Brand Strategy

Mind the Gap

I mentioned the idealised self in a post ten days ago – and the concept’s been whirring around my head ever since. Then it hit me – with increased brand anthropomorphisation, the concept – and gap – has become even more important…

There are stories that we tell ourselves to get through the day.

At the top end, there’s the idealised self (as mentioned in this post). This is our picture of who we should be. So, for example, my idealised self is someone who’s ‘on it’ all the time, who comes up with brilliant ideas constantly which drive the BIIR model and who deserves a position in a top-flight creative agency for being quantitatively and qualitatively brilliant. I’d be the first to put my hand up during the Q&A session of a conference and could handle those ‘difficult’ conversations without batting an eyelid.

This is the idealised self. The person I, you, we, want to be. OK so some people’s idealised self might be to be the best engineer in the world, to have hundreds of grandkids – it doesn’t matter. The idealised self is the perfect projected self.

Even if no-one’s reading the blog, no-one’s replying to the Tweets, we can still use this projected, idealised self to get us through the day:

‘Don’t worry,’ we say to ourselves. ‘I’m brilliant. They just don’t quite know it yet.’ It’s not being cocky or arrogant – it’s an idealised projection (you have to do something with it to be arrogant – like post it on your website).

At the bottom, there’s Seth Godin’s oft-mentioned lizard brain. The part of a person which shies away, gets frightened, doesn’t believe that you’re good enough. The part that won’t ship in case someone spots that one mistake, that single thing that’s been overlooked, declares you a fraud and causes your entire world to collapse.

And somewhere in the middle of those two, there’s the actual self. Some days we’ll be closer to the idealised self, others nearer the lizard brain – that’s the way things are. We are only human (unless your idealised self is some kind of effigy…).

So the gap between the states is fluid. Very fluid. And, if we’re not careful, we can start to tell ourselves a story that erroneously starts to close the gap. We can tell ourselves we’re doing a brilliant job, when in fact we’re not. When we haven’t shipped for a month or shied away from difficult conversations, we’ll make up an excuse to transfer blame and thus close the gap upwards.

Similarly, we can get a real downer going on ourselves when nothing seems to be working out right. We tell ourselves that we’re useless, that we’re in the wrong profession, that the best thing to do would probably be to resign and hide in a hole in the ground for the rest of our lives. Whereas we’re actually doing OK and moving forward.

The trick is to recognise the fact from the fiction, and use that knowledge to work out where we really are in relation to the two ends of the spectrum.

Now let’s move onto brand anthropomorphisation, which seems to be a rapidly recurring topic at the moment.

Yes – as far as I’m concerned, brands do have human attributes. They should grow, change, evolve and develop. They should have a unique voice. They should have a unique appearance. They should have some measure of personality.

I should like them.

So how does the gap affect a brand – which, let’s face it, isn’t actually human?

The gap affects the brand because the brand is MADE from humans.

It’s people who devise the clever brand value statements. It’s people who do the admin, make the product, ship the orders, pay the wages.

And it’s people who give the brand life by buying into its product/service/concept.

But hell – I’m going to anthropomorphise anyway.

The brand’s idealised self is its values, vision and mission statement. It’s where the brand wants to be – the biggest and best in its sector; the most popular blog on the internet; the only thing that all the ABC1 market segment want in their driveway.

The idealised self is also in the brand promise. We will make products which won’t break. We will respond to all customer enquiries in two working days. You won’t have to wait more than four minutes in the checkout aisle. We will make adverts like the Cadbury Gorilla or Smash robots.

A brand’s lizard brain on the other hand, is behind closed doors. It’s the part where the R&D gurus present a new widget which will change the world – and the MD sucks air through his teeth because it’s not quite in line with the rest of the company offering.

It might be a stretch too far. Even if the R&D guy can prove that the company will make a mint.

The lizard is in the advertising account meetings. ‘Let’s not do anything too radical – you know, something a little ‘out there’ which might backfire. Let’s play it safe – we know our customers, we know what they like and they’ll probably like more of it.’

Most damagingly, the lizard can also be spotted in customer care – a difficult complaint is received, no-one quite knows what to do. So it’s shipped from desk to desk until, eventually, the brand promise is broken and the customer’s lost forever…

Somewhere in the middle of all of this is the brand’s actual self – what it delivers on a daily basis, how it treats its employees and customers. Which bits of the vision it gets right and which bits don’t quite go to plan.

Our job, as strategists, communicators, creative people, is to identify those gaps and see what stories are being told to move the brand up (or down) the spectrum.

The story is often more important than the spectrum itself. By listening to the tales, we can understand not only where the brand’s actual self is, but why those particular stories are being fabricated. We can listen to the words, the phrases, the metaphors to learn more about the people of the brand than any amount of studying brand value or mission statements will ever tell us.

And then, we work to close the gaps for real. To remove the stories which, let’s face it, prop the gaps open. To identify ways to silence the lizard and push the actual closer to the idealised.

That’s our task. That’s our mission. But first, we have to identify our own stories and gaps to be able to deliver against those of a client.

The true brand work, therefore, starts with us…


4 thoughts on “Mind the Gap

  1. I think it is a perfect assumption that Brands would take on these same “gap” challenges and needs as individuals. And, I think the assertion that it is our role as representatives of those Brands (in any capacity) to manage the “gap.”

    I also think we should be mindful of how individuals, particularly senior leadership, can impact Brand management by not dealing with their/our own gap issues. My point being that I have seen on numerous occasions otherwise savvy, seasoned executives make decisions based on the Brand they want to be part of their “idealized self”, rather than the Brand the target consumer would consider part of their “idealized self.”

    Thanks for sharing this really interesting blog post.

    • Hi Andy

      Great point about the potentially harmful steering senior leaders can give.

      I would be interested to know the size of the companies that you’ve observed this in. My gut would be that you’ve been this in smaller companies where the seniors could run a little more unchecked?


      • Hi Neil,

        I’ve actually seen it in organizations of every size with executives at every level. As you remind everyone in your post, organizations are made of real people, and real people can struggle with objectivity.

        Everyone (Client and Agency side) I’m sure has encountered a circumstance where process started with tactic and backed into strategy and objective. The classic, “we need to do an outdoor board” because someone in charge had an idea for an outdoor board, not because it was best to accomplish the objective.

        The same can easily happen with Brand management. If the person (or team) charged with leading and managing a Brand likes “Blue” then things tend to become “Blue” regardless of what the customer likes.

        Its human nature to struggle with separating the subjective filters of our personal Brands from the filters of Brands we manage. Just takes awareness and vigilance. I appreciate the way in which your post expands on this issue and puts it in a more complete context.

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