Powers of Ten, Eames Office, 1977

Who’s Minding Your Brand?

How strategic silos at agencies put brand thinking at risk.

It’s one of the slipperiest concepts in modern marketing, and something that’s often strangely overlooked in the age of digital disruption: the notion of brands and how they’re created.

Ask your agency executives to define brands and they’ll probably describe a great effort by Nike or trot out a Simon Sinek quote about finding one’s “why.” Ask a product design firm or consultancy the same question, and they’ll wax poetic on the power of user interface to address unmet consumer needs, while reminding you that communications no longer drive actions or create behavior change. In short, the world has gotten tricky enough that using deliverables to establish philosophy has started doing more damage than good. And it often means that everyone’s solving the problems through their solutions (the old hammer-and-nail chestnut) and that question of brand remains never clearly answered.

But before we examine why two philosophies are not better than one when it comes to brands, let’s first take a step back, and explore how we got to this point.

Agencies are products of their histories

Brand planning (strategy) developed during the era of CPG, as ‘matchmakers’ between products and the consumers we wanted to buy them. A way of taking things that were seemingly alike and creating difference, usually through perception or belief.

Design thinking (experience) became famous in the era of digital innovation, where the products themselves were virtual, like new business models, new ways of doing things, and new problems that needed to be solved. And the job was to remove ‘friction’ so the experience would be as seamless as possible.

And as agencies developed, you’d see departments broadened and roles added, but still in the same philosophical silos as ever before. And as these disciplines became entrenched, they found many things to go deep on. Every kind of activation to bring ideas to fruition (social media, new types of content, CRM and so on). Every type of experience to solve new pain points (in store and at home, via apps, sites, product innovation and so on).

Brands have changed, but our tactics haven’t.

But what happened in the meantime? The products themselves became mutable, changeable.

The technologies we used to access them became fluid and flexible. Our interactions and engagement with brands changed, our power increased and our expectations grew.

And yet, our strategists, who at their best are ace at defining brands and their ambitions, are being incentivized to develop ads, tactics and short term engagements.

Our systems thinkers are being asked to create the next best experience without thinking about why or how it contributes to a bigger picture for the brand.

We’re creating two less-than-optimal paths for ourselves:

On one hand, we’re getting better at selling things without making them better to use.

On the other, we’re creating great things and hoping people will discover them, find value in them, and ascribe meaning to them on their own.

In short:

Marketing without UX overestimates the power of persuasion in behavior change.

UX without marketing overestimates the power of perception in shaping brand experiences.

The new branding is a Newton’s cradle of marketing and experience

That’s why every narrative we shape on behalf of a brand now must consider the experience being creating for its customers, and vice versa.

Thinking on both sides of the aisle opens opportunities for brand growth, and creates clarity for its products, lending proof to a belief, and translating values into actions. From a customer perspective, it only makes sense that a powerful idea comes to life in different ways.

Seems straightforward, right? So why isn’t everyone doing it?

All the answers, none of the solutions

In short, it’s because the philosophies don’t meet up.

And I’d argue that most agencies aren’t structured or incentivized to either create or address the need for a unified vision of brand itself.

Why? Choose one of the following excuses (overheard in every digital agency ever):

Our projects only focus on one ‘side’ of the equation (marketing campaign or site experience)

Our team is better at x than y

Our client is old fashioned and thinks digital means a banner ad

Our belief is that great UX creates distinctive brand experiences

Our understanding of consumers can only be realized through an app/bot/site/interface

Our work is only scoped for one team, not two

And so on…

The Powers of Ten theory

But what if we were to look at addressing our clients’ marketing challenges differently? Say we were to start from a higher level — that fuzzy notion of brand — and anchor our efforts in an ambition instead of a tactic?

In other words, what if we started by talking together before breaking apart?

A clever colleague once described to me the difference between the strategic disciplines as ‘those who build things up versus those who break things down.’ Due to the massive proliferation of ‘strategy’ titles (communications and experience, yes, but also social, channel, content, amongst others), and despite everyone sharing the same essential moniker, the most important thing, he said, was to understand what kind of a thinker you had on your hands.

It’s an interesting way of addressing the fragmentation of the discipline, as a simple contrast of synthesizers and deconstructors, ‘classically trained planners’ (ugh) having been trained to get a lot of message in a little bit of space (or amount of time), and their counterparts in design thinking to have learned the skill of uncovering opportunity at every stage in a consumer journey.

But I like to think of it a little differently, and I call it the “Powers of Ten” theory. If you have not yet seen the 1977 Eames family short film of the same name, please do. It cleverly reminds us that the truth doesn’t come solely from seeing the big picture via telescope, nor does it lie in the details only experienced through microscope. The fact is that the truth requires both telescope and microscope, and brands are best when seen through both lenses, and the trick is to be able to move back and forth, between synthesis and practice, the theoretical and the practical application.

Here’s my advice.

Use “brand” as your best excuse to create a first-degree, square one, together. Set aside craft for a moment and make some decisions amongst your diverse skill sets — the conceptual and practical, the framers of expectations and creators of experiences.

Find a shared understanding, an essential truth, that illuminates both paths — the idea of the thing and the means of engaging with it. The marketing that deepens engagement and the journey that brings it to your customer.

A better equation

The greatest opportunity we have in agencies is to make better use of our separate skillsets to grow our relationships with our clients while developing more fulfilling work and more compelling solutions. There’s a reason brand books no longer cut it, and why customer experience has become the new marketing buzz term. And it’s true that any brand built only on perception (and not experience) will collapse faster than you can say United. But conversely, a brand built solely on an experience, without being rooted in a compelling identity will be leapfrogged also as fast as you can call a Lyft.

All strategists are problem solvers. Imagine the delicious, meaty challenges we’ll be able to solve when brands are at play. With brand at the center, marketing practice and experience design can share and benefit from a symbiotic relationship, while their practitioners find new ways to work together as well.