Agile Branding

by | Feb 5, 2016 | 0 comments

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If we’re talking about agile in the context of marketing and communications, then at some point we need to look at how branding and brand identity works in an agile context. I suspect this is actually a really interesting area, but first, I must declare some biases.

Of all the areas of communications, marketing and public engagement I’ve worked in over the years, I’ve always found the area of branding and brand identity the most difficult. Not because it’s a difficult thing to grasp in and of itself, but because it’s the most fluffy, the most vague and, dare I say, the most pretentious. People pay lots of money to brand strategists, and these strategists in turn come up with all sorts of buzz words, models and theories around how brand identities work. However, I’ve always been reasonably skeptical about a lot of this sort of discussion, and the reason for my skepticism comes down to my agile mindset.

First, branding often involves lots of thinking, lots of planning, lots of documentation and lots of discussion. People come up with all sorts of flowery theories around branding and brand identities, and only once all of this has been done are these identities released to the general public. Often, due to the amount of work that’s done up front, people then become quite reluctant to change the brand identity that’s been decided upon, and even become quite hostile to any suggestion that it should be changed. You see this really clearly in the way people speak about brand identities being ‘harmed’ or ‘damaged’ by certain things, as if any change or challenge is negative. You can see why this mindset arises though. To admit that the identity might need to be changed is to admit that all of that up front thinking, theorising and planning might not have been as valuable as it claimed to be.

Of course, all of this is counter to what an agile approach would recommend. An agile brand identity would be based much more on constant testing, learning and iterating. Rather than spending ages planning and documenting, a simple brand would be released, and customer reaction watched to see how it went down, before the brand is tweaked and evolved over time.

To my mind though, agile in the context of branding goes far beyond simple iterating and evolving. One of the most interesting challenges the rise of digital presents to brand identity thinking is data. I saw this very clearly in one organisation I was coaching, where one team decided to test the brand identity via their own website. The brand identity was all about ‘beautiful’ images and ‘impactful’ headlines, all of which are of course entirely subjective terms, especially in the absence of data. This team tested this beauty and impact against very simple statements that just gave the name of the product and a button that said ‘click here to buy’.

Time and again they tested it, and time and again, the simple statements beat the agreed brand identity approach hands down. This set up a really interesting tension in the organisation, as suddenly it was like one team was shouting ‘the emperor wears no clothes’ at the hallowed brand identity people had been working on for years. Not only that, but they had reams of data to prove categorically just how much the emperor wasn’t wearing any clothes, and which clothes the emperor should probably be wearing instead.

Thanks to digital, brand identity has never before been subjected to this level of scrutiny, and in many instances it really is going to challenge accepted thinking and make a lot of people very unsettled.

Of course, beyond evolving, iterating, testing and data, agile presents another big challenge to brand identity too. Previously, your brand identity was largely something you controlled. After all, you were the only one who could afford to pay the designers to design your brand logos and assets. You were the only one who could pay the printers to print them. You were the only one who could pay the media suppliers to distribute these assets amongst the public.

Now though, again thanks to the rise of digital, anyone can take your brand and do what they like to it. Image editing software is cheap, easy to use and freely available. People can edit, alter and mash up your brand identity in any way they like, and then ‘print’ and distribute it for free via social media. If their work strikes a chord or is funny enough, it might reach a significant number of people.

There are two responses to this. The response of the old skool marketer will be to see this as a brand infringement, and tell the person to take their work down, possibly threatening legal action in the process. There are even companies you can pay to scan the Internet for people using or adapting your brand logo and identity, in order for you to challenge them and get them to stop. In a narrow sense, this is fair enough, as if someone is using your brand identity for dubious or fraudulent purposes, such as claiming to be endorsed by you, or even claiming to be you, then you need to put a stop to that.

However, if someone is adapting your brand for the purposes of humour or commentary, then from an agile perspective, that’s something you need to embrace. First, it’s a great source of feedback on how your brand is perceived out there in the real world. Of course, lolz on the Internet are not a statistically valid form of brand consideration metric, but they’re still really powerful. If someone’s gone to the trouble of creating an image to lampoon your brand, then that’s a pretty strong statement of how they feel about your brand. If other people are sharing it, then those shares are pretty strong statements of how people are prepared to invest their online social capital in endorsing that message. Brand ‘infringements’ like this are something you should welcome and listen to as valuable feedback, not threaten with cease and desist.

There’s another reason to embrace this too. The third element of the agile manifesto says you should value:

“Customer collaboration over contract negotiation”

This often seems difficult from a marketing point of view, as why would customers want to collaborate with you in order to help you sell more things? However, from a brand point of view, it’s hugely exciting. Rather than you deciding your brand identity, sticking to it like gospel and attacking those that challenge it, in a digital world, you should instead see your brand identity as something you collaborate on with customers themselves. You set an initial identity, customers adapt and amend it, and you embrace those adaptations.

It’s a different place to be from traditional branding work, and can feel like a risky place too, but as with anything in agile, I suspect the rewards you can gain from adopting it can be huge.

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About The Author

Gez Smith is an agile communications coach, trainer, author and speaker, and is also the author of ‘Agile Marketing: The Incomplete Guide‘.