others (including competitors)? How was this information created and what value do you add to this process? In what way(s) has this information “obsoleted” preceding products and services? Who drove this process? How are you viewed by customers, allies and competitors as a result of your role in this process?

Actions To Consider

  • If some or all of the above questions ring true, what are the appropriate actions for CEOs and their staffs to consider in order to create the strongest possible masterbrand community? Here are some starting points:
  • Appoint a marketing-led, multidiscipline team to accelerate the creation of a working online masterbrand community. It is important that this team be led by marketing so that the needs of the masterbrand remain paramount, and to ensure that the customer’s needs are equally adhered to. This group, if fully endorsed by management and cooperatively supported by others in your company, may also determine how quickly you can move operations online, and which areas of your company should commit first.
  • Establish a firm, but realistic timetable for your company to be fully committed to its online business. From backroom ordering and distribution to customer service and relationship building, your company must be online and fully prepared to capitalize on its potential, or fall behind at an exponential rate. Consider what strategic alliances might be useful in constructing a fully robust online community. Gauge the masterbrand ramifications to your business if you were not to fully engage an online model, set next to the risks involved in changing what may be a successful current operating model.
  • Launch a full best practices study to determine the degree to which your company is keeping up with the online capabilities of similar companies. It should not take long to discover what other, non-competing, firms are accomplishing online, and how those practices are creating stronger masterbrand companies. If it does not already exist, proclaim yourself the founder of a cross-industry best practices group, and establish formal dialogue with non-competing companies facing similar challenges.
  • If your company has successfully created a brand community, search various components of the community to determine which are most likely to respond to fully robust interactive initiatives. Are your distributors willing to invest in online marketing and selling facilities to make your community more efficient? Are your customers willing to go online to expand their information about your products and services, and to participate in brand community-sponsored activities? Sit down with your best thinkers and envision what the ideal brand community would look like if all interactive channels were fully employed, then use that as your target model.
  • If your company is not yet at the hub of a healthy online brand community, reach consensus about how augmenting online capabilities could bring your vision to reality. Frequent, relevant communication is at the core of any thriving brand community. Design creative online communications vehicles that could pull your community members together, and help them to become more familiar with your masterbrand, and its constituencies. Interactivating your masterbrand means engaging your customer in a dialogue.
  • Allow, encourage and assist customers themselves to create opportunities to interact among themselves and with the suppliers and intermediaries that make up your wider brand community. Don’t just offer customized home pages or “eavesdrop” on prospects who browse your Web site, surreptitiously building up a series of “one-to-one” marketing databases. Similarly, don’t just use traditional market research to target customers in (clay) pigeonholes.
  • Assemble one or more cross-functional teams to “reverse engineer” the internal links in your value chain to see how they might be re-assembled and deployed as masterbrand assets. A masterbrand has to be sold on itself before it can sell others and create a brand community. Here are some of the ways you might begin to grow the seed crystals of your transparent organization into a brand.comm.
    • Identify all current and potential points of contact between employees and your customers, intermediaries and trade allies. Don’t limit yourself to points of contact related primarily to marketing and sales, fulfillment or customer service. Look for informal and “unofficial” ones, as well.
    • Determine the ways these contacts project impressions of your organization—outward to potential customers and intermediaries and inward to employees.
    • Select a manageable few such points of contact to assess their potential to become masterbranding leverage points.
    • Avoid “digitizing bad habits,” turning a boring internal newsletter or parts catalog into their online equivalents. Brochureware destroys fine minds.
    • Analyze the ways customers and others can or could use your extranet and other windows into your transparent organization. Can they see your masterbrand at work and want to join in? Or will they end up merely window shopping? Can they do so without divulging their proprietary information, or learning yours?
  • As you develop metrics with which to measure the impact of the Internet on your organization, and as you begin to hire, train and reward employees who can move these metrics, make sure you are measuring the right things. The most important value of the Internet is not in saving time and money doing traditional marketing and customer service, but rather in creating “critical mass” within a brand community, fueling a value chain reaction. An online brand community or brand.comm is to marketing and customer service what hypertext is to conventional information storage and retrieval.
  • Reconsider how you reward employees, given the new realities of the Internet age. To find, hire, and hold the kind of employees you need, you can use the creation of a brand.comm as, in some measure, its own reward. Don’t just offer financial incentives to identify and implement cost savings; “pay” employees the respect and recognition they deserve as good brand community builders. That means, among other things, ensuring that they are always made aware of masterbrand and community-wide victories.
  • Conduct internal research among a representative sample of your people to determine their understanding of brands, and how that understanding might be affecting your company-wide approach to brand building. This could include a series of conversations (one-on-ones or focus groups) with key “listening post” employees who have their pulse on what’s happening in the organization at various levels. Or, it may involve a full quantitative study with statistically projectible findings, possibly in conjunction with research into other HR or related questions, or as an add-on to quantitative research conducted outside the organization.
  • Audit your communications channels to determine if their scope and penetration is sufficient to shoulder the burden of a major internal marketing program. Review all types of communications, both formal and informal, offline (house organs, memos, planning documents) and online (email, intranet, extranet) channels. Is there a consistency to how the company is portrayed, and can that be translated into a more brand-oriented set of communications? Are the communications robust enough to rally your people around the masterbrand – not just as their employer – and as a dynamic player in the marketplace of competing brands?
  • Construct an internal marketing plan that is as productive and cost effective as the company’s external marketing programs. This will be your roadmap for transforming your organization into a masterbrand. As with an external marketing plan, this should be a living document that is continuously reviewed, discussed, and improved over time. This will require an internal marketing plan that is every bit as rigorous as that which is used externally. (If you are not convinced that your external marketing planning is optimum, this is a good opportunity to construct the right kind of planning model for your entire brand community).
  • Establish a clear set of brand-related roles, duties and reporting relationships. Create a brand culture by appointing as many people as possible to brand-related roles. Seek to build a lean, but effective group of brand leaders who will work cooperatively with one another and the CEO to ensure that the company-wide brand is well-served inside and outside of the organization. Select individuals who have not necessarily been formally trained in brand marketing, but who have an aptitude for the discipline.
  • Help The Customer Manage The Brand Community – With the onset of mainstream customer interactivity and mass customization, customers expect to participate in the marketing directed at them, and that’s generally helpful. As long as it does not overly burden us as customers, we want to be co-creators of that which we seek to buy. Brand building is a collaborative process, and as a collaborator, they can provide feedback about the masterbrand, offer suggestions for improving its performance, and develop a greater sense of ownership as a result.
  • Representatives of brand teams should create a pan-divisional, multi-disciplinary brand council to work with corporate staffs to: 1) fully analyze and assess the status of the enterprise-wide masterbrand among its customers and constituencies; and 2) to determine where key customer needs, drivers of choice, and individual brand priorities might overlap. At the end of this process, the team members should begin to see some advantages to bolstering the masterbrand, assuming that it has not already been extended to its full potential.
  • If your company has already created a multi-disciplinary team to spearhead brand-driven initiatives, make use of that team to direct the community development process. The team should report directly to the CEO, and the CEO should be a participating, or at least ex officio, member of the planning group. If such a group has not been organized, recruit individuals who show an interest in the brand community concept, an understanding of the power of brand building in general, and a strong knowledge of the company and its customers. In general terms, the group should be charged with:
    • Crafting a realistic up-front timeline that is strictly adhered to, and which is carefully managed online via the company intranet by a qualified member of the brand community planning team.
    • Establishing a research and reporting process, both within the planning group itself and to key decision-makers within the company.
    • Developing a set of realistic business objectives, measurable metrics, preliminary strategies, and a first-cut budget. Once this phase is completed, the group should seek senior management guidance and approval.
  • Review existing quantitative and qualitative research surrounding the key dynamics of the state of the market, your company’s development strengths and shortcomings, and the health and dynamism to date of your masterbrand and offspring brands. This could include:
    • Market status and trending, including the short- and long-term prospects for growth in the market, and the likely sources of that growth.
    • Customer marketing research that might indicate: most profitable and loyal segments, key drivers of category and brand choice, benefit attribute ratings, company and competitors’ advantages and points of vulnerability (including brand image and equity), and favored purchase channels.
    • Qualitative or anecdotal research about your company’s relationships with vendors, allied partners, and supporting constituencies (e.g., software developers, healthcare consultants, trade journal reviewers).
  • Compare and match the strategic opportunities in the marketplace with the strategic and logistical capabilities of your enterprise and its potential brand community.
    • Create a prototypical community model, projecting who will be the members of your particular community. A typical community for a consumer services company might include: the existing and prospective customers, individuals or organizations that might influence purchase decisions; company suppliers whose cooperation is needed to provide the highest quality, real time support for your services; and key employees who are most likely to interact with, and have an impact, on the community as benefits are delivered to customers.
    • Develop a community SWOT analysis (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats), using the information obtained in the exploratory stage described above, which focuses on market events and trends, community capabilities as a whole, and the specific capabilities of your company.
    • Compare and contrast the needs of the market with the capabilities of the company and its community, creating an opportunity assessment using as much empirical data as is available and applicable.
    • Create opportunities for customers to adapt and apply the masterbrand and its value proposition in their own lives—and to share this with others, customers and employees alike. Part of this process is facilitating all members of the community to be brand “missionaries”, willing to proactively evangelize about the brand, even if that simply means giving off-the-cuff testimonials to friends and co-workers. Members of your brand community should be motivated “boosters” of the masterbrand—but in thoughtful ways with sound rationale, not as mindless cheerleaders.

1 For more on the concept of “ecosystems” applied to business strategy, see James F. Moore, The Death of Competition: Leadership & Strategy in the Age of Business Ecosystems (HarperCollins, 1996).