Brand Custodian: CEO, employees or the customer?

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In 1962, ad legend Bill Bernbach of DDB requested something extraordinary from his client, Avis. He wished they would run whatever advertising the agency recommended. 

Avis was up against the big spending market leader, Hertz; so they were open to backing bold ideas in order to win in the marketplace. In that context, Robert Townsend, the CEO of Avis agreed to this proposal. Later he went on to write a memo which served as the Advertising Philosophy of the Avis-DDB relationship. Here are a couple of salient points in that memo:

To this end, Avis will approve or disapprove, not try to improve ads which are submitted. Any changes suggested by Avis must be grounded on a material operating defect (a wrong uniform for example).

To this end, DDB will only submit for approval those ads which they truly as an agency recommend. They will not “see what Avis thinks of that one.”

As you can see, without using the word, the client was treating the agency like a custodian – someone who cared as much for the brand’s success as the client. It was based on the trust the client placed on Bill Bernbach. The agency, in return had a track record to command such respect and went on to live up to that reputation with the ‘We are No.2. We try harder’ campaign.

Within a year, Avis had turned a corner in terms of profits – after a 13-year gap. However, one could argue that aspects of custodianship were limited only to advertising in such an equation.

The many shades of custodianship

A custodian is someone who goes beyond gatekeeping, to protect and nurture something – usually a set of values, a belief system, a way of doing business…a code of ethics.  The best of cleint-agency partnerships exhibit some of these traits. As a junior account executive in the 90s, I was fortunate to witness the CEOs of companies like Gujarat Ambuja Cement and Parle Products interact with our agency CEO.  Brand strategy, creative direction and executional elements were discussed threadbare. The passion and involvement from both sides was palpable – one could sense the collective feeling of ownership based on trust and faith in each other’s abilities. Dr. Verghese Kurien of Amul is said to have put in place a process for the famous Amul topicals. The agency, da Cunha Associates, is given a free hand on both the subject and the creative. They don’t have to seek client approval on the creatives. So trusting the marketing-ad agency teams to do what is right for the brand is one aspect of brand custodianship at play.

However, there’s more to running a business than just marketing and advertising. In the Avis memo referred to above, Townsend also wrote: ‘Avis will never know as much about advertising as DDB and DDB will never know as much about the rent-a-car business as Avis” thus acknowledging that an ad agency’s custodianship comes with limits.

CEO: custodianship of a different kind

The brand managers and the CMO are involved in defining the positioning, product range, pricing, distribution, variants & extensions, defining the marketing message, strategies for user acquisition, retention and more. While these help drive the fortunes of the company, there are larger aspects of the business which the CEO is best placed to define and lead. For example, the manufacturing of a  product could be outsourced to a factory in another country. It would be the CEO’s mandate to ensure that the best labour practices are followed by the vendor partner as it would have an impact on the brand imagery. People policies such as gender representation and diversity are also aspects which are best driven by the CEO.

There is also another reason why the CEO is best placed to nurture a brand from a ‘big picture’ perspective: at 43 months, the average tenure of a CMO is said to be short. So even if marketing teams, ad campaigns and creative expressions change, it would help if the CEO sets out a clear charter of things which the company brand cannot compromise on. A company’s larger purpose, values, ethics and other higher order policies are the mandate of the CEO. They are even more important in today’s digital world where the media environment is different from the days of Townsend & Bernbach.

Have the times changed? Yes and no.

Many commentators on the business of branding have taken extreme positions such as ‘advertising is dead’, ‘everything has changed’ and ‘consumer is now in control’. In my view, branding as we knew it earlier has changed with the times but the fundamentals have and will remain the same forever. As Bernbach said, “It took millions of years for man’s instincts to develop. It will take millions more for them to even vary.”

However, the media environment has triggered a few new imperatives which have an impact on brand custodianship:

One-way no more:  A brand is no longer just what an enterprise defines and claims on mass media. Today, a brand is what consumers say it is (or what Google says at the least). Consumer reviews, complaints, chatter about a product or service, including comments on communication, drive brand perceptions and purchase decisions. So brands need to be careful about the messaging, the environment in which they are seen and be prepared to be under the microscope all the time. 

Brand action, not just claims: Brands feel the necessity to not just stop at flashy or emotional adverts but live it by executing the claim on ground. Brands need to act, not just say. Procter & Gamble could have simply released a TV commercial saluting the role of moms a decade ago. But they launched the ‘Thank You, Mom’ campaign in 2010 which walked the talk by flying moms and families of USA’s Olympic athletes to the venues in Vancouner and London. Volvo demonstrated the precision and directional stability of Volvo Dynamic Steering trucks with a stunt featuring Van Damme in 2013. Such activities could be initiated by the marketing team but needs the CEO buy-in as they may have a rub-off on the corporate brand 

A relevant higher purpose can create affinity: a lot of enterprises, especially those appeal to a younger audience, believe that the company brands should stand for something – a higher order purpose. Alan Jope, CEO of Unilever said brands without a purpose will have no long-term future with the company. They have a set of Sustainable Living brands which communicate a strong environmental or social purpose. Such brands are growing 69% faster than the rest of the business and delivering 75% of the company’s growth.  The Ben & Jerry’s Foundation receives a share of the company’s annual profits to fund “community-oriented projects”. Such measures are best led by the CEO. 

Customer: critic and a watchdog more than custodian 

Some hold the view that ‘consumers are in control’ today. In my view, they are at best in a position to reject a brand claim or communication far more effectively than ever before. In the pre-digital world, a dodgy claim or unethical move by a brand could only be raised in relatively smaller groups. 

Today, ubiquitous digital platforms and mobile devices give a voice to everyone. They can criticise just about anything – the product quality, customer service and more. High involvement categories (e.g. mobile phones) and high profile brands attract online attention and critique from consumers. Some may even point out the mismatch between what is claimed but not practiced.

However, the consumer is not totally in control of the product, service or the messaging – they can only react more effectively to decisions taken by the company.  So effectively, the customer is playing the role of a watchdog. 

Employees: keeping the promise

Whether it is an in-store employee, a factory floor worker or someone interacting with customers online, employees can be great brand ambassadors of a company. In my view, they have the potential to be great examples of a company’s values and play a role as brand custodians too. 

A brand is the most precious asset of a company. It should be defined, protected and nurtured by a team led by the CEO. A brand is nothing without customers who needs to be acquired and retained. The efforts of custodianship should be towards serving the customers now and for the future.

This article was originally published in the print version of Indian Management. Published here with permission from them.

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