Would you tell your friends about a new house you bought the same way you would talk to them about your new refrigerator? A house is a comprehensive story waiting to be told, whereas a new refrigerator is a very specific topic—a subset of the contents your house contains. Despite the differences, many people do. And if we eliminate the metaphor, many marketers make a significant mistake when they fail to distinguish between corporate branding and product branding.
The process is the same, but don’t let that fool you.
Before I talk about the differences, let’s first acknowledge the one similarity: the branding process is the same: you discover insights about the competition and your customers; you and your colleagues converge on a branding strategy; and then you execute plans for communications and marketing. In short, you learn stuff, you plan stuff, and you make stuff. But this is where the similarity pretty much ends. There’s a dynamic in play that must be recognized or else one risks creating a corporate brand that won’t stand the test of time.
A 3D brand experience
While product and service brands can be experienced right in the palm of your hand—you can touch them, use them and get results with them—corporate brands are intangible. They are monuments without form; structures without walls. Customers rarely set foot in them. Yet they offer a three-dimensional experience: services, products, and community engagement. But other than the products or services they produce, there is a virtual component that’s at the core of why branding for corporations must be differentiated from that for product and service brands. The brand strategy is often ethereal, a broad promise of good things at work or to come. We can see ample evidence, illustrated here by examples from Merck and Pfizer. Such grand strategies would not work for product brands, but they work wonders for corporate brands.
A scaffold of brands
Unlike product and service brands, corporate brands often have an architecture that includes franchises of brands in different therapeutic categories. For example, Lily has a CNS franchise of antidepressants, anti-psychotics and a medication for ADHD. The corporate brand must have an identity that can develop a series of cascading values to product brands. Lilly’s brand is about a practical benefit, providing more relevant, day-to-day help for HCPs and patients. “Answers that matter” is broad enough to help boost all of their franchises. Likewise, the franchise identities reflect compatible values upward to the corporate brand. This symbiotic relationship illustrates how a corporate brand identity works harder than product or service brands to be the parent that guides the behavior and reputation of its children in the brand family.
Products are individuals; companies are families
While employees have a certain pride about the product or service brands for which they work, corporate brands are highly interested in creating an attractive business model that appeals to the best and brightest. For research and development, companies vie for clinical superstars to stock their roster with those who can help produce innovative products and services, further building the reputation of the corporate brand. Also, it is not uncommon for employees to leverage their credentials with an Alma matter from a top-20 company to leave and be part of a start-up for which they will earn significant equity. An effective corporate brand is as much about leveraging the reputations of the people who work there as it is the hard assets of discovery and marketing. Shire is a great example of a proud group of people working for a company that specializes in orphan drugs, and its corporate tag line reveals that strategy behind it.
When tasked to help develop and nurture a corporate brand identity, the above principles must be honored or else all is jeopardized. Unlike product and service brands, a company’s reputation—driven by a strong corporate brand strategy—must be honest enough not only to put forth products and services with integrity, but also to withstand the negative publicity that comes with a failed product or service. And unlike product and service brands that lose their patents after 15 or 20 years, a corporate brand must be built for the long haul. With this in mind, the branding strategy should be timeless yet flexible enough to maintain its integrity as the industry evolves. That’s a difficult line to walk. Be prepared with an approach that balances the essentials stated above.