When I was working at The Economist in New York, some 7 years ago I got the chance to work with the business development team who were tasked to conjure up new businesses for the Group. It was around the time the company was undergoing a major facelift – adding onto its century-old brand – an advertising network, a design thinking team, and casual Fridays.
One of the big impetus towards this was the imminent doom publishing businesses were facing (back then). The general consensus was – ‘innovate and change old ways or pack up and leave.’
So for many months – the business development team thought of new business offerings that could help generate additional revenue for the company – anything that could help sustain or supplement the main publishing arm of the business.
But almost every idea put up was rejected. It always boiled down to this reasoning:
‘It’s brand damaging’
At the time, as a fresh associate with big eyes and even bigger dreams – I didn’t see what truly was the matter. I didn’t realize why the upper management was more concerned about its brand than saving the circulation team.
It was much more than just slapping the Economist logo on a new product – it meant risking the company’s 150 years of quality production. I realized very quickly that while the ideas we had proposed were needed in the market at the time, it wasn’t what our core customers wanted (or expected) from us. In other words, it was brand damaging – it did not align with the customer’s view of what we stood for.
A brand is a company’s calling card. It’s how everyone recognizes them and the first thing everyone judges them by. To the Economist, its brand was being a leader in producing quality business editorials. And to deviate from the core principle was a huge risk. So then we flipped the question – instead of looking for new (random) businesses to drive revenue, we simply had to leverage on our strengths – and find new ways of distribution. The most important thing was to keep our brand consistent even if the offering keeps changing.
The few ideas that were successful were Economist Audio and Economist Espresso, along with an educational platform for MBA candidates, and a thought leadership consultancy for the advertising network. These new offerings stayed true to the core principle of ‘high-quality business reports’ while opening a whole new area of consumers and methods of consumption.
The importance of a great brand
It takes a lot of time, money, and hard work to build and maintain great brands. But most people don’t think about branding past the logo and the colour of its font. I love developing brands from scratch but it’s a little bit more complicated than designing a beautiful logo – it is the labels and feelings your customers associate your product or service with. It is how your employees describe what you do. A brand is that intangible thing that plant itself in the hearts and minds of the people who engage with it the most.
It is not something that is created overnight – but companies can take measures to direct people’s thoughts and feelings by engaging with them, and by producing content and a customer experience that speaks to ‘your brand’. In the long run – your brand is a far more valuable currency than any physical product you sell – it will be that x factor that enables you to charge a premium and define an entire generation’s lifestyle.
For a company like the Economist, its long years of existence had organically built a reputation around high-quality business editorial, so staying true to the fundamentals of its brand wasn’t so difficult. For many newer companies, however, particularly start-ups, the same fate is not afforded. In order to stand out in a sea of competing products, the only way to differentiate yourself is by proper branding – not only listening to what the customers have to say but choosing what you want to stand for from day 1. It is about giving customers what they want (not what you think they need).
More on branding coming soon!