08/03/2012 10:37 am ET Updated Oct 03, 2012

Perfecting the Craft of Branding

Few would dispute the value of brands to companies. Yet, relatively few are sustained over time. The number of failed brands is large and even once very successful brands, such as Kodak, Compaq, Compuserve, are now shadows of their former selves. If brands are so valuable, why do so many fail or fade?

A significant part of the problem is the way that people conceive branding. For many, branding is a competition between art and science. In the early days, art had its way because data was scarce. As data became more available, the science of branding gained primacy. The art versus science debate continues today. But it avoids a critical component of craftsmanship -- mastery.

In fact, an entirely different notion of branding is necessary; the concept of branding as a craft. This is not to deny the importance of art and science, as both are critical parts of branding but, even taken together, they are not the craft. To practice a craft blends the artist's eye, the scientist's knowledge, and the master's experience. This is what is required to build and sustain successful brands today.

The artist's eye

The artist's eye is fundamentally the ability to see -- to see how different changes in the brand will affect the whole picture and the ability to know, almost instinctively, whether something adds or detracts from the brand. Successfully stewarding a brand requires this type of integrated perspective, particularly in translating brand concepts into things that come to life for the consumer.

It is also worth noting that few artists are fantastic across artistic media. In the same way, few branding professionals are outstanding across brands of different types.

The scientist's knowledge

While the artist sees, the scientist knows. His understanding of the consumer target for the brand and the space within which the brand competes makes him so valuable to the craft. It doesn't end there; rather, the scientist seeks to understand how the brand is evolving for the target consumer and which elements of the brand experience are likely to produce a reaction.

Where the artist is holistic and sensing, the scientist studies components and data. The scientist is no less or more important than the artist. The scientist is the voice of what the customer says she wants while the artist is the voice of the vision of the brand. Science without art tends to me-tooism. Art without science may never appeal to a meaningful audience.

The master's experience

Perhaps the biggest gap in brand development has been the lack of the master's experience. Both the artists and the scientists tend to be moved quickly, reducing the value they can provide as masters. Companies often worry that lack of insight (either art or science) is their largest barrier; in fact, lack of experience may be a far larger issue.

The starting point for both art and science tends to focus in an area of endeavor. Both the artist and the scientist benefit from experience. It enables them to see patterns over time that others might miss. It gives them, properly challenged, the ability to move more quickly and more decisively. Constant newness is not the province of either profession. Few artists are equally gifted across forms of art. Few scientists are multidisciplinary. There is an important reason for this. The pattern recognition that is vital for mastery.

Equally vital however is commitment to seeing an outcome through. Perseverance marks the great artists and the great scientists. This level of commitment to seeing their vision realized marks both.

And yet, it is the value of the master that companies have systematically undervalued and undermined even in its recent history. Continuity has been undermined by rotation. Rewards for greatness have been marginalized. The typical brand steward never has the brand long enough to feel real ownership or pride of accomplishment. The best brand stewards are promoted out of stewardship and the value of the master and to the master is systematically lost.

A few lessons for building the craft of branding

  • Do not rely on the ambidextrous artist/scientist. While such people exist, they are sufficiently rare and this option is simply not scalable for most organizations. Rather, focus on appreciation across different disciplines. The artist must be taught a respect for science and the scientist must be taught to appreciate art. Some of this can be trained but much more of it must be experienced. Pairing artists with scientists and sustaining the pairings that work are critical to perfecting the craft. Natural artists and natural scientists can both become masters.
  • Get rotation and rewards right. Any organization that wants to improve the craft of branding needs to get the right people in the right roles with the right incentives. This means that brand leaders need to be allowed to stay in roles, with appropriate incentives, for a substantial period of time. The most successful organizations will find a way to reward their best brand stewards and keep them motivated to succeed.
  • Use the apprenticeship model. Craft requires apprenticeship. Up and coming leaders of your brand organization should be formally apprenticed to current masters. Nothing teaches like experience and the experience of working with a brand master is the best single predictor of future brand mastery.

Branding is a craft. It is neither an art, nor a science, nor a blend of the two. Mastery is the missing ingredient and mastery requires time, time to increase understanding, commit, and reap the rewards. While this type of an approach may be inconsistent with general organizational theory about the right number of rotations, it is critical to building brand masters who can steward the company's most valuable assets.

Steve Carlotti is the CEO of The Cambridge Group, a growth strategy consulting firm that is part of Nielsen. With 20 years of experience working for consumer and retail companies, Carlotti's work cuts across a range of functional areas including strategy, marketing, sales force effectiveness, and supply chain (especially when it drives customer satisfaction).