How to Build a Remarkable 21st Century Brand

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Alan Siegel
Alan Siegel


Economic disruptions produced by the ongoing technological revolution, rising uncertainty in global markets, and crises of complexity generated by social media all make this an exceptionally challenging time for organizations seeking to create or refine their brand identities.

Explored in what follows are critical issues to address in assembling a comprehensive branding program, based on challenges and opportunities that we at Siegelvision consistently encounter with clients.

The Inside-Out Approach

Henry Ford is often quoted as having said, "If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses." Whether the words were his or not, they reflect what we call the "outside-in" approach -- trusting customers to provide critical insights to help define a brand identity. But relying on customer feedback alone is akin to treating symptoms rather than the underlying illness.

While customers may be able to pinpoint certain problems they would like to see addressed, they rarely have enough information to understand the organization in sufficient detail.

An "inside-out" approach, on the other hand, helps achieve a distinctive and credible branding program by tapping insights that emerge from within the organization itself -- a process largely contingent upon leadership support.

Validation research is then conducted, bringing employees and outside audiences together to react to concrete ideas, and helping ensure that the resulting strategy will be clear, compelling, and relevant.

Driving Brand Identity Through a Clearly Defined Purpose

Most organizations spend months devising predictable, and often garbled, mission or vision statements that employees ignore and that fail to guide decision-making in both day-to-day management and big-picture strategic planning.

An effective purpose statement defines your reason for being in business, the calling your organization aims to answer in the marketplace, and the problems you strive to solve.

Moreover, defining a clear and concise purpose statement creates coherence for your employees -- coherence about what your company stands for and what inspires its work, beyond just the pursuit of money. Effectively crafted, it should be the driving force behind strategic decisions, investments, and other critical matters.

The Urban Institute, a think tank based in Washington, D.C., was established by President Lyndon Johnson in 1968 to "help solve the problem" of inner-city poverty. Over the years, it's become a respected source for intelligent, accessible analyses of economic and social policies. But despite the institute's admirable aims, its impact was long undermined by a verbose and confusing mission statement, which read:

"The Urban Institute gathers data, conducts research, evaluates programs, offers technical assistance overseas, and educates Americans on social and economic issues -- to foster sound public policy and effective government.

The Urban Institute builds knowledge about the nation's social and fiscal challenges, practicing open-minded, evidence-based research to diagnose problems and figure out which policies and programs work best for whom, and how."

The Urban Institute certainly does all of those things, but, as we learned during our immersive branding project, they do not comprise the organization's core purpose. We replaced the institute's lengthy and impractical mission statement with a powerful three-word purpose statement:


The Urban Institute's cogent new expression of its purpose -- its essence -- resonated deeply with all stakeholders. Defining the organization's role in simple, concrete terms provides a strong guide for decision-making and acts as a beacon for employees at every level.

Creating Bold, Action-Driving Positioning

Americans are daily bombarded by vague, generic taglines that masquerade as brand positioning. Such identity imprecision appears everywhere, including among institutions of higher education.

"Fierce Advocates for Justice," the highly effective positioning that Siegelvision developed for the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City, provided the touchstone for an aggressive campaign to change the public's perception of the school as a "cop college" into a view of it as a comprehensive educational institution, one that boasts a liberal arts curriculum coupled with world-class criminal justice courses for undergraduate and graduate students alike.

In a 2012 conversation, Jeremy Travis, the college's current president, told me that the "Fierce Advocates for Justice" positioning "has allowed every member of our community to see a place for his or her interests in the brand of the college. The language we now use ... [reflects] who they are and want to be. When we first put up [signage with our new tagline,] a student told me: 'That wakes me up when I come to school every morning, to remind myself that I'm here because I'm a fierce advocate for justice.'"

Defining and Implementing Your Brand Voice

We define "brand voice" as the distinctive tone and style of an organization's communications, which should reflect its personality and positioning and provide coherence for its brand across all communications platforms.

I find that these voices can be fragmented, driven to a large degree by advertising and public relations, direct-response mailings, and the uncoordinated management of financial and internal communications.

In recent years, corporations have strived to unify their diverse communications, but the internet has proven disruptive to such efforts. The production of corporate communications has now gone from being a professional operation to a free-for-all in which everyone, at all levels, communicates internally and externally via email, Facebook, LinkedIn, Instagram, and other platforms. Brand voice is becoming increasingly decentralized and social; the most successful organizations understand how to engage audiences and leverage the voices of employees and consumers effectively.

As digital platforms become more sophisticated and audiences grow more distinctly delineated, organizations must keep up by embracing experiential and personal communications that harness opportunities for consumers to engage with them.

Finally, the information immediacy that now so powerfully defines our lives means that messages are spread far and wide very quickly, a fact that underscores the importance of having an organized and unified brand voice.

Our work with The College Board provides valuable insight into the process of developing an effective voice that enhances and reinforces brand messaging. Driven by the College Board's dynamic purpose statement, "Challenging All Students to Own Their Future," we defined its voice as:

  • Refreshingly clear
  • Credible
  • Supportive
  • Galvanizing
  • Forward-thinking

Each of these terms was then defined to reflect the College Board’s messaging and public persona. To describe its most distinctive quality -- galvanizing -- we recommended the following: "We make things happen. We challenge students to persevere and make the most of their education. We rally our member organizations to challenge the status quo and extend the promise of education to all. We are motivating and collaborative, not confrontational."

Culture Trumps Strategy Every Time

Employees will thrive and become powerful brand ambassadors if their organization's culture embraces a set of values that resonate deeply and authentically. Building an atmosphere in which this happens depends on what you do, not just on what you say.

Wells Fargo, today a textbook case of poor corporate culture, communicates a vision and values that are shockingly discordant with its recent behavior. Even now, in the wake of its management scandals, Wells Fargo continues to speak of "integrity," "principled performance," and a tireless commitment to valuing "what's right for our customers in everything we do."

In an extensive 2015 document, "The Vision and Values of Wells Fargo," CEO John Stumpf (who was fired the following year) defined the bank's vision as being "about building lifelong relationships one customer at a time," with the promise to "never put the stagecoach ahead of the horses." What comedy.

A positive, top-down culture is crucial to the success of your organization and the people who work for it. This is powerfully demonstrated in the 2014 book "Any Wednesday" by Keith Reinhard, chairman emeritus of the global advertising firm DDB Worldwide. The title stems from the brief, encouraging memos he sent to everyone in the agency on Wednesdays to help them finish the week with optimism.

Even from his seat at the head of the table, Reinhard did not forget the importance of connecting creatively and personally with all employees. His memos show a person who has served at all levels in an organization and who understands better than most that there is no substitute for an inspiring and inclusive work culture. Here's one of our favorites:

"When I first became head of the agency, I gave board members small potted plants with a note saying I expected each one of them to cause his or her plant to grow. It was a simple -- perhaps simplistic -- reminder that talent, like the plant, must be nurtured. Neither plants nor talented people can be instructed or commanded to grow."


Ultimately, the best test of an organization's voice is its impact on the market. ROI (Return on Investment), a conventional measure of impact, may work well in measuring tangible outcomes but does little to predict the effect of a product or program on an intended audience. We recast this formula as Relevance, Originality, Impact. The omission of any of these three elements can spell disaster for a branding program; by contrast, the most successful rebrands embrace each one with care and authenticity.

Our work for John Jay College exemplifies the importance of this ROI and its effectiveness in the marketplace. "Fierce Advocates for Justice" was a call to action to the younger generation to respond to the social injustices troubling our nation.

The motto was a stirring expression of purpose that made waves in the higher education community and inspired other schools to follow suit. And it was accompanied by a comprehensive campaign -- aimed at having maximum impact on the targeted demographics -- that included striking subway advertisements and geofencing around high school campuses to help attract prospective students -- achieving relevance, originality, and impact.

Various metrics were developed to gauge the campaign's reach, including measurements of awareness, familiarity, and reputation, as well as a willingness to provide financial support. "Fierce Advocates for Justice" generated highly impressive results: the number of alumni donors has increased by 35% since 2013; and the Justice Campaign -- a comprehensive digital and subway ad initiative than ran in the fourth quarter of 2016 -- has sparked an increase in applications of more than 40%. As a result, for the first time in its 52-year history, the John Jay College of Criminal Justice has a waiting list for enrollment.

Clarity Above All

Building a brand for the 21st century is no easy task. The advent of social media has provided podiums for customers and employees to voice their criticisms of once-impervious brands. Rather than fight this pervasive change, organizations would do well to evolve toward more transparent and authentic identities.

Siegelvision's own mantra is "Clarity Above All," which means clarity of purpose, expression, and experience. It is only getting easier today to identify organizations that fail to practice what they preach. Therefore, it is in the interests of everyone in your organization that you define and deeply believe in your purpose and positioning, express your voice coherently and empathetically, and promote an internal culture that eschews disingenuousness and places a premium on authenticity.

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Topics: Branding

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