Brand Alignment: Thinking holistically about the “Brand Stack”

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The following is the first in a series of posts I plan on writing as I pursue my major research project (MRP) at OCAD University, as part of the completion of my Master’s of Design, Strategic Foresight & Innovation.

As I write this, I’m in an early, exploratory part of the proposal phase, where my goal is to move toward a detailed project/research plan.

With the MRP, I’m interested in advancing a perspective about what I’m (for now, at least) referring to as “brand alignment”.

More specifically, I’d like to develop a discipline-agnostic framework or methodology. One which helps organizations find better ways of realizing desired benefits and experiences for customers, employees and society. And, one which addresses common misalignments between organizational purpose, and the execution of brand, experience, and service visions.

I think it starts with the way we design conversations about the problems we’re looking to solve.

We’re Having the Wrong Conversations

It’s refreshing to see more and more business leaders talking about the need to think more holistically about how their organizations create value. In the first half of 2019 I’ve been a part of more conversations than in the entire of 2018 about misaligned processes/systems within organizations and how they are barriers to realizing desired benefits and experiences for customers, employees, and society.

What those conversations have lacked are clear & actionable diagnoses that decision-makers can rally around, and actual actions/steps to tangibly address those complex and interconnected misalignments. Instead, i’ve seen conversations eventually shift toward over-simplified “swim lane” or discipline-specific ones that place emphasis on the wrong things.

Instead of conversations being about customer experience, they’re often about about technology.

Instead of conversations being about fulfillment of organizational purpose, they’re often about isolated departments and functions.

Instead of conversations being about the paradigms that exist within an organization, they’re often about biased individual perspectives.

These are the wrong conversations. Instead of leading toward objective and solution-agnostic problem finding/framing, they make assumptions about the shape that solutions should take and overlook opportunities to maximize value creation.

Many of us are choosing to design conversations in a way that that shifts the focus from desired outcomes, and instead, toward symptoms and isolated parts of systems.

This is probematic because businesses are complex, social systems that are resilient. They naturally re-stabilize themselves to protect and preserve the status quo, in the absence of interventions that target powerful leverage points.

(See Donella Meadows’ brilliant Leverage Points — Places to Intervene in a system for more on that topic).

It’s no wonder then that so many alignment/change initiatives fail to create the lasting impact they seek.

So, how then should we go about designing conversations that acknowledge systems in their complex and resilient entirety?

It starts with a common frame.

Stacks, and Through-Lines

The technology industry uses the concept of the tech stack, which recognizes the interconnectivity and interdependence of software & programming languages. It’s a common frame which provides the foundation upon which a conversation can take place about desired outcomes. One which acknowledges that the system in focus is comprised of interconnected parts that, together, impact a desired outcome.

I think the same logic needs to more readily be applied to brand and organizational purpose.

If your business model and internal capabilities are server-side components, then brand strategy, experience & service design, and delivery channels are client-side components.

Brand is then the through-line that runs through each of the layers, and is dependant upon their alignment. The layers work together to determine whether your brand lives up to its stated purpose, or whether it will be crippled by misalignments that prevent it from flourishing.

In the same way that a cloud architect would assess or design a tech stack to promote alignment, we should be looking at how misalignments within the brand stack impact the realization of purpose — and even hopefully measure how misalignments negatively impact business results.

Systems Thinking & Visual Language

Fellow SFI’er, Andrew Walls, wrote a great post in January about the use of systems maps as a visualization tool for business modelling.

Within, he makes two points that I’d like to bring forward:

  1. Businesses are not static. They’re dynamic and complex. Traditional modelling tools often fail to capture/reflect this.
  2. Businesses are systems. They’re comprised of sets of interconnected things whose influence on each other forms a whole.

Like Andrew, I’m a fan of Donella Meadow’s book Thinking in Systems, wherein she outlines an approach for visually mapping systems:

The boxes are “stocks”, the taps “flows”, and the arrows are external factors and balancing / re-inforcing loops that influence the flow of the resource we’re mapping. In the example above, the stock population is impacted by the off-setting re-inforcing and balancing loops of births and deaths.

If you’ve ever heard someone talk about a “race to the bottom” in a business context, that’s a great example of a re-inforcing loop.

If you’ve ever tried to introduce change in an organization, only to have things default to the status quo, chances are there is a balancing loop at play.

This visual language is a powerful tool that we can use to look at the interconnectivity and interdependence between layers of the ‘brand stack’.

Where Andrew has developed his COG model of business modelling, which visualizes a business through a common set of stocks and flows, I’d like to establish a similar ontology for brand.

Moving Forward: Brand Alignment, the Brand Stack, and Systems Mapping

As I move my project forward, I’ll be figuring out how to put this all together. I’ll also need to formulate a research question for my MRP, which could either focus on only a small part of the overall project or be the entire project.

Some immediate questions that I’m wrestling with though:

  • Is the focus on brand too narrow? Does it betray the spirit of a solutions-agnostic framework/methodology? Or, does it serve to make this more tangible?
  • Is it possible to standardize the stack if brand becomes a goal-oriented variable (eg. the stock we’re concerned with mapping)?
  • How much of this thinking already exists out there and what can I build upon? (I’ve yet to begin a literature review).
  • How might I delineate between what is feasible within the scope of this project and a larger idea that I’m interested in developing?
  • Is brand alignment, or just goal-oriented alignment, a recognized need within the marketplace?
  • Can I develop my own unique perspective on it that drives interest and could provide a viable foundation for consulting engagements?

Feedback and Questions

If any of this speaks to you, I’d love to hear from you. I’d also welcome any feedback or questions as I knock all of this around and move toward my MRP proposal.

HMU.

Written by

Strategy Consultant. Researcher. Design-thinker.

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