By Jim O’Leary, Jamie Kieffer
It's a growing responsibility for companies of all stripes: Corporations must pay more attention to the definition and identity of their enterprise brands. The warning was expressed in a 2019 Harvard Business Review article by Harvard Professor Emeritus Stephen A. Greyser and Lund University Associate Professor Mats Urde. "A clear corporate brand identity provides direction and purpose, enhances the standing of products, aids in recruiting and retention, and helps protect a firm's reputation in times of trouble," they write. "But many companies struggle to define their brands."
"Enterprise branding" is defined as the application of traditional branding practices to broader objectives, requirements, and stakeholder needs encountered across the entire business enterprise.
According to Edelman's Trust Management research released in 2019, trusted enterprise brands have greater license to operate, generate stronger workplace recommendations, obtain greater customer loyalty and advocacy, and recover more effectively from crises. What's more, high-trust companies deliver shareholder returns 5 percent greater than their sector averages.
The need to rethink how an overall enterprise is defined — and branded — is paramount. And the challenge articulated by professors Greyser and Urde is pretty straightforward for marketers and communicators to put into action: Define the identity of brands by being inclusive of emotional and rational considerations, mapping against customer needs, and expressing it in words and design.
So why are so many CEOs disappointed when well-honed branding skills, applied at the enterprise level, don't work? It's because the structure and practices within companies often get in the way, especially when it comes to the complicated relationship, or lack thereof, between marketing and communications.
Different Disciplines, Same Mission
According to data from The Conference Board, among more than 80 percent of companies, marketing and communications teams have either different reporting structures or different budgets and metrics.
Part of the problem is that marketers and communicators view the world through a different lens, which makes branding at the enterprise level much more complex.
Imagine a meeting between marketing and communications executives regarding a new branding campaign. While they share the same goals regarding the potential returns and brand lift, marketing and communications professionals tend to approach things from a completely different angle, which can cause a disconnect.
Marketers are trained to seek the single-minded "big idea" envisioned by Ogilvy, inspired to "make it simple" like Burnett directed, and to envision the brand as a timeless, enduring concept. They build neat brand pyramids, comprised of benefits, reasons to believe, and five-word-or-less brand promise statements. They commit these to brand books, which they often refer to as "bibles" without a hint of irony. They police brand usage as "brand cops." It's all a pretty revered process, with the vernacular to match.
In contrast, communications professionals are not as strict in their brand construction. They are not just managing a broad set of stakeholders, but also navigating a landscape for the brand that can change daily and on a moment's notice based on current events. Success is less about managing the brand identity and more about finding continued relevance. In the eyes of the brand marketers, communications activities can often seem unfocused or scattershot.
But what may look like a lack of focus to marketers is actually the communicator balancing complex issues on both strategic and tactical levels simultaneously. Communicators are typically working to manage the perceptions of multiple stakeholders — including the media, investors, industry peers, and regulators — versus the customer solely.
Consider how the PR association Arthur Page Society defines purpose for the chief communications officer (CCO): "We believe that the CCO has the opportunity and responsibility to ensure that organizations operate honestly, responsibly, and respectfully toward all stakeholders. By defining and activating corporate character, the CCO helps the enterprise earn public trust, protect reputation, and preserve its license to operate. Strong CCO leadership ensures companies not only succeed financially, but contribute to the benefit of society, as well."
Now add to that fairly daunting purpose the myriad challenges that typically are on the communications leader's plate. On any given day, she is likely tending to at least three of the following: a workplace issue, looming litigation, activist shareholders, pending legislation, a major media push, an upcoming executive keynote, the company's quarterly earnings, and PR to support a variety of marketing initiatives.
The communicator's most common tool is the narrative, in which a small set of talking points are supported by an often long and frequently updated collection of detailed messages that speak to a wide variety of audiences. The best narratives, of course, are specific and deep, even voluminous.
Against this backdrop, enter the most well-intentioned marketer to define the corporate brand, with outputs consisting of strategic pyramids, corporate manifestos, and identity manuals. Valuable tools, to be sure, but tools that are not easily connected to the issues on the plate of the communications team.
Considering all of these differences, it's little wonder that when the teams regroup on the branding campaign three months later, there remains a disconnect. Despite marketers' efforts with a redesigned website, new email signatures yielding a 27 percent adoption rate, and a single-page ad in the local business journal, communicators nonetheless learn that nothing has really changed regarding how PR pros engage and communicate with the audiences that define enterprise success.
The scenario probably sounds more than a little familiar to communications pros eager to build a more effective relationship with their marketing counterparts.
Creating More Cohesion
The data as well as ongoing business trends strongly suggest that savvy enterprise branding is an imperative, as a growing number of both marketing and communications teams embrace the challenge. Working with some of the largest global organizations in healthcare, aerospace, financial technology, automotive, and manufacturing has helped generate three keys for how communicators and marketers can work in concert to capitalize on the enterprise branding opportunity.
- Work together in new ways. While the talent, perspective, and skills of one's marketing team and experienced branding agencies are essential to completing this work, they simply cannot do it alone. Enterprise brand perceptions are ultimately managed predominantly by the communications team. Regardless of the corporate structure, these projects require shared ownership between communications and marketing, and sponsorship by the CEO. In the most successful engagements, these branding efforts have in fact been led by senior communications managers, valuing and welcoming equal partnership from their marketing colleagues.
- Narrow the size of the audience. Both marketers and communicators must identify the company's major audiences, as defined by the business imperative. While a brand ultimately needs to account for myriad stakeholders, when it comes to enterprise-level issues all audiences are not created equal. In highly regulated industries, policymakers who control a company's ability to operate are likely at the top of the stack. Employees are always a critical audience, but even more so when there is a rebranding stemming from a merger. Marketers and communicators must align on this at the outset and give those core audiences the highest weight in the research, testing, and team structure. Marketers and communicators should worry more about finding the company's brand truths and opportunities with these core audiences, and focus less on identifying competitive white space.
- Deploy new tools. Both marketers and communicators need to think long term and short term. They need to understand that traditional branding models are likely not fully up to the challenge of effectively rebranding at the corporate level. Companies must also leverage marketing and communications tools and processes to realize a long-term brand ambition. One tool that's particularly helpful on this front is the enterprise brand story. Taking the place of the more traditional "manifesto," this tool serves as a bridge between a traditional strategic brand framework and a corporate narrative. While its form can vary from company to company, a strong brand story will drive three major considerations. First, it will connect the brand to existing issues in society and the parent company's heritage to set a timely and relevant context for the company's current story. Second, it will define a challenge or opportunity to be addressed — and the belief and actions with which the company is addressing it. Third, a strong brand will connect the brand promise of the enterprise to the actions and messages that serve as the foundation of the brand narrative.
In addition to the actions above, it's also important that companies realize that the key to unlocking their enterprise brand's potential lies in bringing together best-in-class thinking, talent, and tools across both marketing and communications.
Brands need to recognize that it's a journey neither marketers nor communicators should take alone. By uniting on a common front, marketing and communications professionals can demonstrate their unique strengths and, at the same time, show upper management that their ultimate goal is for the greater good.
Jim O'Leary is the global practice chair for corporate affairs and advisory services and Jamie Kieffer leads enterprise branding, both at Edelman, a partner in the ANA B2B Thought Leadership Program.