Marc Cox considers what gives strong brands an on-going competitive edge?

Brands can no longer rely on image and ‘marketing speak’ to maintain a competitive edge. Therefore, why have some household names recognised that a clear understanding of their principal point of difference, their Brandspirit, aligned to how they ‘act’ is crucial to them remaining strong, whereas others just don’t get this simple point.

In recent years, I have had the good fortune to work in many countries around the world and with people from a wide range of cultures and social backgrounds. They ranged from experienced CEO’s of quoted companies to young, eager, but naive brand managers. All were attending workshops run by our company. All were looking to Brandspirit to help them understand what their brand stood for.

During the first part of the workshops I would ask people to shout out the names of the brands they admired most; and a little later, those brands that they thought had lost their way.

Whilst actual names have changed over time, Nike, Disney and Coca Cola being replaced by Google, Amazon and Apple, the common denominator under pinning why these brands are held in such high esteem remains similar.  Namely an understanding of how to act in the market place, delivered via conviction, clarity and a clear point of difference, aligned to strong values and sound behavioural principles.  All adding up to an intuitive sense of what’s right and wrong.

When asked the reasons why some brands lost their way, the ‘rogues gallery’ may change, but the reasons remain the same; lack of strong leadership; losing sight of customers needs; dilution of core values and behavioural principles; failing to remain contemporary and relevant as the market place changes; corporate arrogance; and brand communication that bears no relationship to the customer experience or what goes on internally.

Of course, all these brands had been strong once, so what went wrong?
At Brandspirit we believe the problem started with the values, behavioural principles and belief system of the leader, and his or her leadership team.

Strong brands that have been successful in rooting themselves in the public consciousness over the years are driven by people who are not just entrepreneurs looking for financial reward, but people who want the emotional pay-back of really making a difference.

 The challenge is how to make this difference sustainable, particularly when the founding spirit leaves or dies.  Those who are familiar with the Apple story will know that the company’s ups and downs have been closely linked to whether or not Steve Jobs was at the helm.  On his return, he was certainly more commercially savvy than the early days, but just as important was that he intuitively understood how to contemporise Macintosh’s founding Brandspirit, so that it morphed into Apple, a company that could produce a 21st century style icon such as the ipod.  This time he is not only the keeper of Apple’s Brandspirit, but he has been able to align his team around his vision for the business and drive it consistently through every aspect of his global operation.

Leaders fall into two camps.  They are either conviction led, like Jobs, and comfortable with taking risks, or formulaic and risk adverse.  It is our belief that those companies run by leaders who operate with conviction, values and behavioural principles that are understood by their people and hence which are translated into the customer experience, will win most times.  Why?  Because the business world has changed.  The strategies that worked twenty or thirty years ago no longer cut through. A combination of brand saturation, fragmented media channels, ever-evolving technology, the ‘China effect’ and changing customer expectations, all add up to one thing: the need to develop and sustain a real point of difference based on a contemporised Brandspirit is fundamental to long term commercial success.

As an example of conviction leadership, look at the current UK retail scene.  Tills are ringing at companies with unique point of difference, whereas the silence is deafening at those who are delivering a ‘me-too’ product and customer experience, and who confuse price cutting with marketing.

It is conviction leaders that intuitively understand this need, whereas professional managers fall back on tired, image and advertising strategies, mirroring what they think customers want and maintaining the status quo.  Conviction leaders know that the answer to creating effective differentiation lies on the inside and within their people, being really clear about what their brand stands for and delivering on customer expectations. 

For conviction leaders it’s a state of mind, for professional managers it’s what has worked in the past.

So, what gives a strong brand an on-going competitive edge?  It’s management custodians are conviction leaders who understand their brands founding Brandspirit; the need to contemporise it to keep it fresh and relevant; to nurture it’s core values; to have a clear vision for its future; and the importance of sound behavioural principles in guiding the way their people act to deliver a first-rate customer experience. Led by this philosophy, people will be given a clear sense of how they can realise the vision for their brand that they have defined, in a way which harmonises seamlessly with the business plan they are working to.  In short, management and their people understand that conviction really matters.

For those Financial Directors reading this article, conviction also makes a massive difference to the bottom line.  Just ask the FD’s at Google, Amazon and Apple.

About the author
Marc Cox is one of the founding Directors of Brandspirit Limited, a company that specialises in helping creating clarity and alignment around an organisations brand.  Marc can be contacted by email at