Feature Article: Branding: The Integral Leader’s Trojan Horse? Jordan Bruce MacLeod

Jordan MacLeod


Jordan Bruce MacLeod

‘Products are made in the factory, but brands are created in the mind.’
– Walter Landor

Business Week’s latest ranking of the world’s top 100 brands attests to the staggering value now being attributed to these rather intangible and nebulous assets. From the bottom of the list, where Levi’s (#100) weighs in at $2.7 billion all the way to the top where Coca-Cola’s $67 billion dollar brand enjoys a refreshing view, these mega-corporations are rapidly increasing the energy and attention they pay to the invisible forces of branding.

For most of the past century brand was primarily equated with a company’s logo and tagline. In integral terms, a brand’s value was flattened into the exterior dimension of visible and tangible marketing materials. That branding is so much more than a name or logo has become increasingly apparent over the past decade with increasing competitiveness in the global marketplace and widespread adoption of the Internet, which has transformed how companies relate to their customers through far more points of contact and greater accessibility.

Beyond the logo, a brand lives primarily in the invisible world of stories, myths, emotions, experiences and values. It’s an aggregate of the memes that activate and spring into our minds and hearts when we come into contact with any facet of an organization, including its people, products and other customers. For better or worse, these conscious and unconscious associations that people make and share about a brand is what drives its value up, down or into the purgatory of indifference.

Regularly speaking about their brands with religious fervor and zeal, CEOs and corporate executives attest to their strength and largely attribute their brand’s success to its greatest champion: its employees.

In this phase of capitalism that combines digital communication with fierce competitiveness and increasing expectations made by consumers, all employees have become brand ambassadors. Every experience that exceeds expectations has the potential to turn customers into brand champions. Conversely, every experience with any employee that comes up short, disappoints, or alienates has potential to explode into chatrooms, YouTube, and viral campaigns.

Even far less severe but more frequent situations such as inconsistent experiences and failing to walk the talk creates brand dissonance that deadens the quality of experiences and connections. This quickly leads to declining consumer loyalty and confusion of purpose that ultimately find ways to impact the bottom line.

Brand DNA

With some corporations potentially having tens of thousands of employees in thousands of divisions, in hundreds of countries, interacting with millions of customers, leaders have quickly realized that no single person or even department can possibly control and manage all of these points of interaction. This emerging reality is forcing companies to let go much of their control on content and ramp up their focus on aligning and communicating the big picture internally.

Rather than training and micromanaging people specifically on what to do or say, they’re working to ensure that everyone in the organization is on the same page at a far more essential level. Armed with that essence or DNA of their company’s brand, these leaders believe employees have greater room and flexibility to be themselves and adapt spontaneously to their unique challenges and opportunities, while remaining true to the company’s brand.

Brands are constantly being judged, compared, evaluated based on individual and collective (mis)understandings of what a brand is or isn’t. The brand DNA enables a brand’s leaders to articulate a common understanding and then work to align the core of who they are with everything they do and say. This, in turn, minimizes dissonance and amplifies the attractor patterns that resonate with both target markets and throughout the organization.

While branding strategists and advertising agencies have different methodologies for arriving at a company’s brand DNA (i.e. the company’s basic blueprints and building blocks), they all strive to dig deep into the fabric of a brand’s identity, values, and essence. Most experts would also agree that if you cannot condense your brand’s identity into three or four words, or at most a sentence, you don’t yet know your brand.

Getting to that point involves questions that make most engineers and left-brain thinkers running for the hills . If your brand was a person what kind of car would it drive? Where would it eat? Shop?Vacation? Is it a man or a woman? What is its most redeeming quality? Least? And so on. Brand workshops and research probe for the mental associations people make with different elements of the brand, going far beyond herd-type settings such as focus groups. Ethnographic researchers literally live with target markets, and armed with video cameras, deliver documentaries to executive boardrooms worldwide reporting on how their customers really live and what they value.

All of the above research into a brand’s DNA is striving to reach the core essence of who and what a company is and stands for. When arriving at and working from this core, a company can tap into newfound power. It can be more authentic, real, clear, simple, consistent. Anyone who ‘gets it’ can constantly measure the company’s products, actions and words against this DNA. One can then ask: is this merger, press release, hire, layoff, location, ad, partner, product, car that I drive, email, division, policy, joke, packaging etc., on brand? In other words, one can cross-check anything against this DNA to determine whether it reflects the core identity and values of the company.

Once arrived at, this DNA can easily be communicated to all staff. If true and well articulated, it will naturally and immediately resonate with almost everyone. Instantly, an organization has identified its essence and created a compass by which all of its internal stakeholders can constantly refer to. But make no mistake, articulating this DNA is simply making conscious what was already there.

If however the brand DNA is inflated, inaccurate or unable to reflect the conflicting identities of a weak brand, it will surely ring hollow and render branding ineffective or even counterproductive. In this age of mega-mergers, incompatible brands frequently come together when executives lose sight of their values and cultures in favor of grand but myopic visions of expanding market share and product lines. In the end, however, more can be much less. Trying to be everything to everyone leads to clutter and confusion in the marketplace, watered down values, employee resentment and decreasing consumer loyalty. These invisible dangers erode brand equity and profit margins while increasing the potential volatility of future earnings.

When Daimler Benz announced their intention to buy Chrysler, most people connected to the Mercedes brand experienced a similar dissonance or internal brand clash with Chrysler’s. Even though it may have made sense financially or strategically, the move in the mind of most Mercedes customers, employees and car enthusiasts was off brand. The two companies stand for very different things and values. One was a premium brand that stood for luxury, high quality and performance whereas the other stood for good value at prices affordable to the masses. The dissonance created by such off brand moves cannot be underestimated. It creates confusion and complexity in the minds of consumers and employees alike about what the brand stands for.

In May, when Daimler finally divested Chrysler for a $13 billion loss over six short years, investors and employees praised the move with a sense of enthusiasm and relief. Following the sale, Gottfried Gruber, a Daimler employee in Stuttgart who monitors engine quality parts reflected on the brand dissonance: “there were certainly no expressions of sympathy among staff…(morale) will now improve.”

In this case, Daimler and Chrysler stand for very different things. Here, as is frequently the case, the interior dimension is ignored or highly underestimated during corporate mergers. Even after the sale of Chrysler, Daimler CEO Dieter Zetsche failed to recognize this internal incompatibility of brands, by remaining entirely focused on the exterior quadrants, “We obviously overestimated the potential of the synergies. I don’t know if any due diligence could have shown us this, given the very different nature of the markets we are working in, between the mass market and the premium segments.” Yet it is precisely the different nature of the markets they are working in that made their brands predisposed to incompatibility in the first place.

The Power (Yes Power!) of Brand Consensus

While consensus is widely regarded by many as a tiresome and inefficient process, in the world of branding nothing could be further from the truth. Every stakeholder in a company, whether they’re the largest client, the CEO, the mail clerk or an office manager, has a conscious or unconscious formulation of that company’s DNA, and actively participates in creating the company’s brand. With a powerful brand those DNA formulations will resonate and be largely consistent regardless of where they appear on the hierarchy.

Even when a CEO has the apparent final say on a decision, every brand stakeholder and brand co-creator will thereafter have the real final say on that decision. Although most positionalities and opinions may never get back to the top, each contributes to the collective formulation of the brand and therefore the driving cultural forces of the organization and its markets.

Attaining brand consensus therefore becomes the greatest affirmation of any action, idea or decision and a testament to the collective alignment of a brand’s DNA within the organization. It is perhaps important to emphasize here that most companies have no chance of attaining such consensus because there’s an utter lack of brand clarity and confused or segmented identity. This lack of identity forces mediocre organizations to react to marketplace trends rather than lead them. It leads to imitation and attempts to eke out market share based on under pricing competitors.

What we are talking about here is not the (negatively) idealized kind of consensus that’s hammered or watered down peoples’ throats over multiple, arduous sessions, assisted by tea, rants, round tables, hugging, facilitating and drumming. Rather, it’s arrived at by simply a momentary checking into the nonlinear space of the brand DNA…is this on brand?

In branding bringing all of your stakeholders into a room to agree on tough decisions is probably never possible, nor desirable. But having them all resonate with the essence of a decision— whether big or small—is not only possible, but also natural, when the DNA is clear, focused, true and consistent throughout the organization. This kind of consensus is exponentially more powerful than what any CEO could ever dream of having.

Using Spiral Dynamics (SDi) terminology brand consensus reflects organizational shifts from Blue-Orange to Orange-Green decision making processes and customer interactions. For example, in most Blue-Orange hierarchies, employees have clearly defined and managed touchpoints with customers. In the digital age, increasing accessibility and shifting customer values create demand for engaging experiences that are very difficult to satisfy in monolithic hierarchies.

As the world increases its density of Orange and Green consumers, pioneers in the corporate world have responded by tapping into the brand DNA. Rather than strictly following the corporate rulebook, working from a shared essence enables more people to do the right thing in many different ways. It also enables decision making that transcends individuals’ ego-involvement ( What would I do?) with by aligning with the collective essence of the company (Regardless of what I would do, is it on brand?).

Consider for example ten executives who work for Disney. Sitting together in a meeting room, they’re presented with a hypothetical situation where a pilot show lands on their desk and it is theirs for the taking. It has it all: a great director, hot actors and original, witty writers. The only problem is that it caters primarily to a twenty-something audience.

After reading it they ask themselves, is this show on brand? In Disney’s case, they might turn to Walt Disney’s DNA-esque statement: “everything we do aims to put a smile on a child’s face.” Even though it looks like a sure-winner, using this methodology, all ten choose to pass on the show because it is off brand. That’s a simple example of powerful brand consensus.

Going further, these executives need not even do the same thing to establish consensus. Some might pass altogether, but others might choose to buy it and pass it on to an affiliated company. Yet both moves can be viewed as on brand in the eyes of all ten.

The point here is that consensus doesn’t need to be limited to a single action to work, nor does healthy consensus require taking on the burden of getting everyone to agree on a decision. Rather, the dynamics of this process enables an increasing alignment with a company’s values, while simultaneously creating exponentially more possible ‘right’ moves in any given situation.

In a well-functioning Orange-Green organization, a healthy respect for leadership and authority (the boss gets to make the final call) can and is combined with a collective dedication to staying true to the (Green) brand essence. In such an organization, this brand essence must be bigger than any individual to be effective, yet it requires strong individuals to drive it. Furthermore, it enables brand leaders to emerge at all levels of the company, particularly at focal points of customer interaction.

At the end of the day, while these Disney employees may individually make decisions very differently, if they all agree their moves were on brandthey are clearly aligned to strong superordinate vision. This process opens up greater freedom for each to be who they are and amplifies their ability to contribute cohesively. Beyond this simple example, when the cumulative decisions in all facets of the organization are made from this same essence, results can be truly magical. It is as applicable and effective for anyone in the organization from the CEO to sales agents to Mickey Mouse himself.

Branding Beyond the Corporation

The power of branding is perhaps even more readily accessible to smaller companies and organizations – particularly startups where the DNA is clearly articulated and true from the beginning. It is as applicable to macro projects such as global political initiatives and city planning as it is to a two person consultancy. It is equally applicable to individuals as a tool for personal development.

In all cases the DNA can be seen as a superordinate vision that is accessible, true and all-encompassing. Here are some examples of how this brand DNA might formulated: “bring our city to life through development”; “service through unconditional love” or “elevate Japan through technology” (paraphrasing Sony brand DNA post-WWII). The DNA does not have to be catchy sounding like a tagline. As an internal compass its value is derived from its resonance, authenticity and clarity.

Its formula is ultimately remarkably simple and consistent for all: 1) find the DNA of your brand (aka the cause, non-linear dynamics, attractor pattern), 2) stay true to it in everything you do (aka the linear, effects). One simply cross-checks everything (both big and small) against it. As #1 evolves, #2 will follow naturally. Provided that your DNA has sufficient potential resonance with others, it is true and reflects existing capabilities, conditions for success will be well established.

Although straight and narrow, the path to building strong brands is an arduous one. It requires vision and persistent leadership. It also requires buy-in and co-creation at all levels of an organization. Furthermore, the process will naturally bring up non-integrated shadow aspects that clearly undermine the brand – yet are very often deeply entrenched in behavior and culture. Fortunately the superordinate vision of a clear brand DNA also creates the context and dynamics to consciously work through these pitfalls and develop on brand alternatives.

As branding becomes increasingly sophisticated, we may find it is also moving in a direction that will have integral leaders and visionaries at the edge of their seats. Why? Because it’s coming right at them.

Integral Branding

Again using SDi terminology, Brand DNA lives in four quadrants and has potential to resonate or repel within the eight or nine vMemes currently active on the planet. An AQAL approach to branding offers incredible potential to not only situate brand DNAs both vertically and horizontally, but also map out the various aversions and attractions on each level, identifying which levels are most active, how these levels interact and contribute to the whole brand experience, how different stakeholders resonate to the DNA, and so on.

Perhaps nowhere in business, or in any discipline for that matter, is integral theory more ready for mainstream adoption than in the world of branding. Nowhere in business is there such an understanding of the interconnectedness of interior dynamics between customers, employees, behaviors, cultures, products and social trends. Nor is there anywhere else on Earth where such lucrative value (as demonstrated by Business Week’s top brands list) is placed on the interior quadrant of stories, cultures, psychology and mythology.

Given that leaders of mainstream branding are already utilizing DNA type structures and recognize its relevance and applicability to everything an organization does, says, thinks, and makes, the field displays a present readiness for utilizing a four quadrant model approach.

Furthermore, with an understanding of the verticality of vMemes, brand strategists and organizational leaders would be armed with an ability to explain their most valued and sought after questions. For example, why some resonate with, while others repel from, a brand; why dentists, gangsters and plumbers have more in common than we might think in their love for Harleys; why an employee isn’t fitting into their new role; how to respond differently, yet appropriately, to two angry customers; how to build stronger connectivity to female shoppers; increase synergies with that new acquisition; and so on.

The Trojan horse for integral leaders has arrived. And it’s already inside the boardroom.

Jordan Bruce MacLeod is a writer, sculptor and freelance brand strategist living in Prince Edward Island, Canada. He has worked extensively with clients in Canada, the United States, the UK and Bermuda on brand building and advertising campaigns. He is also co-founder of Elevator Software Corp., a startup enterprise working to reinvent digital transmission security. He can be contacted by email at: