There’s much debate on what brand leadership is. Some debate that brand leaders have a best-selling product or service and are recognised as leaders for that. Example: Nike. Others debate that brand leaders are those who have strong influence on the world financially. Example: Amazon.
I like the more academical description about brand leadership: it is exemplified by value. And not in the old school way, where a brand’s products offer a specific functional value to its consumers. Before I explain what I mean by this, let me offer some context.
Aaker and Joachimsthaler, two leading experts on branding, explain in their book titled Brand Leadership (2000), that brand leadership is brand excellence. They further explain that where brand management looks at ensuring a brand does what it intended to do, brand leadership looks at ensuring a brand leads the market in its category AND is recognised for its excellence.
It is important to note that Aaker and Joachimsthaler’s book was written in 2000. Since then, the world has changed. Collectively, we have been forced to realise that the world is facing wicked problems such as extreme poverty, climate change, and animal extinction. And a lot of the wicked problems can be directly linked to large brands. An example of this would be Nestle’s water debacle.
This had led to the increase of practices like purpose-driven marketing, brand citizenship and creating shared value. These practices’ purpose is to improve not only profits, but also the planet and its people’s lives. And this brings the ethics of large companies and brands into question, as to whether they are also exploiting these practices purely for profit. However, I’ll leave that debate for another day.
The reason I brought this up, is because I do believe in the value, practices like brand citizenship can offer. Perceived excellence of a brand is great for the brand, but is it great for anyone else beyond the purchase? Consequently, brand leadership has grown as a concept. Real value is much more important, because the functional (or even emotional) value of the product is not the only thing that matters in our complex world.
The age of the internet has led to more accessibility of knowledge. It has illuminated a lot of unethical and contradicting behaviours from companies. Now more than ever, it is important for brands to build trust based on “realness.” Authenticity and transparency show that there is nothing dubious to hide. It gives audiences a reason to trust in brands. That is why Nestle’s water debacle hit hard – what they said and continuously say about changing the world for the good, doesn’t align with what they do. As leaders in their category this is a problem. This isn’t indicative of good brand leadership, even though they might be recognised as leading the market when it comes to water and chocolates.
As many brands are responsible for some of the world’s wicked problems, brand responsibility is important. Taking responsibility and accountability is the first step in making positive change. An example of a brand that does this well is Warby Parker. By giving a pair of glasses to a person who cannot afford glasses, they are acknowledging that good vision shouldn’t only be for the wealthy and privileged. Their buy-one-give-one model is worked into their business model. They have taken responsibility for a real-world problem, and making profit doing it.
Clear vision and purpose
We have all heard of mission, vision, and values when it comes to company profiles. Yet, how many of us actually use these concepts in our everyday business processes or marketing communication? These concepts are known for being filled with buzzwords that make a company sound smart, but the company and its stakeholders speak very little of these.
If you are the CEO/ director of your business, I encourage you to rethink these terms if you have fallen into this trap. Your brand should have a clear vision and purpose. And it should be explained simply and clearly – simple enough for your audience AND your internal stakeholders to understand.
People can only become brand champions of your brand if they can resonate with it. Ditch the complex descriptions. Brand leaders know how to communicate their vision and purpose simply enough for people to resonate with them.
Next is goal-awareness. One of the aspects that makes good leadership is the ability to ensure that internal stakeholders are aligned to a common goal (and work towards it). Additionally, they should be able to embody the goals. Good brand leaders can align everyone to a common goal and inspire action towards it.
A healthy business and brand has self-awareness. It knows how it impacts the world. Brand responsibility, clear communication about vision and purpose, and goal-awareness, cannot happen if a brand is not self-aware.
Similar to self-awareness, a healthy brand has to have EQ. Leaders don’t just talk. They listen, understand, and are receptive to the world’s problems. They take inspired action from being receptive and empathetic.
Flexibility can be defined in multiple ways. Essentially for us at Ostara Studio, flexibility means that obstructions aren’t obstructions. A dead-stop is never necessary when we can flow like rivers. Being fluid and able to rethink, to be able to pivot, to radicalise, that is flexibility for us. We must move with the world’s problems to be able to solve them, not stop every time there is a problem.
Lastly, and most importantly brand citizenship is a key factor in brand leadership. Brand citizenship means a brand isn’t isolated from the world. Often in the past, we see conglomerates, large brands, corporations, as separate entities (probably because they act like separate entities or even separate countries). This happens today as well. Look at Amazon and Jeff Bezos.
As citizens, they know there are certain expectations of them. And do not act above the law or as a separate entity.
Furthermore, brand citizens can take all the above concepts that embody brand leadership into their existence, because they know they are active agents of the world alongside all people.
Moreover, good brand citizens are agents of social and global change. They want to contribute to the world in a progressive way.
What do you think? Do you want to continue this discussion on brand leadership? Follow us on social media as we regularly talk about concepts relating to brand leadership – let’s continue the discussion on this very important topic.