The Human Side of Branding

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There is a lot more to branding than identity, advertising and public relations. Brands also need to get in touch with their human face.

“I want to build my brand.”

I have lost count of the number of times I have heard this statement in the 11 years since we started brand-comm, a consulting company dedicated to building brands. And yet, as is to be expected, people have different expectations from branding and the entire process of branding. The next steps to these statements usually follow one of the following courses of action. ‘I think our identity is dated and today’s consumers are young, so let’s change it, and shouldn’t we be thinking global?’ This is good news for international brand consultants and design experts as they instantly see (million) $$$ signs. The identity change is announced with great fanfare and it usually goes down like the Indian team went down in Zimbabwe – with scarcely a whimper – as nothing except the identity has changed and the brand is still the same boring brand.

Another alternative is to try to build corporate image through a high-profile TV commercial, probably shot in New Zealand, but without the benefit of a core idea that defines the essence of the brand. “The execution will be clutter-breaking” says the agency Creative Director. The brand promise is not delivered, after all “Yuvarajs” exist in corporate life too!

Another way forward is to hire a public relations firm which goes hammer and tongs at the media – organises one-on-ones, speaker and photo opportunities – all of which generate intense interest about the MD in cocktail parties and amidst head-hunting firms but nothing much happens to the brand. And today there is another option as well.

Sponsor some high-profile IPL team and even if the team does not win a single match, the players dutifully land up at post-IPL parties wearing your brand on their sleeves (if not their hearts) on them.

I know that I am perhaps sounding cynical, a not unexpected reaction from someone my age, but that is hardly the impression I wish to convey or the point I wish to make. There is a whole lot more to branding than identity, colours, TV advertising, sponsorship, events and public relations. While I am not denying the importance or value of these, I think there is something more basic, more obvious and yet, perhaps, more difficult to manage, which is why companies seem to spend so little time on this and that is what I would call the “human side of branding”. Here are a few examples of how companies, however big, get this important aspect of their functioning woefully wrong.

The first impression…

… has the potential of being the worst impression. You enter an impressive building, exquisitely designed, wonderfully architected with a faƧade that could make you stop in your tracks. You cross the manicured gardens and enter the plush reception. And whom do you meet? A security guard in place of the young, efficient, smiling, helpful receptionists that people of my age were used to seeing earlier, but then this is perhaps the order of the day in most companies.

Of course, some of these security guards are smart, even speak good English and can be courteous enough, as was the security guard at the Oberoi in Bangalore last week. He welcomed me in the traditional Indian way. But many are not the way they ought to be and you can easily imagine the impact on the brand when they are found wanting. Of course, I am fond of repeating my experiences of having been welcomed in a company by a security guard whose company name tag read “Doberman”. Obviously, you can understand my nervousness! Did the Chairman of the company ever walk past this, I wonder, or does he have his own private elevator that enables him to bypass this welcoming committee?

You don’t call me,

I will call you

Another quick reality check for a brand is the way the company answers, or should I say does not answer, the phone. How often do we get the impression that the phone is ringing and the operators are having a good time, when the phone is actually busy?

Let’s assume that you have achieved the holy grail of actually getting through to the company and to an operator who puts you on hold. Of course, you may be calling the company not because you are in love with it, but probably because it has goofed and you want to give it a piece of your mind.

What happens then? You are put on hold and the company’s jingle of how it is God’s gift to the human race goes on endlessly like the maiden overs that Nadkarni used to reel off and you are seething. So what is your view of the brand at that particular point in time? Top-of-mind for all the wrong reasons is probably your reaction.

Let’s move on to a slightly more sensitive topic of company or brand culture. Have you ever tried getting in touch with the CEO of a large company? Life seems to be one long meeting; senior people are constantly in meetings, unreachable despite being online 24 x 7. They never take calls, respond to text messages or answer mails. After all, they are busy. I remember my first boss telling me “you are paid to be busy”.

But are these captains of industry so busy as to be completely unresponsive, sometimes to calls even from their friends and former colleagues? But what happens then? The company takes its cue from the CEO and soon you have a company that is completely, totally inaccessible, at times even to the media.

If, for whatever reason, the company needs you, it will call you a few hundred times! Do these companies ever bother to assess what the rest of the world has to say about them? Do they even care?

And this is precisely how the brand comes across to the rest of the world and I cannot imagine the ignored parties being quiet about the company and its total lack of response. Surely there has to be a better, more sensitive, more humane way of doing business that can impact the brand and the corporate image positively?

A better way to recruit?

Bangalore is the software capital of India, if not the world, and if you were to believe everything that you read about these companies then you would be convinced they are the greatest places to work in. They probably are.

Make no mistake about this, I am a great admirer of Indian software companies and yet here is an incident that made a profound impression on me, even if it had me a bit concerned about how the brand was getting it wrong.

I am going to talk about one of the top software companies in India if not the world. They needed a director for their brand and I had with great difficulty organised one of my juniors from IIM for this; she was the head of a large advertising agency and went for the meeting at my insistence.

There were many calls reminding her of the meeting. She went to the complex and found herself with hundreds of engineers looking for a job. She also found herself at the venue much earlier because the company wanted her to fill up a form! She was hopping mad, and to add insult to injury, it was not the HR head that she met but her lackey.

Clearly, the company was better suited to recruit thousands of engineer trainees but was probably not geared to deal with a senior employee, particularly someone who needed to be wooed. Luckily the lady in question did not have a blog or she could have told the world about the company and its manner of recruitment.

There is nothing wrong with the company, its financial results or even its image. It is still admired and will continue to be admired but such incidents can and will hurt the brand. But then someone has to be aware of the implications of the acts of commission and omission of each and every one of its employees and we are not talking of CEOs here.

Let me end this piece with a quote by Lee Clow: “Managing brands is going to be more about trying to manage everything that your company does.” Yes, everything that your company does! Every action that every employee or your outsourced partner does or does not do continues to impact your brand.

Let’s continue this discussion next fortnight. But in the meanwhile can you think about how good your brand’s human side is? Let us discuss it in my blog: Third Umpire On Branding

(Ramanujam Sridhar is CEO, brand-comm, and the author of Googly: Branding on Indian Turf.)

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