If advertising is the window to a brand’s soul, which I believe it is, then vision is its beating heart. If the central vision is diluted, disparate or otherwise not well defined, then the advertising will reflect that. We’ve seen it happen too many times, most noticeably when a visionary leader exits a company for various reasons. We’ve seen it happen to Apple since Steve Jobs passed, and we may well see it happen to American Apparel now that its (admittedly very flawed) founder Dov Charney has been ousted. But a diluted, murky vision isn’t something that only affects companies at one end of the scale. Regardless of the size or age or industry, startup or established, every brand needs to define, refine and commit to its vision at various times.
Vision is the kind of thing that’s hard to define for a brand, but you know it when you see it. Take Hell Pizza in New Zealand, for example. The Kiwi pizza chain has built its reputation on a slightly devil-may-care (no pun intended), attention-courting, provocative identity. It’s a chain that names its pizzas with Inferno-related names and doesn’t shy away from covering an entire billboard in rabbit pelts.
This video is one of their latest campaigns, holding the entire country of Australia to ransom with ridiculous demands — all in the name of promoting a Kangaroo meat pizza. Hell Pizza may not have the most sophisticated brand persona, but its marketing, store layouts, communications and artwork is all an expression of a vision that trades on being a very humorous, unorthodox, Kiwi upstart.
Likewise, we’ve been doing some work for a client that involves branding a new division within their organisation. It’s not just a job where we design a logo and the business cards, it’s a role where we work with the management team to define the vision first – and make sure everyone’s on board. Then that vision will flow through to yes, the name and logo, but also who is hired and how they present themselves, and how the brand operates in its space.
To find, refine, or rediscover a brand’s vision it often means going back to the raison d’être for the company. Why does it exist? What need was it created to address? What’s its foundational story? What is the role of the company and its relationship to its audience? What are its values? These are the types of questions we ask our clients and then use those in a modern context to bring it into line with current business practice.
One recent client’s brief to us was to bring back its “mojo”. This particular client was stuck in a pattern trying to imitate the market leader rather than doubling down on its unique difference, and it was doing nothing but losing market share in its attempt. We took it back to its foundational values. That meant we needed to go back to the basics of the founder’s vision, what its reason for being was – and in doing so we succeeded in differentiating the brand and clawing back market share. We’re business owners too, and we know what it takes to build a business, to hear that heartbeat, and how it can often get lost as you grow and develop.
A vision needs to be unifying, and it needs buy-in from all stakeholders. That means the people who will be carrying out your vision, as well as the ones defining it. That lesson has been an uncomfortable and expensive one for the US retailer JC Penney to learn. They brought in ex-Apple retail chief Ron Johnson to give a kick-start to its business, but instead the opposite happened. Johnson neglected to take the time to learn the culture of his new employer and tried to replicate the culture of his old employer instead. He brought in other ex-Apple execs and dealt with the pre-existing JC Penney staff condescendingly, by many accounts. He succeeded only in alienating staff at all levels and presiding for little more than a year over plummeting revenue.
A cohesive brand vision can help create a competitive edge in a category. But when advertising doesn’t successfully communicate that vision to your audience, then that edge may be lost. And that’s when it’s time to go back to basics and make sure the vision is strong, clear, and workable. That’s certainly where we would start.
Simon Hakim is MD at Hunter