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January 12, 2010
What’s Holding Your Brand Together?

The insights and tools that come standard as part of most re-branding engagements are great. They make new systems easy to explain and easy to implement consistently. What they don’t—and can’t—do is turn brand principles into creative practice. That’s the hard part. And, not surprisingly, it’s where most brands fall. Hard.

The simple truth is that brands can do everything technically right and still get their communications horribly wrong. It happens all the time: Internal teams and external agencies use paint-by-numbers templates to help make sure their work is brand-compliant. And as far as colors, logos, typefaces and taglines go, it just may be. The creative as a whole, though, is frequently uninspired. Unmotivating. In the words of no less than the great Orson Welles, unrewarding.

The work communicates, but doesn’t resonate.

In some cases, of course, this is simply a reflection of a lackluster brand, or a product/service offering that fails to raise an eyebrow, let alone a pulse.

But most of the time, what’s missing is a cohesive, compelling concept; a foundational idea that everyone—customers, prospects, investors, the media, internal teams, business partners—can not only understand, but can get behind. Intellectually. Emotionally. Viscerally. (Pretty much all the lly’s. Well, the good ones, anyway.)

This is the Continuous Thread. And once it’s clearly defined, marketing, communications and creative teams are free to go off and do their respective things because, at that point, it’s easy to see whether or not those things are attached to the Continuous Thread, or just some stray bits that need to be trimmed before they start to unravel the brand.

To be clear, the Continuous Thread is not to be confused with some long-winded deck that explains in painstaking detail the attributes of the brand, it’s drivers and motivators, levers and triggers. (Not that there isn’t a place for that. (You’re welcome, Interbrand, Landor and the rest of you lot.)

It’s just that a Continuous Thread is more than that...and less.

More, in that it’s effectively all those things rolled into one. It’s ripe with meaning. Rich with nuance. Layered in its complexity. The conceptual equivalent of a great bouillabaisse, if you smell what I’m cooking.

Less, in that it’s short. And simple. And doesn’t require a lot of words or hifalutin’ brand-speak for the man-on-the-street—or anyone, for that matter—to understand.

IBM’s Solutions For A Smarter Planet is a terrific example. It explains that the organization has a higher purpose than selling technology for technology’s sake or, indeed, for profit alone. And it does so in terms that strike a chord that is at once human and topical. A rare feat. It’s an idea that’s big enough to drive pretty much everything the company does, from product development to PR, yet subtle enough to take a backseat to other, more targeted campaigns. IBM takes care to ensure that ‘A Smarter Planet’ is woven into just about every corporate communication, helping to strengthen, enhance and extend the very fabric of the brand.

Now that’s a Continuous Thread.

In contrast, there are some brands that seem to have lost the Continuous Thread over time (Hello Xerox...what is it that you do again?), and others that appear to have never really had it to begin with (like Microsoft; unless you count world domination. They’re like a dog on a bone with that one).

But don’t let them discourage you from looking for the Continuous Thread in your own organization. All it takes is a few bright minds who can synthesize the attributes and insights that make your brand unique, and use them as fuel for the creative fire. That, of course, is where the magic happens.

What’s conjured up should be aligned with your business strategy, but different from everything the company and the competition are doing...or have done. Hint: If it thrills and frightens you all at the same time, that’s a good sign.

And remember: You’re not looking for a great tag or advertising line. It’s not a positioning statement or a messaging platform. Take all those catchphrases out of your mind and feel around for that single, precious strand; the one that’s strong enough and ‘long’ enough to be carried through every one of your communications initiatives.

It’ll invariably be more pronounced in some than in others, which is fine. What’s important is that it’s there, helping to stitch up all the loose ends and hold your brand together.

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Peter Leeds is principal at Gabardine, an agency in Westport, CT. The company develops creative marketing ideas and weaves them, like continuous threads, across marketing communications -- online and off -- to help strengthen the fabric of their clients’ brands.

Peter’s held senior-level positions on both the agency and client sides, including VP Creative Director at Modem Media and, most recently, Global Head of Creative Services for Thomson Reuters.

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