Soul Searching For Brands – The Need For A Chief Brand Officer

Over the centuries, the brand has been on a series of steep climbs up the career ladder. This rise of the brand calls for a new definition of branding; we call it “Absoulute” branding. We believe the brand is becoming the soul of a company and, as a result, is becoming the driving force behind – and filter of – everything a company does. It is synchronizing all departments; almost creating a tribe.

That way of thinking positions a brand as not just a valuable asset, but the ultimate expression of purpose (1, 2). It is the human personality (or personification) of a brand that faces the consumer, it is the spirit and energy behind the internal culture, it is shaping the relationship with suppliers and the environment, and is the essence of employee branding, providing both a reason to join and a reason to stay. This is vital, especially in a world that is driven by social media, and in which future employees are millennial.

When a brand becomes this important, and impacts on all departments of an organization, its care cannot be left to the marketing department alone. The brand is on the rise, and as such should be sitting at the table of the executive committee, next to the CEO, CFO, CIO, and COO. Hence the role: Chief Brand Officer.

You’d expect that this role would emerge by now, but the answer is ‘not’ and at the same time, more and more brand managers are appointed, though it’s often unclear what role they should play and how they tie into each other.

Pretty weird when you consider that the brand is – and will become – increasingly important for companies. How come the brand not really getting a foothold within organizations? Of course there’s a number of reasons, but it is interesting to see how the brand developed over time first, and then come to a conclusion.

The dimensions of a brand through the centuries

In a way the role of a brand is closely associated with technical and societal change and as a result growing from zero-to-non-dimension in to a multi-dimensional entity. Let’s walk through the centuries and see how the brand became what it is today.

Marker (Identifier)

The term branding comes from the Old Norse “Brandr” which means to burn. Cattle, slaves, timber and crockery were burnt or branded with the markings or symbols of the owner using a hot iron rod. The concept of branding was essentially to depict ownership, in particular the things that had value. This practice is dating back to 2000BC.

Nominator 1910’s

When the industrial revolution kicked in, more products hit the market. In the beginning it was just one of each, like Ford who created the car. Back then people were not affluent, so the main question was “Do I have the money to afford a car”.

Differentiator 1925’s

When the people grew wealthier and more brands introduced the same kind of product, it became important to differentiate versus competition.

That was was also the time the Unique Selling Proposition saw the daylight together with claims like “washes whiter”, “drives faster” and “so fresh, it floats on water.

It also was the the when advertising agencies were hitting it off.

Lifestyle 1950’s

By (overly) promising the gain of social prestige beyond a product’s functional benefit, marketers tapped into extrinsic motivations. That opened up a whole new playing field of positioning and marketing brands for their social currency.

It became about putting brands in aspirational contexts or situations to create the impression of them leading to or at least having the aura of a more sophisticated, desirable life. The big concept of lifestyle branding was invented – and hasn’t left us since.

Identity 1980’s

While the 50’s and 60’s were pretty social and about ‘we’, in the 70’s and particularly in the 80’s we entered the me-era. Think of Madonna, Wham, Duran Duran. Brands weren’t just badges anymore; they became building blocks of sense of self.

It was then when Nike just did it, or the adventurous Marlboro man looked down from the bill boards and not to forget the famous 1984 ad of Apple.

It is also was the start of the change of ‘ownership’ as consumers were the one in control creating the meaning and value of the brand “Show me who you are and I tell you whether I like you or not” or better whether it fits me or not. The Brand as a guide for (marketing) communication. It was also the time big ambitions were locked into the brand. Not with the intention to live up to it, but just to create an impression, making the brand often colorful but with an empty shell.

Storytelling 2000’s

2000 was when internet reached the mass and the start of movements like Napster, Wikipedia, Google, CU2 (frontrunner of Hyves), Skype, Digg and YouTube. And of course the iPod in 2001 (1000 songs in your pocket). It was the liberation of choice (of entertainment). At the same time, the world became more transparent. Consumers started to talk back and took things in their own hands. This created a completely new situation for brands.

First of all, it created a two-way street. Not just pushing messages to consumers but the start of living up to that promise as well. A new territory. One angry customer could instantly turn into a blazing tsunami on the world wide web, causing (sometimes irreparable) damage to the brand.

Secondly, brands needed to fight for attention and become really interesting. Brands couldn’t just force their way into existing content, they had to start creating their own content, using their own media, becoming attractive enough to connect and engage with. Suddenly small brands with little budgets became competitors as well. All it took to become a hype was a great story or an intriguing product or service. Marketers weren’t (and sometimes still aren’t) up for that job. At the same time brands like Nike, Adidas, Coca Cola, Apple led the way in becoming great story tellers.

Soul 2010

True liberation came with the introduction of the iPhone in 2007. The world wide web in your pocket; all the apps you can think of to facilitate life. Uber, Pinterest, WhatsApp, Instagram, Waze, AirBNB cannot exist without smartphones.

Apple created the market. Without Apple the worldwide spreading of smartphones would never have been this big. Founder Steve Jobs turned into an icon rigidly clinging on to his own vision.

There’s an interesting similarity with youth friends Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield in their first Ice shop in a rebuild gas station. They only used fresh and natural ingredients. Two years later, in their Volkswagen Van, they started supplying local restaurants and supermarkets. The rest is history, Americans would say.

Having said that, a lot of recent founders/starter-uppers (Amazon, Facebook, Tesla, Snapchat, Google,…) are still on as a CEO (or influencer), keeping the original soul in the company, still inspiring the whole culture of the company.

Somehow they’re able to keep the authenticity alive. Almost like as spiritual presence within the company. Brands founded with this spirit are generally appreciated more positive and more successful. The creators or founders follow their own course and are not constantly adapting to the changing wishes and needs of he consumer. They set the scene.

In fact it’s the brand itself through the founder that is in control, and not the consumer. Research shows that these kind of brands even have a longer life then brands controlled by consumers. As long as they stay authentic (true to self), with managers that are passionate and dedicated to their product and loyal to their own intrinsic motivation.

Remember Apple who was in trouble when Steve Jobs passed away (and some believe still is in trouble). Part of the magic and authenticity was gone, even though Tim Cooks is doing a great job.

Four pillars of absoulute authenticity

Recent research shows (3) that while customer orientation is accepted as a core marketing principle, but there’s an opposing orientation—product orientation—that may offer an advantage.

The research suggests that brands perceived as authentic are evaluated more positively. Brand authenticity here is defined as the extent to which consumers perceive that the brand’s managers are intrinsically motivated in that they are passionate about – and devoted to – providing their products. The model proposes four pillars of brand authenticity that influence trust and expected quality. These aspects are:

  1. Unicity: the extent to which consumers perceive a brand is showing unique behaving, compared to competition (beyond pre-conditions).
  2. Scarcity: the extent to which consumers perceive the brand is not widely available or accessible.
  3. Longevity: the extent to which the perception is that the brand has been around for a long time.
  4. Consistency: the extent to which the perception is that the brand consistently over time and in relation to the way it behaves to various cues.

Managing an absoulute brand is in its infancy

In a world that is driven by social media, the soul behind authenticity is the key to survival and success. Being truly social is all about people, human beings, so how does a brand have to behave? Yes, like a human and with the right intentions, and that goes much further then just branding and storytelling. It actually means living the brand, and that has to come from the inside, out.

There’s still a lot to be done. Marketing, communication, organizational and management professionals are still largely working alone, or on their islands and disconnected from each other.

Although it appears the brand is growing in influence, the question is: how can this transcend into a holistic approach that impacts on everything a company does? Answering this is a key step towards putting absoulute brands at the heart of organizations.

There are promising developments. There are organizations in which the brand has managed to transcend the communications department and become a more holistic entity. Done well, this will boost “purpose” in the way BrandZ defines it: “Making peoples’ lives better”. Look at the Indonesian Top 10 this year, see the brands that feature, and it becomes clear what the impact of elevating the role of brand in a business can be. This takes effort and commitment, and needs to be ingrained in a company’s culture. In general, however, the brand is still treated more like a business asset to be administered, rather than the sole – or soul – driver behind everything a company does.

Tough job, but someone’s got to do it

Absoulute branding paves the way for absoulute companies, with the brand as a guideline for all actions an organization takes. As the concept of a brand changes, so too must companies change the way brands are managed.

Delivering what you promise as an organization will remain one of a company’s key priorities in the coming years, but the organization itself is becoming more core to sustainable success. A relevant and distinctive communication message is one step, but moving the whole organization towards an absoulute brand is a discipline in itself, that requires a strong, holistic leader, seated at the table of the executive committee.

This calls for a Chief Brand Officer, and it’s a tough but rewarding job. It takes a “whole-brainer”, who is able to oversee all operations of the company and the impact they have on the entire ecosystem.

This requires a new way of working and thinking as an organization, and a new way of dealing with brands. She or he needs to use absoulute brand thinking to fulfil that brand promise to all customers of the company: employees, their families, suppliers, the community, the environment and even the world.

Embracing absoulute branding means scoring significantly higher on net results, net sales, operational income and growth, and having happy, loyal employees (4, 5). Think of brands such as Traveloka, Sariwangi and Pepsodent in Indonesia, or more globally Google, Patagonia and Zappos). Not bad. Time to do some soul searching.

Author : Gerard Hoff


  1. Booz Alan Hamilton (2004) Managing brands for value creation
  2. Kantar Vermeer Millward Brown (2015) Brand Value Creation in a World of Accelerating Change
  3. Guidry Moulard, Randle D. Raggio en Judith Anne Garretson Folse (2016)- Brand Authenticity: Testing the Antecedents and Outcomes of Brand Management’s Passion for its Products
  4. Mats Urde (1999) Brand Orientation: A Mindset for Building Brands into Strategic Resources
  5. Label (2005) – Brand orientation index – A management tool for building strong brands