brands that walk the walk win

Brand Activations that Drive Customer Value

Winning Brand Strategy

Many brands talk the talk, spending millions to create compelling and interesting marketing communications and advertising campaigns, but only a select few actually walk the walk by activating a consistent brand experience that fulfills the brand platform throughout the customer experience.  All the broadcast TV ads in the world won’t make up for a disappointing experience if the brand doesn’t deliver.

Why do so many companies spend so much on brand advertising and communications, while leaving the remaining brand elements (product, price and consumer touch points) to other parts of the organization to define and deliver the experience?  There are several reasons, but we’ve found the primary reason for this gap is that truly activating the brand is often too daunting and too complex for all but the strongest brand champion.

At its core, a brand activation project takes a strong brand strategy and brings it to life throughout the organization. To accomplish this, a brand activation initiative assesses the alignment between the company’s behavior, its communications, and the brand platform, and then creates programs across levels and functions to improve the delivery on that platform’s promise. It is a formalized effort with a programmatic approach. It’s dynamic and ongoing. It requires executive buy in, and in many ways impacts the overall culture of the company when done well. Aligning behaviors throughout the customer experience requires leading a cross functional effort and changing organizational behaviors, which are demanding tasks in even the most agile and customer-focused of organizations.

While activating the brand is indeed challenging, doing so will reap many rewards if executed well. Internally, it helps employees with decision-making and often creates a sense of pride and camaraderie. Externally, it will engage customers and engender loyalty. Brand activation is not some fuzzy concept with soft measurement; ultimately, brand activation means running the business more effectively and profitably. Over time well-aligned brands outperform those that are misaligned or rely on communications.

The airline industry is a great example. Southwest and JetBlue are well aligned brands, albeit with different positioning (see exhibit 1). Everything from the marketing communications to the online booking, to the customer service and in-flight experience on both airlines are well aligned. Contrast that experience with the other major US carriers, where so often premium pricing and premium messaging is misaligned, or at best inconsistent, across the customer experience.  For JetBlue and Southwest, the business benefits from brand alignment accrue in terms of superior customer satisfaction, lower operating costs per passenger, and their ability to be more efficient with their sales and marketing dollars.

Other frequently cited examples of well aligned brands which have led to business success include Starbucks, Lexus and Apple. We would add to the list smaller brands like beauty brand Aveda, Burt’s Bees and Trader Joe’s. All of these brands are well aligned to their brand promises and have reaped business results based on a compelling and consistent consumer experience.


Prerequisites for Success

In our experience, there are several pre-requisites for success, as well as several useful implementation tenets that address the common hurdles of a brand activation project.

An obvious but sometimes overlooked pre-requisite for success with a brand activation initiative is a well articulated, research-based brand platform that ties to customer needs and business drivers. Many brand managers focus on the communications aspects of brand, but don’t articulate the values and related behaviors associated with a brand to guide the total experience. Failure to research and incorporate experiential components often leaves employees with the task of translating brand personality adjectives like “friendly” or “fun” into critical operational decisions and practices. Instead, the brand platform should encompass both the communications aspects (tone, personality, positioning) as well as the behavioral aspects of the brand which is well rooted in research based insights.

Another important pre-requisite for success is top executive buy-in for the brand activation initiative. If the initiative does not have broad support from above, it is unlikely to succeed. Recommendations which raise costs or that require changes in behavior will likely be met with resistance, so it’s critical to have support from the management team on the benefits of the overall program. Sharing case studies of how other brands that walk the walk have benefited from similar initiatives can help with garnering the support needed. Even more powerful is research that ties customer desires and behavior (e.g. purchase decisions, satisfaction, loyalty and recommendations) to the implementation of brand values throughout the organization.

Once a strong brand platform and overall management buy-in are in place, the brand activation process can begin.

Activating the Brand

Just as every brand is unique, no two brand activation programs are exactly the same. However, the most successful brand activation initiatives do share common elements such as gap analysis, initiative prioritization, program development and implementation, and measurement and reward.


Although often portrayed as a linear series of steps, the best brand activation initiatives are iterative in nature and require a continual refreshment and re-prioritization based on measurement, new research and analysis. If such an initiative sounds daunting, it can be. But it also can be incredibly powerful and beneficial. Well activated brands surprise and delight the customer in their integration and consistency.

Common Tenets of Success

Though customization is required, there are six tenets that hold true across plans which we have found common to success.

1. Create an “All Hands on Deck” Attitude

Successful companies employ an overarching mantra, supported by management teams, emphasizing that everyone’s job is to deliver against the brand platform. This doesn’t negate the need for a dedicated lead to champion the process and measure success, but it is an overarching tenet of the program. We have also found creating brand ambassadorships within the key functional organizations as partners for the lead manager on the initiative can help shape the specific recommendations and implementation programs, as well as help smooth the way for possible turf-war challenges.

2. Prioritize a Staged Project Rollout

While looking at the holistic needs of an organization, it’s easy for critics to complain that a brand activation initiative is like trying to “boil the ocean.” The key to overcoming this criticism is prioritization and quick wins. When deciding which brand delivery gaps to attack first, consider attacking one or two areas that are fairly easy to implement and measure, thereby showing success and developing momentum for the initiative early on.

3. Facilitate with a Strong Training Program

Often when the brand team comes knocking on other departments’ doors as part of the brand activation initiative, they are received as the “logo police” or “the folks who do the fun ads”. Getting buy-in and cooperation requires clarifying the initiative’s purpose and explaining the differences between what we call little b and big B branding. Little b is concerned with the logo and identity alignment, where big B drives the overall experience and is tied to business value. As part of your program, you need a training and communication initiative that clarifies the big B brand approach and accomplishes the following objectives:

  • Buy-in and understanding of the overall initiative and expectations
  • Confirmation for how it will drive business value for the company
  • Delivery of a simple way to assess brand actions
  • Explanation of what’s in it for “them” (tied to rewards)

4. Simplify with Tools 

An important component to the overall project is to simplify the brand information so it can be understood across many different types of functional areas. While these tools often include creative communications surrounding the brand platform on everything from company ID holders to posters in the hallways, we have found a more informative and useful component to be a brand assessment tool. The tool we have developed and implemented is used to evaluate any existing program or new initiative to confirm it complies with the brand experience and behaviors. The tool can come in many forms and ranges from an easy MS Word survey to a sophisticated interactive online tool. For example, when helping a telecom company, we created a simple Y/N questionnaire that assessed activities or initiatives against the brand behaviors. By completing the questionnaire, the user could see how the idea performed against the key brand attributes and determine if there were areas that needed improvement to better align to the brand. These tools may be customized for specific departments or kept broad across the organization. However, the objective is to keep it simple so it will be used to guide brand alignment across programs or initiatives.

5. Measure, Report and Share

As with any change management project, you must show people how business will be improved by this effort before you can motivate them to make changes.  You will need to outline your key measurements based on researched value-drivers for the initiatives across the program and track them to report success.  Publicizing the results is also critical. Once you have results, you should share success stories with other departments to further smooth the path and expand the program.

6. Over-Emphasize Rewards and Recognition

While there are many motivators for such a program that are tied to overall business results, when your goal is changing behaviors, the best way to ensure success is to link it to monetary or other individually relevant rewards.  You need to tie brand activation to a group’s goals and compensation. For some companies, they ask each senior management team member to always have a brand activation initiative underway and include it in the groups’ quarterly goals.  Another tack is implementing company-wide awards for the best brand activation initiative based on business results achieved. Public recognition is also highly motivating for most people.  You can recognize, as well as educate the broader team, by partnering with your internal communications group to showcase efforts on your intranet or company newsletter.

In summary, you don’t need a lot of money or huge department to walk the walk … what you do need is the right program in place and right approach to avoid a “boil the ocean” situation and organizational alignment challenges. A successful program starts with a well-articulated, research-based brand platform and executive buy-in. It leverages supplemental research (customer and employee) and analysis tools such as touch point analysis to deepen understanding of the opportunities to improve the total brand experience. And then it prioritizes initiatives, looking for powerful, easy to implement (and measure) wins that demonstrate the value of the initiative before proceeding to a wider rollout. Finally, it includes an overarching rewards system and mantra that everyone’s job entails delivering on the underlying components. The best brands have incorporated these ideas into the regular pattern of business and their successes are evident in their brand experiences, and more importantly, their business results.

To learn more about how to keep the customer at the center of your brand strategy, check out The Customer: Your # 1 Resource for Innovation and our Case Study on improving customer experience to help your brand win.