Disruptive Branding - Critical summary review - Jacob Benbunan

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Disruptive Branding - critical summary review

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Marketing & Sales and Corporate Culture & Communication

This microbook is a summary/original review based on the book: Disruptive Branding: How to Win in Times of Change

Available for: Read online, read in our mobile apps for iPhone/Android and send in PDF/EPUB/MOBI to Amazon Kindle.

ISBN: 0749498099

Publisher: Kogan Page

Critical summary review

In the words of late great brand expert Wally Olins, not that long ago, brands were nothing more but symbols of product consistency and barely existed outside of packaging. Nowadays, however, in addition to expressing standardized quality, brands express “the authenticity, the relevance and differentiation of entire organizations.” 

In “Disruptive Branding,” Jacob Benbunan, Gabor Schreier and Benjamin Knapp – three high-level employees of Saffron Brand Consultants – demonstrate the importance of brands in a rapidly changing business climate and offer guidance on how to define and design powerful brand experiences. So, get ready to learn why brands matter and how to make your brand work!

Brands and change: understanding the three convergences

The first SIM card was developed in Germany in 1991. Three decades later, there are more SIM cards on the planet than people. There can be no better proof of the fact that modern technology is changing the world at breakneck speed. It’s not just that brands face oblivion if they cannot keep up with the pace, it’s also that brands are likely to be disrupted if they are not willing to become disruptors themselves. 

“We are at the dawn of a world where all points converge: digital into physical, consumer into producer, global into local,” write Benbunan, Schreier and Knapp. There are two ways for modern brands to navigate these changes – either by embracing them or being their instigator. Either way, they must be “authentic, relevant and differentiating,” and must consider each of the three most important modern convergences:

  • Localization and globalization. Certain brands have succeeded in permeating almost every country on the planet, turning themselves into international reference points. They accomplished this by enacting a timeproof twofold formula: “think globally but act locally.” Take McDonald’s, for example. Once the “paragon of standardization,” America’s biggest burger joint is today the best example of a brand that has successfully mastered the convergence of local and global. In India, it offers vegetarian Maharaja burgers instead of Big Macs, and in Chile avocado purée is on the menu instead of barbecue sauce. But it’s still McDonald’s in each location – the same recognizable brand.
  • Consumer and producer. Up until recently, consumers didn’t have many ways to truly engage with a brand. Nowadays, however, they can criticize brands and demand change publicly on social media. Rather than passive, consumers are now “at the driving seat of a consumer-centric highly competitive world, with the power to disrupt established brands.” Case in point, one week after GAP tried to change its logo in 2010, its customers forced the company – via Facebook and Twitter – to issue a public apology and revert back to the old design. The event marked an important step of the evolution of consumers. You can call them “prosumers” now, because they simultaneously produce the product they buy.
  • Digital and physical. Contrary to early expectations, rather than putting an end to “window-shopping,” the internet merely digitized it. It’s easy to go online and buy something when you know what you want. However, only physical stores can offer you the option to experience something with all five senses. Paradoxically, for brands to stay immune to technology disruptions, they must stay grounded in concrete, real-world experiences and treat technology as a means to fulfil their promise, not as an end in itself.

Brand strategy: three questions and three elements

In today’s competitive world, it is not enough to have an incredible product, world-class customer service, a professionally designed website and a well-oiled supply chain. If you want to really stand out, you need to amalgamate all of these things into a compelling and inspiring narrative and deploy this narrative across the large number of touchpoints your employees and prosumers have with your brand. To do this, you need a brand strategy.

A brand strategy, the authors say, is “an articulation of what a company does particularly well, how it goes about doing it and why it is different to all other companies that do the same or something similar.” This third question – why – is the most important one and should be discussed first. It must lead to the formulation of the brand idea, namely, the “short, clear and compelling narrative that sets forth what makes [your] brand authentic, relevant and different.” Defining a brand idea involves four steps: asking your employees to identify your company’s strength, listening to what others are saying about your brand, thinking through the collected information, and refining the initial brand idea through tests and surveys.

The brand idea should inspire the creation of a list of brand values – that is, truths that express how the company behaves and what it believes in. Consequently, these values must communicate a holistic worldview, simultaneously delimiting the expectations of your customers and steering the behavior of your employees. Like the values a person might have, brand values should be recognizable, differentiating and long-lasting.

The third and final element of brand strategy is the brand personality, which codifies the traits that govern your brand’s communications. The brand personality is the answer to the question what and expresses what your brand is like and what kind of tone and imagery it uses. Are you a serious and conservative company? Or are you a light-hearted and modern brand? This is one of the things your brand personality should communicate with the rest of the world. 

Brand design: strategy made visible

Once you’ve defined your brand strategy, it’s time to bring it to life through design. Without making your brand idea visual, no matter how inspirational it might be, it will struggle to clearly communicate the benefits it brings in an engaging way. Only good design can convey good brand messages and define a distinctive brand identity. 

Design, write Benbunan, Schreier and Knapp, is “much more than a logo: it is a toolkit of elements, rules and behavior that govern typeface, colors, motion, use of photography and more.” Neglecting these aspects can leave your company vulnerable to disruption; conversely, paying attention to them can turn you into an unlikely disruptor.

Take, for example, British digital-only bank Monzo. Thanks to countless weekly user-testing sessions with customers and an online feedback-gathering forum, it was able to come up with a clean, sleek and intuitive user interface that immediately differentiated it from the competition. As a result, it currently has millions of customers. Owing to this success, traditional high-street banks have recently started redesigning their old, clunky apps. They were forced by Monzo to pay more attention to the convergence of the digital and the physical.

The creative process of making your brand strategy visible can be articulated in the following four phases:

  1. Exploration phase. During this phase, the creatives look at “shapes, materials, colors, typography, imagery or motion references that encapsulate the design idea which best expresses the attitude and personality of the brand.”
  2. Design phase. In the second phase, creatives draw up brand-inspired design concepts for every visual territory that has the potential to be turned into a communicator of the company’s vision and values.
  3. Development phase. Here, developed design elements are internally reviewed and design-governing principles are established. In addition, the process is extended to “products, services, experiences and brand symbols.”
  4. Implementation phase. The moment of truth, the phase where everything gets rolled out and design is tested in real conditions. In response to the prosumers’ reactions, additional adjustments are made.

Internal engagement: help your people help you

Everything brand-related begins inside your company. That’s why internal engagement is essential to making your brand last. In the words of the authors, “Brand should be a concern for every single member of your organization. Even better, the needs and desires of your employees should be represented in your brand’s strategy.”

To engage your staff with your brand, you must make a concerted effort in the form of an Engagement Program, your “long-term effort to introduce the brand, familiarize staff with it and permanently influence their behavior.” These are just a few hallmarks of an effective Engagement Program:

  1. Be clear on the objectives. State the goals you are trying to achieve with your internal engagement effort in a straightforward way.
  2. One size does not fit all. Be flexible with your Engagement Program. Rather than rigid rules, develop “an array of open initiatives.” 
  3. Let facts do the talking. Share figures and statistics with your employees. Not just facts on growth, but also on gender and ethnic diversity.
  4. Don’t overload the system. Don’t be too ambitious. Prioritize.
  5. Involve top management. Be a spokesperson for the brand, like Richard Branson for Virgin Group. Managers must “walk the talk” to inspire employees to follow.
  6. Motivate people in ways that matter. Go beyond the legal contract. To inspire your employees to commit to your brand, offer them incentives – anything from overtime pay through career opportunities to public recognition.
  7. Make it visual. Just like the company itself, employee engagement programs must have their own visual language, consistent with that of the brand overall.
  8. Build on the existing. Don’t start from scratch unless you know what you are doing. Build around the culture, strategy and collaboration that already exists in your business.
  9. Involve, don’t only inform. Offer interactive workshops, group activities and even digital interactions.
  10. Think long-term. The interval between rebranding initiatives is approximately seven and 10 years. Engagement programs must cover this period.
  11. A project of all. The internal engagement program should involve a broad range of people across all disciplines and units of the organization.

Brand experience: a promise delivered

According to Benbunan, Schreier and Knapp, “brand is the promise of an experience – delivered.” Whether we want to or not, every time we are exposed to a certain brand, the experience leaves a lasting impression on our mind. We don’t even need to be a customer. For example, even if you’ve never bought an Apple product, you’ve certainly experienced the company’s brand strategy, just by browsing the internet or passing by an Apple store.  

When designing a brand experience, your brand idea should be your guiding principle. However, designing great experience means considering many other components as well, including business strategy, brand uniqueness and brand touchpoints. Allow us to put the emphasis on the verb “designing” here: brand experience is usually a trial-and-error process before it becomes an identifiable message.

Brand experience can be focused around product, behaviors, customer service, environments or systems. In the most successful examples, it is a combination of all five. To design the perfect brand experience, follow these four steps:

  1. Define the message. Remind yourself of the key promise you are trying to convey.
  2. Define your assets. Think of the vehicles – consider the visual, verbal and behavioral aspects of your brand.
  3. Define your touchpoints. See where and how you interact with your employees and your prosumers. Audit them and learn what is working well and what is not.
  4. Identify your moments of truth. The moment of truth is the point where “the interaction with a brand turns into the decision to buy or to engage further with the brand.” As such, it is no place for compromise.
  5. Disrupt through experience. Think outside the box. Create luxury-like experience despite the low prices like Zara does, or stimulate the senses like Lush or M&M stores. Challenge traditional codes. Inspire emotions.

Final notes

“Disruptive Branding” is a well-researched, well-written and excellently structured guide to both surviving the digital revolution and leaving a mark. As of 2020, it is the final word on the subject of branding.

12min tip

Your brand should be much more than a logo. It must differentiate you, be authentic, relevant, and express your ideas, values and personality through design, engagement and experiences.

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Who wrote the book?

Benjamin Knapp is the chief growth officer at Saffron, responsible for corporate strategy, service development,... (Read more)

Gabor Schreier is the chief creative officer at Saffron. He created identities for Daimler and Smart before consolidating Saffron into a leading... (Read more)

Jacob Benbunan is a British brand expert, the co-founder (with the late Wally Olins) of Saffron Brand Consultants. He is also the company’s c... (Read more)

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