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The Future of Brand Building is Triangular

This essay was submitted to, and shortlisted for, the Admap Prize 2014 and is reproduced with the kind permission of warc.

This essay is an argument for a new shape. In order to recognize how to now shape a brand in the post-digital world one needs to acknowledge the shape of events around it. I will argue that everything in the communications world should now take on a triangular shape. Brands are no longer built in a bilateral way by building relationships with consumers alone; they are now built in a triangular way by building relationships with three partners: consumers, government/regulators and the wider community. In order to build the triangular brands of the future, we are going to need triangular skillsets, and that means nurturing and recruiting triangular people.

People Build Brands

Are brands built by people or built by ideas? We most often reference the Brand Idea or the Advertising Idea as the best method to build a brand, and much commentary has been devoted to how these ideas, big or small, and their models and frameworks, have changed since the coming of the information age and communications became ‘digital’. But it is an often over-looked fact that brands are as much built and sustained by people, as they are built and sustained by an idea.

When I recently interviewed around twenty of the first-generation planners who had worked in JWT and BMP around 1968 to investigate the origins of planning, I was struck by just how much these planners moulded, influenced and in some cases created the brands they worked with. Brands like Persil, Oxo, Kellogs’s Cornflakes, whose fate often lay in the imagination of the planner, alongside their understanding of consumer behaviour, in order to drive what the brand would say and do. It made me reconsider the importance of the people who build brands, particularly with regard to the post-digital era of communication in which we now find ourselves.

Now more so than ever, brands have people behind them. That is to say not only visible spokespeople but also the invisible hoards of people literally behind the brand communication, typing away on Twitter and Facebook and all kinds of other social media, posing as the human side of the corporate brand and having a ‘personal’ or ‘one to one’ conversation with anyone who wants to engage. Who are these people? How much control do they have over what the brand says? And to whom it speaks? It sounds a trivial question but it isn’t at all. These days every idea is pumped out into social media in the form of ‘beta’ testing and if it is taken up immediately by enough people it is considered a success. It certainly is one way to create momentum and ‘noise’ around a brand but is it the right way to build a brand, in a digital world?

I would argue that the industry has lost its brand-building leaders. In the hands of social media or community managers, brands have become reactive rather than responsive; have sacrificed depth of meaning for breadth of attention; and in many cases are always-on rather than always-to-be-counted-on. And the net effect is like that of a wind-tunnel test in the car market: brands are increasingly all looking and sounding the same. It’s time to fix that. Let’s create a new generation of brand leaders to build and maintain brands in the digital world and let’s allow them to do this important job properly. As we now enter the fully digital world in which everything and everyone is connected, there has been no more important job in the history of brands, than the one to be done now.

I say this because I believe that, in a digital world, brands are no longer built in a bilateral way through a simplistic relationship between a manufacturer and a consumer. That was the case for many years in a world in which products, in particular, fast moving consumer goods products, dominated our lives; a world in which efficiency was our primary need and the solution that brands could supply. Now we don’t seek efficiency so much as we seek connectivity. In a digital world we need to be connected in order to make anything work for us or around us. In a connected world, at any moment at which you are ‘disconnected’ you are vulnerable. And that goes for brands too.

In the last few years we have seen a few brands become literally ‘disconnected’. And the net effect of this is a feeling that they have somehow been ‘caught out’. They deserve to be

punished by consumers if government isn’t going to meter out any retribution. Do I really want to place my savings in a bank that has been found guilty of fixing the Libor rate? Do I really want to buy my books and DVDs from an online general store that avoids paying tax? Do I really want to spend 1 in 8 of my hard-earned pounds at a supermarket that serves me horsemeat in my ready meals rather than the beef its packaging claims is inside? Do I want to spend my money anywhere that is not prepared to pay its employees a living wage?

The reason these situations have become so public and have continued to form part of the discussion and debate is because we now expect everything, including brands, to be connected. The world of brands is now interconnected, and in a digitally interconnected world a brand cannot wear two faces. It cannot show one face to consumers and then another to the local community it impacts or employs, and perhaps yet other face to government and regulators. In a connected world it only has permission to show one face, the same face, to all and everyone.

The Rise of the Triangular Brand

Hence the emergence of what I would call the Triangular Brand: the brand that has three sides, three corners, points in three separate directions but itself has a congruent, stable and honest shape. A brand that is the same from every angle you look at it. In fact, in ancient history or philosophical terms, the triangle is the shape that symbolizes harmony and creativity. And that is what brand-builders in the digital world of the 21st Century should be aiming for when they steward a brand, they should be ‘building’ into their brand, harmony and creativity. They should be building a Triangular Brand.

How can one build a triangular brand? A brand that is connected and has truth and consistency across its consumer, government and social community communication?

I am reminded of some classic Toblerone advertising:

“Toblerone out on its own.

Triangular chocolate, that’s Toblerone.

Made from triangular honey from triangular bees

and triangular almonds from triangular trees”

If you want to build a triangular brand, you have to build it using elements that are themselves, triangular.

That means people who have the skill-set to bridge the current divides between consumer, government and society. One could argue I suppose that all one needs to do is find individuals from each of these areas and build a super-triangular team. But as I argued earlier, what is lacking in the digital world, is not collaboration across teams of diverse people; what is lacking is leadership. A ‘fish rots from the head down’ as the Chinese would say, and if your leader is not triangular themself, then what hope is there for those that take their direction from him or her; what hope is there for the brand that they are building? A triangular brand needs a triangular element at the top: it needs a triangular leader.

To investigate this further, we need to go on a slight detour, via the Harvard Business Review, into the world of management science. In an article entitled ‘Triple Strength Leadership’, Nick Grove and Matthew Thomas highlighted why and how executives need to move easily amongst business, government and social spheres. They used an example of a Coca-Cola executive solving a major problem the company was facing in South India. The company was facing opposition to its water consumption and had been banned from soft-drink production in the region as a result. An external consultant, Jeff Seabright, was brought into Coca-Cola to develop a strategy for sustainable water stewardship in the position of Head of Environment. To cut a long story short, he solved the problem but much of his success was put down to, what the authors would call, tri-sector skills. To quote them:

‘Jeff Seabright is a rare breed. He epitomizes what Joseph Nye has called a “tri-sector athlete”, someone who can engage and collaborate across the private, public and social sectors. Drawing on his cross-sector experience, Seabright can appreciate the needs, aspirations and incentives of people in all three sectors and speak their language”.

And indeed, we should be building brands in the digital age, that themselves are connected across all three spheres, and can speak all three languages. But it will take leaders who are triangular themselves to create these kinds of triangular brands.

Jeff Seabright’s career had taken him from working in policy planning at Texaco, to that of a diplomat within the Foreign Service, the US Senate and on President Clinton’s task force on Climate Change. He had also worked within USAID, and in his proposals to Coca-Cola used this to good effect when he established some joint projects with USAID as part of a sustainability initiative. Contrast this with most of the CMOs responsible for brand-building today, or the heads of advertising agencies, media groups, or even planners. How many can say that they have triangular experience? Are they then fit to build brands today, let alone those of the future?

There are some examples though. Here in the UK, Martha Lane-Fox, started her career at an IT and media consultancy firm where her first project was for British Telecom, and was called ‘what is the internet?’ She then founded her own company called, an online travel and gift business and successfully floated it. She then joined the boards of Marks & Spencer and Channel 4 and was later appointed as the UK Government’s Digital Inclusion Champion to head a two-year campaign to make the British public more computer literate. She then launched the charity GO ON UK to make the UK the world’s most digitally skilled nation. She joined the House of Lords last year becoming its youngest female member. As stunning as her career has been imagine if some of this experience, and its triangulation, could be used to build a brand. In some ways, it is: it is building Brand GB, but in terms of corporate life, if she was leading the development of a food conglomerate brand or the world’s biggest technology platform, how coherent, how meaningful and how influential would that brand be? Just imagine.

Searching for the Triangular People of Tomorrow

In a time when friction between the three sectors is at an all time high (a cursory look at the recent TFL tube strikes in London, gives one a glimpse of the never-ending blame game that continues, between the government, the service providers and unions, and the end users - businesses and consumers). Businesses often regard NGOs and government as bureaucratic and inept; government often see the private sector as individualistic and opportunistic, and

society at large has lost trust in both government and business with regard to their ability to build in any sense of care towards people or planet. It is one reason that Cameron’s ‘Big Society’, hypothetically a big thought, went nowhere. No-one could envisage the three different species of people working together. That was because Big Society was an objective that had the wrong strategy behind it. The right strategy would have been to find triangular leaders who could bridge the divides and make sense of it all for each side.

Likewise for brands, if built properly for the 21st Century, actually brands that could broker these different positions, and in particular should be built by triangular people with the tri-sector experience who can speak all sectors’ language. If I were Eric Schmidt or Tim Cooke, or Mark Zuckerburg, I would be looking to engage leaders with this kind of triangular experience as the themes of data privacy, advertising to children, illiteracy, and pornography come to the fore for everyone - consumers, governments and social communities – and must be answered, rather than ignored, by these brands

But this is not just a concern for the technology brands, born in the digital world, in some ways it is of most concern for some of the most established 20th Century brands responsible for one of our most precious global resources: our food. And if I were Nestle, Unilever, or P&G I would be looking at who has the triangulation of experience that could ensure the brands in my portfolio were triangular too. As issues of health, wellness and nutrition escalate in a world in which more people are now dying from obesity than starvation, I would be seeking brand-builders who have the triangular experience to build me one brand that can speak three languages that says the same thing, to consumers, government regulators and social communities.

In summary, I have not argued for the new position of a Chief Triangulation Officer because that would just be an adjunct to an existing team. I am arguing for a rethink of the team. In fact not the team, but a complete re-think of the kind of leader that is now required to build brands in the digital world. There are many layers of leadership that exist as one builds a brand: the CEO, the CMO, the brand manager, the planner, the customer experience manager, the innovation or NPD manager, and the head of PR and communications. I am arguing that alongside the CEO or CMO having a triangular CV, at every one of the other layers triangulation should be encouraged. If I am to think about career advice that I would now be giving to planners in my own department, I would be suggesting they seriously consider how, if they have only ever worked in the private sector, they find ways to gain government experience and become involved in more social and community initiatives, whether those be local or global. Today, on 16th February, an article in the Sunday Times quotes the recent DEMOS report findings that today’s teenagers are more highly aware than ever of social issues, are keen to volunteer and are determined to use their digital skills to change society for the better. In a separate survey of teachers, 66% found that the most popular words they use to describe this generation are ‘caring’, ‘enthusiastic’ and ‘hard-working’ If we believe that these Millennials are also the most marketing-savvy too, then we can see a generation of triangular people ready to build triangular brands, on the horizon. And what a great portent that spells for all of us for tomorrow.



“Triple-Strength Leadership”, Nick Lovegrove and Matthew Thomas, in Harvard Business Review, published September 2013

Wikipedia, entry on ‘Martha Lane-Fox’ as at 16th February 2014

“Today’s Teenagers do give a damn” Sunday Times, 16th February 2014

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