Brand Series: A Global Agency Speaks – The Brand Union



Next up in our brand series, a look at brand with Simon Bailey, UK CEO of The Brand Union, one of the world’s foremost agencies, whose clients include brands as diverse as Barbie, De Beers, RBS and Vodafone.

Their holistic approach to branding encompasses research, strategy, design, engagement and evaluation.

The Brand Union was named 2009 Design Agency of the Year by Marketing Magazine, for their work with Bank of America / Merrill Lynch, Argos and Vodafone.

Simon, what makes a great brand?
One of my favourite quotes on the subject of brand and one that I return to often when talking to clients, is from Arun Sarin, when he was Chief Executive of Vodafone.  He said, “A brand is what a brand does“. I think that’s really insightful when you look at it, because truthfully, no matter how good your branding strategy and approach is, it’s at least as important to execute it right.  This is what many brand managers struggle with, but it’s what sets great brands apart.

What does that look like in practice?
It’s about making strategic intent come to life. Brand is not a combination of words and design elements on a page – brands are built by experience, interaction. Whatever a brand stands for, a brand needs to be singular in pursuing that. You have to stick ruthlessly to an idea.

Who demonstrates that brilliantly?
I think Pret a Manger has achieved that idea of 360 branding really well. It’s evident in every aspect of what they do – from demonstrating passion through their tone of voice and their fresh approach to writing about food, to their obsession with natural ingredients, CSR and team-player ethos.  They’ve managed to create stature and esteem around the art of coffee making (which has set the bar for the industry). I also like that they show discretion in their outlets – it’s a very human experience.  You get to know the team in your local Pret, they get to know your order and a free coffee every now and then isn’t unheard of.

Virgin is incredibly strong as a brand through their single-minded vision to champion the customer – in all of the markets they’ve entered, they’ve differentiated by finding better ways of serving the customer.  It’s a disruptive business model and they’ve made a success of it.

What can we take away from these examples?
It’s simply that brands are not built by just doing branding brilliantly – they are built by doing business brilliantly and the skill is in aligning the two. Good brands recognise that you can’t appeal to everyone.  The old notion of emulating ‘best practice’ is not enough – brands have to carve out their own way. Uncommon practice is what differentiates.

Who owns a brand? The customer or the corporation?
It’s really less about ownership and more about perception. Brand resides in the mind of the customer, and their own perception will be coloured by many, many factors. The brand owner’s role is to attempt to shape and influence that perception.

And there are different ways to approach that.  If you compare two grocery giants for example: Tesco is a hugely powerful brand that’s built on a pretty simple idea of “every little helps”. They respond to feedback and make incremental improvements in line with what their customers want, all backed up by a powerful operational machine.  So Tesco becomes almost a part of the family – a regular, relied upon presence.

Ocado, on the other hand, thinks ahead of its customer group, introducing advances which weren’t necessarily envisioned but which nevertheless create demand (ie. the Ocado mobile app). So they surprise and please their customers but foreseeing what they might need and creating reliance in that way.

We’re living in social times.  What impact do emerging technologies have on the process of branding?
Nothing’s changed and everything’s changed. Word of mouth has always been the most important source of referral.  That process is now accelerated and amplified by social media. But social media does change the game for brands:

– Organisations now need to be more transparent
– They need to create a feedback loop, and act on what their customers tell them
– They must be open to scrutiny as never before, and to some extent, held to account
– Open platforms for debate mean that brands need to be prepared to react to feedback, or risk alienating people.

What does it mean for agencies?
In the digital age, there’s so much expectation of speed. Barriers to being creative have been lowered by technology, so clients will challenge more readily – “couldn’t we do this ourselves?”

In a nutshell, why is brand so very important?
What we want to show business is that brands are valuable assets in their own right. Consider a well-known hypothetical question: What would happen if you divided up an established business – one partner takes the factory and the other takes the brand and trademark.  Who will be better off in five years? I’d put my money on the partner with the brand every time.

With many thanks to Simon Bailey and The Brand Union.

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