Digital Transformation

Communicating instead of dictating: why brand transformation cannot be imposed


Digital transformation

Never before have brands been subjected to such strong and sustained pressure to change. The digital transformation has turned media communication upside down and opened new markets. Faster innovation cycles have shortened the intervals between model generations. Globalization and continuing consolidation in various industries are forcing new brand positioning. Revolutionary business models are disrupting established value chains and lead to radically changed role distributions between companies. Instead of operating in established markets, companies are operating in a world where the ground under their feet shifts like quicksand. They must adapt their brand to changing conditions at increasingly shorter intervals.

The transformation of brands has thus become an omnipresent challenge. The adjustment pressure that precedes such a transformation is usually intensified, if not triggered, by external factors such as digitalization. The transformation of a brand must therefore always be viewed in the context of its market environment. Anyone who believes that they can respond to this challenge only by means of a visual re-design, undervalues the necessity to deal with the actual core of the brand. And he – or she – is not only in danger of being pushed out of the market, but also underestimates the demands that such brand transformation processes place on the top management. A simple logo exchange is not enough. The transformation of a brand is more profound. It touches the core of a company’s vision, values and culture and can lead to considerable resistance among the stakeholders involved. This primarily includes employees who prefer to participate in the process rather than be confronted with a fait accompli.

Brands are a business for the boss

Remember the old bon mot that brands are a business for the boss? There is a deeper meaning to that. The active support of top management is critical for success, because the digital transformation of a brand is usually a lengthy effort. A strong leadership that facilitates and drives the brand transformation process minimizes the risk of failure. Top management must inspire the willingness to adapt and it must motivate employees at all levels to accept and implement the transformation.

Furthermore, there are two other factors that illustrate how much the success of a brand transformation depends on the commitment of the top management. On the one hand, the intangible value of a brand has gained considerably in importance. The credibility of a brand depends to a large extent on the CEO’s credibility. This, in turn, is only given if the brand transformation is actively supported by the CEO himself. As a consequence, the CEO must lead by example and demonstrate how the realignment of the brand can be brought to life. On the other hand, top management has an exclusive, holistic view of the brand’s success factors, which are considered in the transformation process. Consequently, it is also the responsibility of the top management to set clear strategic targets.

The role of employees in brand transformations

Brand transformations can create even more value when they strategically leverage the CEO, for example as thought leader

It is even more difficult to delegate responsibility for the brand to third parties in times of upheaval. One of the reasons for this is the ambivalent role of the employees, both as objects and subjects of brand transformation.

The input of employees is needed to shape an appealing brand, while they need to authentically live up to the new brand at the same time

As an object of transformation, the process of realignment causes the employees themselves to undergo a change, for example their hitherto tried and tested behaviors. As a subject of transformation, however, the employees find themselves in the role of the change agent, who is to play an active role in shaping change and take it authentically to the outside world. This conflict shows that a transformation of the brand must ideally follow a top-down approach that is in line with the corporate strategy. Top management must offer employees the necessary guidance and at the same time is open enough to respond to the ideas of all relevant stakeholders. For the management, this is a Herculean task: although it is supposed to guide the process, it cannot dictate the brand transformation unilaterally.

In order to involve employees and other relevant stakeholders in the process, the vision behind the transformation must be clearly communicated, successes must be made visible in due time and, of course, problems must be actively addressed. Without a doubt, the key to success here is communication that involves all stakeholders instead of excluding them.

However, the transformation process does not only require empathy and leadership at the highest level. It must also be driven by a team in which the roles are clearly distributed. The more complex the process, the more important the precise and integrative distribution of roles. In large companies, where not all stakeholders can accompany every step in the transformation process, the clear distribution of roles minimizes friction. It also increases the efficiency of implementation and helps overcome resistance. It is most successful when the composition of the team overcomes the often-prevailing silo mentality and simultaneously promotes the further integration of the brand.

Leveraging the new brand digitally

In this context, the ongoing digitalization of brands plays an important role. For brands, digital transformation does not only mean that new products and distribution channels can be developed, but also that the brand design must be made more flexible and responsive. For brand managers, digitalization also creates completely new ways of implementing and anchoring a brand transformation in the organization. Similar to sharing platforms, using a brand portal will allow brand managers to better communicate the re-orientation guidelines, explain the history behind the brand and provide the corresponding design templates to create a common understanding of the new brand in the organization worldwide. They can also involve employees in the brand transformation by using the portal to distribute branded articles such as shoes or T-shirts, for example, which help employees to build up their sense of identification with the new brand.

Make no mistake about it: Despite all the efforts to digitize, in the end it is still people who need to be addressed behind the programs and the technology. Digitalization does not replace interpersonal communication, for a simple reason: at both ends of the communication there are people, as recipients and as emitters of information. Change management, in our case a brands digital transformation, must take this human factor specifically into account. Without it, such a process cannot be initiated and certainly not led to success. Any change requires good communication because it needs to be explained and communicated and implemented in a joint effort by all stakeholders.