UM’s Adam Morton: are true brand guardians a dying breed?

It’s increasingly rare for CMOs and brand directors to stay in place for more than a few years, with this decline of tenures often linked to the rise in short-termism and associated pressures. New arrivals come into the business and are keen to make their mark, or need to show their value quickly. This might be a career necessity, but can be detrimental to the brands they work for.

The most powerful brands have a clear positioning or identity. Like individuals, they’re unique and have a personality that goes beyond the product, providing consumers with a clear emotional benefit. If they’re going to be successful over the long term, they need to stay true to their original ethos.

But in this world of increased churn, one wonders just how many marketers get to appreciate that. How many recognise they have a responsibility to the brand beyond their own stewardship, whether they’re going to be in place for 12 months or 12 years?

Yes, there is a value in an unsullied perspective and a fresh pair of eyes, but it’s not a case of black and white: brands need guardians, as the name suggests, to ‘protect and defend.’ To provide the parameters and to manage the shades of grey, and offer an informed perspective on which new ad offers an original twist on the brand’s existing values and which is just a step too far.

Normally that would be the CMO or brand manager’s job, but with limited time in office is it possible to be as immersed in the brand as they should be? Even if they recognise that it’s the brand that creates value for the business.

Starting a new role with that clarity of thinking can be a challenge. The first priority is to understand the consumers and the role the brand plays in their minds and lives. This is where their agencies can step in to help, because in many cases they’ve been with the brand for so long that they’ve become part of the fabric of guardianship.

While a good brand identity is simple so that consumers can grasp it swiftly, it also has a number of nuances on the business side. These are almost intangible traits, like individuals possess, that take time to truly understand and which can be difficult to ascertain from research.

When there’s a long-term agency partnership in place, it can use that time in situ to help new marketers understand how those complexities fit in with the consistencies required. To recommend against a particular communication being used because “it doesn’t feel right.” Experience and understanding means the agency instinctively knows what the brand stands for and what it can and can’t get away with beyond rationale arguments.

So given the importance of brand guardians, it’s more than a little concerning if the merry-go-round of CMOs and brand heads is matched with an equally swift turnover in agencies. One side – if not both – has to be in place long enough to get to grips with the brand and have its long-term health as a key concern.

If brands instead end up focused on short-term thinking because both their marketers and agencies are solely interested in more immediate successes, then no-one is their guardian. And that, as we all know, is how they end up in trouble.

Adam Morton is managing partner, client services at media agency UM

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