The New Rules of Brand Leadership

By Jez Frampton


In our globalized, hyperconnected age, one question persists in boardrooms, corner offices, business schools, and conferences all over the world: What is leadership and how has it changed in the 21st century?

Driven by rapid technological advancement, the digitization of nearly everything, and the ever more intricate interdependencies of the global market, the business landscape has transformed over the past two decades. Operating in a bewildering new environment in which little is certain, the pace is quicker and the dynamics more complex. Those who lead today’s brands can no longer rely on once immutable truths or principles of leadership honored in times past.

It is a new world. And as purchasing increasingly shifts from a physical experience to a virtual one and transaction-based interactions between brands and consumers shift to relationship-based interactions, new skills and sensibilities are needed. Leadership roles are converging, traditional structures are crumbling, the consumer’s voice carries more weight than ever, and less tangible strengths like emotional intelligence and psychological insight are just as key to leading a brand today as the ability to generate high ROI and increased shareholder value.

As such, some brand leaders, understandably, feel overwhelmed or worry that they don’t know everything they need to know to stay on top. All are grappling with today’s volatile environment in different ways, but all are looking to understand the landscape and master whatever skills are needed to excel and, more importantly, to connect and co-create with consumers in today’s more collaborative marketplace. To shed light on the leadership challenge before us—and the evolving nature of leadership itself—we have identified a few areas where brands must pay particular attention in order to lead effectively in these tumultuous and exciting times.

Imagine and advance a vision

Leadership only exists in the eye of the beholder—the follower. People purchase, pursue employment with, and recommend brands they believe in, so if you want brand fans, loyalists, and ambassadors, you must have a vision of the future that inspires—and you must communicate it. What story will unlock your employees’ potential or move consumers to identify with your brand and accept your offer enthusiastically?

Look at the marketplace and try to understand how it is changing. Peek beyond the visible horizon and imagine where the world might be, not just next quarter, but 5, 10, or 20 years from now. Also, consider surveying employees and consumers—their feedback might help you shape a vision that is timely, relevant, and speaks powerfully to a collective need.

In recent years, many companies have been so focused on survival that they neglected to consider what their brands mean—or could mean—to people. Locked in austerity mode, they’ve been hunkering down, reducing costs, increasing margins, and expecting low growth. But if brands really want to harness the power and potential of markets, big visions have to come back into the game.

You can’t control the conversation—so join it

In the brave new world of social media, your brand is increasingly being shaped by consumer opinion and demand—and is decreasingly under your control. As many brands discovered (the hard way), something as seemingly insignificant as an ill-timed tweet can stir up a firestorm of negative publicity. While keeping communication to a minimum might seem the best way to avoid trouble online, sitting out of the conversation may be more risky.

If you’re not doing what you say you’re doing or a mishap occurs, consumers are eventually going to find out. But being exposed doesn’t have to be a PR disaster—it can be an opportunity to open your doors, clear the air, and forge a deeper connection. Consumers can become valuable allies if brands address concerns—whether it’s about labor practices, product ingredients, or a controversial ad—instead of dodging issues or attempting to spin them. By opening up a space for real dialogue and actually listening to consumers, you can learn more about what people really want, crowdsource ideas or gather insights that could help improve products and user experience.

Don’t wait—innovate

While some brands stay focused on refining their products and moving technology forward that is relevant to their industry, other brands take things further. Google, for example, has engineers and developers at its extreme innovation lab, Google[x], working on futuristic technologies such as its self-driving car and Project Loon, an internet service via balloons in the stratosphere. There is plenty of room for wild ideas and fresh approaches—especially those that just might work. However, whether it’s a subtle refinement or a category breakthrough, the important thing to remember about innovation is that when it hits the mark, it’s because a company has satisfied an unmet need.

Another thing to remember about innovation is that just because you’ve been successful at something historically doesn’t mean you have to do it forever. To be truly innovative, you sometimes have to be willing to disrupt yourself. Amazon excels at this. The online behemoth disrupted book publishing, shook up all of retail and later the market it had come to dominate—books—by creating the Kindle.

Lead through design

Design-savvy brands appreciate the value of aesthetics and realize that consumers are just as drawn by a product’s visual appeal and functional elegance as they are by its specs and capabilities. Apple re-educated people on the importance of design. As a result, consumers increasingly judge the quality of products on the basis of appearance—the design, packaging, and interface. In the auto industry, research has revealed that while consumers traditionally assessed a brand’s level of innovation on the basis of technology like GPS systems, they now take cues about innovation from exterior styling as smart features have become standard across the industry.

Simply put, design matters, and today’s brands are increasingly aware that consumers want products to be “pretty” and well-designed. It’s not a huge leap to then assume that aesthetics and superior functionality will soon be demanded in all categories. Similarly, brands themselves will have to evolve their look and feel—from updated logos and richer websites to retail spaces that are not only stylish, but also streamline the shopping experience through technology. Dazzling consumers, differentiating your brand, strengthening your image, and nurturing a culture of innovation—design makes it all possible.

Invest in people

There’s an old proverb that says: “If you are planning for one year, plant rice. If you are planning for 10 years, plant trees. If you are planning for 100 years, plant people.” If you’re going to stay ahead, you’ve got to have the best people—and you’ve got to know how to retain them. To attract talent, particularly Millennials, you’ve got to know what they’re looking for and how they judge companies, and then cultivate that kind of culture.

With more “digital natives” joining your ranks, providing an internal infrastructure that feels like the world they love outside of work is one way to keep them happy and turn them into brand ambassadors. Internally, do away with outdated workflow technology and give employees the digital tools they are already using. From flexible hours and daycare services to special perks and continuing education, the most admired companies put thought into creating a place where people want to work and take the time to nurture talent that will keep their organization strong for years to come.

Get comfortable with Big Data

Trendsetters like Apple, our new #1 Best Global Brand this year, and sectors that specialize in delivering extraordinary service such as hospitality, are constantly raising the bar for customer satisfaction. What is the role of leadership when it comes to creating fantastic brand experiences? Today, it is absolutely essential to gather insights and information that shed light on what customers want.

The catch is that nearly every major brand is collecting structural data, which attempts to paint a picture of consumers based on transactional behavior. This can tell companies where people spend their money, but it doesn’t reveal a whole lot about what they think and feel, or why they really buy what they buy.

Going forward, the big challenge will be parsing through unstructured data. This will involve combing social media data for deeper insights about customer preferences—how wide their social groups are, what their interests are, what colors they prefer, and so forth. As collecting massive amounts of data becomes the norm, the brands that will lead in the years ahead will be those that can glean meaning from that data and devise actionable strategies to surprise and delight customers at every touchpoint.

Don’t dominate, co-create

Collaborative leadership is a crucial, yet poorly understood, new form of leadership.

As organizations slowly diffuse across time zones and work becomes more virtual, the old corporate ladder is being replaced by a corporate lattice that allows information, development, and recognition to flow along horizontal, vertical, and diagonal paths. The lattice model makes it possible to structure work, build careers, and foster participation in more collaborative and customized ways.

The fact is, organizations are more complex than they used to be. Getting any product or service into the market involves more people and processes than ever before. With so many moving parts, collaboration across an organization is the only way to avoid confusion and improve efficiency—which explains why companies that operate as a collection of silos tend to underperform.

Whether collaborating across silos in your own organization, partnering with other organizations or NGOs, or co-creating with consumers—it is crucial for brands to get collaboration right. As the way we work continues to change, this fundamentally social activity, founded on generosity and openness, will be the glue that binds disparate people and keeps things running smoothly.

Make CSR strategic—and make a real difference

Another area ripe for leadership is Corporate Citizenship. With commodity prices rising, resource scarcity becoming a reality, and climate change advancing, sustainability is no longer just a money-saving add-on, it’s a key way to future-proof your business. Addressing social issues—from poverty to revitalizing public spaces—presents opportunities for your business to demonstrate core competencies and show the world how innovative and compassionate your organization really is. This not only boosts reputation, but also shines a spotlight on what your company does best. Doing good, in other words, is simply good business.

The truth is, if you’re going to maintain the ability to attract investment and talent, lead your industry in innovation, and inspire consumers with your unique approach to building a better world, sustainability and corporate social responsibility will increasingly have to be at the heart of your business, not on the periphery. Rather than supporting a cause, especially one that is unrelated to your core business, consider becoming a cause. There are many problems in the world—how can you use the power of your brand and your company’s specialized skills to solve them? What role can consumers play?

We are all leaders

Long before the advent of the internet, in another tumultuous time in history, Martin Luther King Jr. spoke eloquently of the “inescapable networks of mutuality” and reminded us that we are all, regardless of our position, “tied together in a single garment of destiny.” Consumers and brands, too, are now connected in unprecedented ways.

In a very real sense, brands and consumers aren’t just “doing business”—we are knitting the fabric of global civilization. The progress of the world depends on the strength of each person’s willingness to participate, listen, learn, and share. As each of us develops our leadership capabilities, the power of our actions, thoughts, and example is transmitted to others. In turn, they are better able to unlock their own potential to serve. In this way, consumers and brands, working in tandem, can have a far-reaching impact.

Today’s leaders face extraordinary new challenges and must learn to think differently about their role and how to fulfill it. Those who do may have an opportunity to change the world in ways their predecessors never imagined.

Jez Frampton (jez.frampton@interbrand.com) is Global Chief Executive Officer, Interbrand