By Paul Sears
A friend and senior marketer recently thanked me for serving as a mirror in which her team could truly see themselves as an organization. It helped them identify what mattered most, so they could imagine a bold new future. I certainly appreciated her gracious feedback, and I thought it was a great way to frame the idea of transforming a brand.
Fair to say, transforming brands takes one through the looking glass. Especially when the client is one’s own company. It’s a chance to innovate – bringing forward all the ideas from years in the trenches. Yet it can be daunting when bosses and peers are part of the workgroup evaluating not only the path forward, but also the process itself.
Like every company we have our own unique dynamics. As we’ve grown, our team became even more distributed. We’re a matrixed organization whose dozens of leaders offer diverse viewpoints, goals and business objectives. We combine marketing and comms functions with different expectations for timing and workflow. And yet somehow, we managed to land somewhere wonderful with strong buy-in across the global organization. It’s fun to pause and reflect on how we got there.
Brand is a Team Sport – It Only Works When All The Players Believe
This is our mantra when it comes to brand transformation. The players are employees and those who aspire to join. They are suppliers, partners and the members of our Stagwell agency network. They are current clients and everyone who knows us for our roots in PR. And they are newer customers: marketing and business leaders whom this rebrand helps us reach.
Our first task was to find out what they currently believe, and what they’d be willing to believe. We used a lot of data in this endeavor. We started with client satisfaction and employee experience surveys. We audited a long list of competitors and delved into market trends. And we fielded new studies to supplement our body of knowledge.
One valuable exercise was having our office GM’s facilitate stop/start/continue discussions with their local teams: grass-roots SWOT analysis. Another came in the form of small-group workshops to learn how employees perceived the meaning of our core values and how those should translate into day-to-day behavior.
We fielded two perception studies with our partners at HarrisX, which helped us build our proprietary V.I.T.A.L. research methodology (Vision, Inspiration, Trust, Alignment and Leadership – five pillars that give brands their strength). The framework gives us an understanding of what our clients want from an agency partner and how we and our competitors do against those expectations.
We learned a lot about our perceptions in the market. Our founders’ vision is felt in the client relationship. Our teams deliver a passionate, engaged humility in the day-to-day. Our people are equally as creative as they are invested. Yet there were opportunities to make the vision feel bolder, push boundaries further and ensure we integrate the work top-to-bottom.
The quantitative study gave us a chance to validate our learnings at scale. We learned that as our capabilities expand, so does our competitive set. We’re expected to be at the table with top-tier creative agencies and consultancies. What matters most is exceptional work, delivered with integrity, that achieves measurable business results. It all boils down to Trust: our promises must be sincere and credible, and we must deliver consistently. This body of work was time well spent, giving the team clarity on how to achieve our ambitions.
Belief Requires Inclusive Co-Creation
As a brand strategy leader, my job is to create lean-in and buy-in. They’re equally crucial to a successful transformation. Once we created a level playing field of knowledge across our working group, it was time to come together for ideation.
We pulled together more than 25 stakeholders for three virtual workshops. In large groups and smaller breakouts, we picked through the strategy: who we are, what we believe, what it means for our visual and verbal language, and how we express ourselves in behavior. In our work sessions, we flatten the room and cater to all communication styles, so everyone’s voices are heard and everyone has a stake in the outcome.
Again, we used our V.I.T.A.L. framework. It’s not only for research, but also a scaffolding for the strategy. Vision reflects our end goal and the path to achieving it. Inspiration is the DNA that connects us emotionally with others. Trust reflects our positioning and promises. Alignment is achieved when our values manifest in behavior. Leadership is defined by examples of our promises in action.
In the process, we broke some exciting new ground.
Finding a Hidden North Star
The breakthrough was like that scene in “Moana” when she realizes “we were voyagers!”
“Be An Entrepreneur” has always been a core value, albeit last in a list of six. It’s a broad concept; the hardest one for people to unpack. It’s used a bit too much, and has too many overlapping meanings, making it hard to focus. But hiding within, there was a kernel.
The ideas bundled into entrepreneurship are the things we prize: insight, experimentation, invention, collaboration, tenacity and growth. And they are exactly the same things our clients prize. We were on to something. But how can it be uniquely ours?
It was on a call with our APAC leadership when one of our founders shared his interpretation. There it was: the builder’s mindset, limitless and open to everyone. Take a space where nothing exists and create value for clients, colleagues and communities. Our North Star was hiding in front of us all along.
With a strong Brand Concept, we brought the strategy together. It was a process of finding the right words and pictures, ensuring the right associations and evoking emotion at every turn while also reinforcing credibility. It was bringing together belief, behavior and expression all in one place. We again turn to our V.I.T.A.L. framework as the organizing principle for the brand strategy:
- V: Vision – Vision and Mission statements with supporting messages
- I: Inspiration – DNA, Values, Voice, Visual Identity, Purpose statement and tagline
- T: Trust – Brand positioning statements, elevator pitches, reasons to trust
- A: Alignment – values-aligned behavior guidelines, cultural expectations and go-to-market activity
- L: Leadership – data-driven proof points of our promises in action
This gave our team a jumping off point for everything that was to come – website, imagery, campaign, videos, external and internal rollouts. And a huge team it was. They all needed to sing from the same song sheet. This is why we create simple, digestible brand playbooks – it becomes an easy way for people to see themselves in the story.
Guidelines Aren’t Enough
With two certifications in Agile, I’ll always recite the Agile Manifesto and say “people and interactions over processes and tools.” In other words, the best documents in the world don’t substitute for hands-on training.
“What does it mean to be a marketing & communications consultancy? How is that different from before? How do our solutions drive business impact? How do we create content? What do I say in a pitch?”
These are crucial questions that can go unvoiced if not drawn-out as part of a change management process. That training is now underway. As our brand transforms, so do our internal norms, tribal languages and day-to-day operations. Brand isn’t a document on a shelf or window dressing for decks and websites. Brand is a living, breathing thing that we deliver together.
Upon Further Reflection – It’s an Exciting Time
After months of research and hundreds of hours of creation, we’re now Allison – a marketing and communications consultancy built for the future. We don’t look for innovations, we invent them. We always push forward, and our best years will always be ahead of us. It’s been an honor to go through the looking glass on this rebrand, and I can’t wait to watch it unfold.
Learn more about our Brand + Engagement Strategy: https://allisonbrand.agency
Paul Sears is managing director, Brand & Engagement Strategy. With 20 years in advertising, brand and marketing strategy, he spends his time helping clients sharpen their strategic focus at the brand level or for individual products and campaigns.