Last week, Matthew Barrett, the new chief executive of Barclays,
made his first public appearance, to deliver the full-year results.
Along with announcing a 30% rise in operating profit, he said all the
right things about boosting Barclays’ presence on the internet.
He also discussed the importance of branding, in terms of exploiting the
potential for brands such as Barclaycard to become what he calls a
And that just has to provoke a somewhat weary sigh. Why? Because he
joins the growing group of chief executives who, despite a lack of solid
marketing experience, talk the talk of branding, but whose ability to
walk the walk is still unproven.
The problem is that when heads of companies wake up to the fact that
their brand really is important, the results are too often less about
active brand management and more about active brand-meddling.
What many of them don’t readily grasp is that branding is more than a
catchy phrase and quirky advertising, as Duane Knapp, a branding
consultant, points out in his recent book, The Brand Mindset. There are
still too few examples of companies with the mindset that brand strategy
is not only a thought process stemming from the top, but emphasised as
the key business strategy, he argues.
What happens when the chief executive talks about how critical branding
is, without a real understanding of what that means in practice, is
nowhere more evident than in the case of Bob Ayling of BA. His position
at the helm of the airline came under attack yet again last week when
the BA share price slipped below 275p, something he had promised last
November would never happen.
There are many justifications given for Ayling’s woes, but the nub of
the issue has to be an inability to match brand promise with brand
Compare him with Jorman Ollila of Nokia, who in just eight years has
used his strong brand vision to transform Nokia from a conglomerate with
businesses in areas such as chemicals, tyres, cables and TV sets into a
tightly-branded, highly-focused, telecoms star brand.
Sometimes it’s not so much about meddling as about arrogance, especially
in companies which have coasted on their reputation as the ultimate
brand managers. Levi’s, for example, has now had to use its valuable
trademark and other assets as collateral to secure more funding in the
midst of a less than sterling performance.
Recent research published by the organisers of the Marketing Forum
underlines the lack of connection between what’s said and what’s done.
The research, carried out on board the Oriana last September, found that
the concepts of brand marketing and total business activity are becoming
increasingly synonymous, especially in service industries.
However, many of the participants pointed out that senior management
tends to be ’insulated’ from customer issues, whether by accident or
This leads to a diffusion of the brand message due to a lack of overall
unifying factors. In other words, the head of the company is not making
sure all bases are covered when it comes to what the brand should stand
Maybe the answer is for chief executives to talk less about branding and
put more of their energy into making sure the brand speaks successfully
for itself. After all, actions speak louder than words.
Laura Mazur is a business writer and author.