How to build a brand without a Branson in the business

Branding without the big personality

* This article appeared first in Real Business.

What can be done to build a brand if your business lacks the presence of Richard Branson, Jeff Bezos or Elon Musk on centre stage?

When you look to build a brand, business has never been more rock ‘n’ roll. You are just as likely to see Jeff Bezos or Elon Musk on the pages of GQ and Vogue as on the pages of the FT and The Economist.

And by being so intrinsically linked with the brands they lead, this new breed of rock ‘n’ roll business stars are shaping and reinforcing the ideas behind the brands they lead in all they do, both in their public and private lives.

This has long been the case, with eponymous brands like Wedgwood and Ford being defined as much by the public persona of their founders as by their innovative products and business success.

The rock star leaders of today stand on the shoulders of the giants in business who have gone before them, such as Sir Richard Branson at Virgin – a company where the brand is the figurehead and the figurehead is the brand. 

It is easy to see how this model has endured: successful entrepreneurs are often charismatic and attracted to the limelight. And giving a business a face can help build a brand as consumers relate to it more easily, and by engaging consumers in the journey of that individual they become invested in the brand as a whole.

The company’s vision, purpose and fortunes become so intrinsically linked with their figureheads that the brand and the entrepreneur are effectively one.

A personality is an accessible shortcut to understanding a brand – who it is and what it stands for – while adding an extra layer to make it more than “just” a brand. This is a benefit that applies equally to those within the company’s walls, helping employees understand what to say, what to do, how to do it and how to “be” it, enthusing their role in the company’s journey to build a brand.

The question, then, is what can be done to build a brand if your business lacks the presence of Bezos, Musk or Wedgwood on centre stage?

How do you build a brand and inject it with soul if it isn’t backed by a strong founder personality?

Can you build a brand from scratch that converts business ideas into a living and breathing identity?

The fact remains that despite getting lots of fame and attention, the Fords, Bransons and Dysons of this world are the exception rather than the rule. The vast majority of companies are not driven by the cult of the individual, and their success is based on replicating the rock star mentality throughout the company without linking it to one particular persona.

At its essence this is what branding is, the creation of a clear, distinct and own-able personality that encourages people inside the business to believe and people outside the business to buy.

Take, for example, pizza business Franco Manca, on course to open its 60th restaurant by the end of 2018 after founder Giuseppe Mascoli sold the chain of ten restaurants in 2014. Companies such as this have grown up to build a brand less on the basis of one individual’s personality and more on the basis of a clear brand purpose and set of brand values. 

John Lewis, which sits very comfortably inside the top ten of the UK’s Superbrands index might be named after an individual, but it is a company primarily associated with fair pricing, great service, unique pay structure, quality products – and Christmas ads.

Ironically, John Lewis only became known for those things once its eponymous founder – and notorious autocrat extraordinaire (a common trait among entrepreneurs) relinquished the reins to what is now the John Lewis Group.

The success of companies such as this rests squarely upon having established strong brands with clear values that are flexible, agile and compelling – simultaneously able to adapt to change while also being consistent and reliable over time.     

Encapsulating the essence of a brand without an individual personality can be a daunting task, but it’s one that business owners cannot shy away from.

Without establishing a clear, independent brand identity and purpose it is much more difficult to successfully navigate change, harder to engender the internal engagement needed for growth, and impossible to consistently meet customer expectations across multiple touchpoints.

Doing so requires a whole range of processes and skills that are often unfamiliar to business owners, from developing a compelling way to build a brand narrative and set of values to creating experience principles and a coherent tone of voice.

The key is in recognising brand is always “being done”; an ongoing process. The mistake many brands make is only seeking to address issues once a crisis hits or when relevance wanes rather than planning ahead and actively managing their brand in order to avert any potential crisis altogether.

For many businesses in their infancy and without a rock ‘n’ roll figurehead, stepping outside their silo and seeking external help can be an option. A brand consultancy can, for example, help articulate business ideas and transform them into realities using insight from beyond the walls of the brainstorm.

This is particularly important for businesses seeking to exploit a gap in the market – an approach taken by Spanish low-budget airliner Vueling’s co-founders Carlos Muñoz and Lázaro Ros. They wanted to challenge the status quo that low cost means low standard at a time when budget airlines were in their infancy, and Saffron was fortunate to be brought onto this project before the idea even had a name. 

There were clear opportunities available to the founders of the business to articulate their idea by building Vueling’s brand through an experience that was coherent across channels, whether that be the flight itself or the digital sales process.

The informal pronoun for you (‘tú’) was used to establish a fun and friendly relationship with consumers, and the ethos that low-budget does not mean low-quality was considered across all aspects of the experience.

The approach led the business to take off (excuse the pun) and within eighteen months’ brand awareness rose 70 per cent. In 2013 IAG, the owners of British Airways and Iberia, took a controlling stake in Vueling.

Perhaps it isn’t as rock ‘n’ roll as globetrotting on a private jet but it’s a performance that any business leader would admire.

David Parry, Chief Operating Officer