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Telling the Brand Story

"A corporate brand is meant to be an organizing principle and filter for all actions, behavior and product development of an organization," explains author and veteran branding expert Scott Lerman. The former president of Siegel & Gale and CEO of Enterprise IG, Americas, Scott founded the consultancy Lucid Brands in 2005 to help organizations shape and develop their "brand story." We had a fascinating conversation with Scott about his work:

VT: What is your approach to defining a successful brand?

Scott: Let me explain by discussing an example, my former client Caterpillar. This is a company known for manufacturing large construction equipment for massive projects. If I'm building a dam, digging a mine, or laying a road, I call Caterpillar. But by the early 90's, they had started a financial services business, did logistics for customers, and had become, I believe, the second largest diesel engine manufacturer on the planet. They needed to become more relevant to smaller projects, like residential construction and infrastructure repair. The past definition of Caterpillar as maker of giant, application-specific machines was no longer accurate. To retain its leadership worldwide, Caterpillar had to think about how the nature of their business and customers was changing.

VT: How did you evolve their brand to reflect this new reality?

Scott: You can imagine how daunting that might be. At the time, Caterpillar had decentralized their global organization into 24 strategic business units. In order to meet the market, the CEO felt the company needed to be more competitive in a less monolithic way. He wanted the company to be relevant to a small customer who might have an office in their pickup truck as well as a multi-national corporation. The decentralization was necessary for the company, but it created a lot of confusion internally and in the dealer channel about who Caterpillar was and what it stood for.

While we wanted to have a singular and clear definition of Caterpillar, the reality was that they were serving vastly different markets globally, as well as diverse customer needs. The products and services that were offering were much broader and deeper than they'd ever had before.

So we went on quite a trip around the world to each of the regional marketing groups and businesses units to talk to the leadership and operational staff about what they were trying to accomplish. How did the existing reputation of Caterpillar fit who they were and what they were doing now?

As you can imagine, in selling heavy equipment to a multi-national mining company, there was a congruence between people's historic impressions of the company and their products; it fit pretty well. But, at the time, when we spoke to somebody providing services or machines to an individual contractor doing repairs or home building, they were concerned that those customers might love Caterpillar, but they wouldn't necessarily think that the company's products or services would be affordable or targeted for their work, because they hadn't been in the past. We needed to expand the meaning of the Caterpillar brand.

So we began learning from the ground up. What drove choice? What was important to the customers now being served by Caterpillar? Who were these diverse customers? Where did they live? What did they think about? We had to understand what Caterpillar could now do for these customers that in the past they wouldn't have even thought about doing. It was a process of discussion, of discovery and of analysis of audiences and assets of a company and markets that had changed dramatically over the decades.

VT: As you were describing this, I was thinking about the Lucid Brands website, where you talk about creating a "brand story." What you were just saying about Caterpillar seems to encapsulate a "story" -- it's more than just a slogan.

Scott: Think about it this way: Caterpillar is a story of one of the first great American multi-nationals. They took an intelligent view -- that they had to evolve their brand to meet world markets -- rather than rest on their past success. The evolution of markets had changed them and they needed to define what that change meant for their brand.

This approach is true of the work I've done for many companies. I've worked with companies such as Harley-Davidson, 3M, National Semiconductor, EDS, and PNC Bank to shape and evolve their brands. Recently, I led the team that created INVISTA -- a $6.2 billion spin-off of DuPont's synthetics fiber business. Each of these companies was at a crossroads -- driven by substantive change such as merger, acquisition, expansion, etc. -- that required them to redefine and recast their brands. These companies thrive because they have the courage to evolve.

VT: Once you define your brand story, how do you communicate it and express it in all aspects of the company?

Scott: Branding firms understand that brand creation and evolution needs to be based on a strategic vision for the company. And that logos and design should support strategic goals. The problem is that the discipline of strategic definition, business consulting, is not part of the training of most creative directors, designers, writers, and others involved in expression. And most MBAs have little understanding of design and brand identity. Much of my career has been focused on developing training and processes that enable business, finance, and creative disciplines to work together effectively.

VT: I'm not sure I understand you completely.

Scott: What I mean is that somebody with an MBA who's trained to be a business consultant is not usually trained to know how business strategy translates into the way we tell our story to the marketplace. And those who are trained in expression -- those who think about how to write or how to draw a logo that's going to be beautiful and memorable and robust in its application -- haven't had, generally, that much training in what is strategic definition for business purpose. I don't think this is a new idea for most branding firms; most of them would say they have a blending of strategy and design. But the truth is, it's generally a rather feeble hand-off from strategy to expression.

The key to much of this problem is bringing together staff from multiple disciplines to "model the future." Eliminate the handoff. We ask, "How do we create a vision of what could be?" "Where do we begin to understand what the implications of strategy will be on how we go to market, the kind of products we develop, the look and feel of our architecture, the design and content, and language that's used in our communications?" It's very much scenario planning, a lot like what people do in financial modeling, where they take strategic direction and say, "Here's a financial model of what that might mean for our organization across global markets." That's what we do when it comes to brand and expression. We model strategic change for companies so they can understand the paths they could take, the possible futures for their brand in the marketplace.

VT: It sounds all encompassing.

Scott: Absolutely. It includes brand identity, communications, behavior, content messaging, product design -- every aspect of how we touch our own staff, our markets, as well as potential partners and channels.

VT: Let me ask you one final question, about how you use the Visual Thesaurus in your work.

Scott: I've often used the Visual Thesaurus with clients during interactive work sessions where we're struggling to find the right words to define who we are. I think character is a very important driver of any brand because if you know who someone is, you can predict how they're going to behave. The discipline of articulating this in very few words and -- I think this is a Procter and Gamble technique -- finding three words or character traits to define your brand is really tough. How do you take a very large organization and define its nature in three words?

So early on I began to use the Visual Thesaurus to stimulate thinking and allow people to work more interactively in a group. We actually project the Visual Thesaurus onto a wall to spur thoughts, go on a journey and be disciplined about words and ideas. It's a great process, something that draws my clients in.


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Comments from our users:

Monday March 10th 2008, 4:20 AM
Comment by: Nicholas T.
Fantastic article. We have two congeneric businesses led by two independant leaders that often go in different directions while trying to serve the same markets. I've been trying to get this message to them for years. Maybe this article will help. Sons sometimes don't listen to their fathers.
Saturday April 4th 2009, 5:49 PM
Comment by: A. Z.
Fantastic.

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How do you best work with a branding company like Lucid?
Writing for Designers
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As Scott says, "eliminate the handoff" -- designers have to write well, too.
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