Adriana Liute surprises with clarity, vision and the ability to bring complex problems into a structured and accessible key. An interview about consistency and simplification in branding, about what it means to build an organizational culture, upfront values vs. behaviors, and the role of brands in society.
Adriana is Managing Partner and co-founder of Storience, the agency on the side of good brands. With over 15 years of experience in building and rebuilding brands, marketing, internal communication, CSR, business journalism and entrepreneurship, Adriana brings a holistic view to the projects she gets involved into. Concerned about intertwining branding with sustainability, as of 2018, Adriana started a master’s program in Sustainable Resources at University College London (UCL).
There is ever-growing talk about integrating the expectations of the co-interested groups in the conceptualization and relaunching processes of a brand. These expectations have a complex nature and are in contrast with the simplicity requirement of a brand. How does this paradox get solved in branding - consistency versus simplification?
This is the reason why any branding process should start with the brand analysis and continue with the brand definition. Not with the design, not with the site restoration. The role of the brand strategy team is to listen to all the relevant voices, inside and outside the company. To understand where we are at T0, what are the current perceptions, what are the strengths and weaknesses, how the competitors are seen, and how is our brand different from theirs. During this ‘finding out’ process, 70%-80% of the information we collect about the brand is known or presumed by clients, and their validation is useful, while the remaining 20%-30% is news even to them. The analysis brims over many ideas, becoming a source of inspiration for many other stages in the subsequent development of the brand. But not all can become ‘brand ideas’.
That’s why the second step in a branding process is always defining the brand. This is where we filter, we prioritize, and we reconcile ideas with the client’s business strategy in a client-consultant debate. The outcome of the debate is a collection of statements that define the brand in an essentialized form. The whole process is like a funnel: we listen to many voices and ideas, but eventually, we narrow down the list to what has more potential and meaning. The talent and experience of a brand consultant will help him/her not to get lost in all of this process where client involvement is significant and a key ingredient for a successful construction. As for the creative process, the involvement of the client and, sometimes, its customers, must only come as a validation or invalidation of a concept in terms of its relevance, impact, and clarity. They should not get involved at an executional level and decisions should not be made based on a popular vote. There are cases where brands submit creative proposals to their clients’ vote, but in this case, all proposals submitted to public attention are already internally validated and compatible with the company’s intentions. As long as these rules are clearly laid down and respected from the very beginning, any external input should help, not mess up things.
It is said that brands that last are those that have a good understanding of the community’s needs and know how to communicate with the groups on which they depend. How aware are Romanian companies of this need to integrate the expectations of the co-interested groups in branding?
The companies we come in contact with are at least very receptive to (if not already aware of) the need to start from the expectations and tensions of the target audience when building a brand. As the number of companies has grown in each market, so has the need for differentiation, niche strategy, and positioning refinement. And when one needs to operate at a granular level on the mental map of the target audience, when one works with nuances, one needs to understand this audience as closely as possible. The more mature a market, the more opportunities lie in the details. One does not want to be just a milk producer, but a milk producer who understood the need of the urbanites to drink countryside-like milk, albeit brought to the supermarket and complying with the highest food safety standards. One does not want to be just another online book store, but a corporate library, because one understood that people do not want to possess the books they are reading, and they would read more if they had access to books in the form of a service.
Can we already talk about a branding culture in Romania? Where do we stand on the consistency scale of brands?
The vast majority of companies that come in contact with us already know what are the basic steps and benefits of this process. That does not give us too much information about companies that ‘do not get diagnosed’, but at least those that get are more up to speed today than they were when we started Storience, in 2012. That being said, there is still work to be done on the consistency with which brands observe what they have established they want to be together with the consultant. More specifically, if we have established together that the brand has a certain personality, a certain visual and verbal style, a set of key attributes that need to be consolidated, they must be pursued consistently and the baseless communication opportunism must be reduced. This is a continuous effort from brands, that often occurs without the involvement of the brand consultant, and often with undersized budgets, which is why deviations occur.
Do companies in Romania understand the importance of internal commitment to what a brand represents? Are they willing to invest in building and promoting the brand on an internal basis?
I believe here is the largest gap between Romanian and multinational companies - in the way they understand to build internal commitment to the brand. The vast majority of our clients do not have a dedicated person for internal communication, or a similar role to bear this responsibility, even when they have hundreds of employees. Internal communication is still happening in an entrepreneurial style, largely depending on the CEO/Founder, whose mastering is used to build the organizational culture.
The biggest concern for the employer brand (which targets the relationship with employees and candidates) is seen among technology companies, where the fight for talent is the most intense. But even there, most of the efforts are headed for recruitment campaigns and eventually decorating offices, rather than building a unique company culture that will turn employees into ambassadors. Regarding the relationship with employees, there is also the temptation to display the values on the walls. But employees do not know how to behave in relation to corporate values, and they do not really understand the link between these and their job description.
How do you see the turning of these values into behaviors and how does a correct branding help in this regard?
Values are abstract and highly concentrated concepts. Therefore, in order to be understood and applied correctly, they must be translated into behaviors. My favorite exercise in this regard begins with the brand analysis phase, where we investigate, among other things, the behaviours encouraged in the company and observed by clients. Taking over the natural expressions of those we talk to, we can then build values and behaviours that are both anchored in reality, aspirational and differentiating. An example that now comes to my mind is the redefinition of corporate values we coordinated for the Fashion Days brand in 2017. There, we started from a very plastic statement of an employee (‘No one in the department wants to stand behind the tide’), and we built the set of values based on the tide and ‘tide riders’ metaphor. So, we have found an original, aspirational and authentic idea while discussing with the employees, and our proposal was embraced on the spot and unanimously by the client team.
The issue of ‘wallpaper values’ that nobody really understands arises precisely for the reason mentioned earlier: Romanian companies do not invest in building strong organizational cultures. If they did, people would know ‘how things are done around here’, that is, they would infer the values correctly and automatically by looking around and interacting with colleagues, without having to learn anything by heart. The values set out would only come as a reinforcement of reality seen in the field. Building an organizational culture does not mean convening a board meeting to define company values, and then communicate from the top of the pyramid to the base (possibly without a list of attached behaviors, as it often happens). It means to come up with a vision, with a management philosophy that defines the employees’ experience in the company, just like telling a story, and that would naturally translate into values and behaviors. Then, it means to build that experience programmatically, going through each department individually. Finally, it means to get the feel of the employees constantly, to see how intentions align with reality, and where adjustments should be made. And as the company’s business strategy evolves, company culture and values, respectively, must evolve, as different behaviors are needed at different times for the long run.
Can you give us a small inventory of domestic ‘sins’ related to branding?
- Lack of a defined purpose (why do we do what we do, except for money, in response to a society’s need?). Companies that have an aspirational goal motivate better their employees and are more attractive to candidates. Nevertheless, many companies in Romania have yet to define this goal.
- Lack of long-term consistency and communication opportunism. Many companies waste their budgets and energy in many directions, depending on the opportunities emerged on the spot, instead of aligning their communication efforts with the brand strategy.
- Undersized budgets to maintain the brand at defined standards. Everything is great in the lab, the problem occurs when ‘disseminating’ the brand into the market.
- Small companies with too big ideas. When one is small, one does not have to set its mind to educate a market already formed in a new paradigm, because one will not succeed. The assumed missions should match the powers.
- Great ideas dropped out too soon. A great idea usually takes time to pay off. Not everything can pay dividends the next day. The Romanian companies, in line with the society, have yet to practice their long-term thinking, with confidence.
Where do you think the integrity and the sense of good in branding should step in?
Companies must take on a sense of good from the very defining of their purpose. In order for the brand to be desirable and relevant, the brand’s purpose must respond to social tension, a society’s need that has not yet found a solution. This very important step will then influence many of the brand decisions. An example is the social responsibility strategy - those things that the company makes explicitly to address certain community needs, to build a good relationship with it - a strategy that should follow or at least be compatible with the defined purpose of the brand.
Storience adopted the ‘Branding for Good’ positioning in 2017 precisely because we believe very much in the social role of brands. The mantra of the 1970s - 2000s, according to which ‘the only social role of companies is to increase their profits’ (paraphrased after a statement by economist Milton Friedman) is obsolete today, in the context in which we have a new type of consumer. The new consumer assigns social responsibility to companies to an overwhelming degree (see the ”New Sustainability - Regeneration” report by J. Walter Thompson Intelligence, 2018).
But even Friedman’s claim was calling for integrity, something that many people have ‘skipped’ by failing to quote the rest of the statement: ‘… …as long as it stays within the rules of the game […] without deception or fraud’. From my point of view, integrity is a basic, hygiene value, sine qua non. Brands that do not show it must be boycotted. But those who show it will not be chosen just for that. Instead, brands that assume more than integrity, namely an active role in society, will be noticed, loved and chosen by the new consumer (assuming that the other important criteria, such as quality and accessibility, are also met).