Dave Foster, one half of AvreaFoster’s founding leadership team, has led the strategic brand consultancy as CEO for more than 25 years.
Over time, Dave has guided AvreaFoster through a transition, shifting the company’s role to a more consultative and strategic brand advisor. This gradual transformation was motivated in part by Dave’s growing awareness of the challenges confronting B2B marketers, especially concerns related to the value of brand and the critical role it plays in day-to-day operations. Dave shares his thoughts in the following discussion.
How do you define brand?
Brand is the sum of attributes contributing to the way an organization is perceived in the marketplace. It’s a combination of concrete and intangible qualities giving a company its distinctive character and personality. Sure, it includes logos, taglines, messaging and design identity. But a brand also includes all of the subtle impressions delivered through a number of consumer touchpoints: an interaction with an employee, the CEO’s message at the annual meeting, a company’s website, collateral materials or pitch decks. Often, brand constitutes the only introduction to a company, and sometimes it’s all potential customers have to go on before deciding whether to investigate further.
Can you tell us how your understanding of brand has influenced AvreaFoster over the years?
We’ve always paid close attention to how brand informs all aspects of our clients’ marketing efforts. But brand can and should influence how a company operates — how it speaks to its customers, how it develops new products, how it solves problems.
Brand is the sum of attributes contributing to the way an organization is perceived in the marketplace.
Defining brand as nothing more than a visual identity underestimates its ability to connect emotionally with customers and communicate abstract cultural attributes and principles that words or images fail to capture. Brand’s ability to impact a customer’s receptivity to a company doesn’t neatly fit into any traditional method of financial appraisal, but it shouldn’t be overlooked for that reason. As the foundational identity underlying any coherent marketing strategy, companies cannot afford to neglect investing in brand. That’s why we’ve become more committed to consulting B2B organizations facing complex brand challenges.
How should businesses view their brand?
They should think of their brand as an asset on their balance sheet. While it’s an intangible, it’s no less valuable than concrete assets like inventory, property or cash in the bank. In fact, a brand’s worth may even exceed the value of a company’s tangible assets in its capacity to win over customers and promote loyalty. When a company sells or merges with another, brand value becomes real value in the form of goodwill. A company is valued for its tangible net worth — its physical assets like cash, property, plant and equipment, et cetera— plus intangibles like goodwill. Goodwill can be defined as the value coming from brand equity and other holdings such as patents or trademarks that have current and future value.
It’s true convincing companies — especially B2B companies — of the worth of brand can be difficult. That’s because a balance sheet doesn’t capture a brand’s true monetary potential. And while no calculation can provide a fail-safe estimate of a brand’s financial impact, anecdotally we see just how decisive it can be in differentiating an organization from its competitors, or what a suitor will pay for a company and its brand.
We encourage companies to think of brand as a virtual surplus, an immaterial asset defying traditional accounting methods but of potentially tremendous value. It just needs to be tapped and exploited. So many companies neglect to mine and foster the brand assets they already possess.
In your experience, what inhibits companies from realizing their brand value?
Either the executive team can’t envision how investing in brand contributes to overall financial success, or there’s an unrecognized conflict between a brand promise and operational reality. Problems arise when there’s a disconnect between a company’s public-facing brand and their abilities to deliver. We typically hear clients say things like, “Our brand doesn’t represent us” — “or our brand doesn’t capture the spirit of our company and culture.” That’s when a third-party perspective can be beneficial.
When your brand truly mirrors your organization’s core purpose and values, the rest just falls into place.
When we consult with businesses on brand, we look for unidentified gaps between the internal consensus about organizational fundamentals and brand messaging. When you’re too close, you can sometimes miss the ways that brand attributes establish unrealistic expectations, or simply fail to capture a company’s true value proposition. When your brand truly mirrors your organization’s core purpose and values, the rest just falls into place. Your message becomes clearer. Your competitive differences become more apparent. And your customers have a better understanding of who you are and what you offer.
What other factors can undermine brand effectiveness?
We are often called upon during periods of organizational upheaval when a company is undergoing a transition or inflection point. A merger, an acquisition or a period of tremendous growth. Whether a problem has surfaced that demands internal reorganization or strategic priorities have shifted that require stakeholders to reevaluate their roles, big transitions possess significant brand implications. We have grown adept at stepping in to assess those implications and aligning long-term goals with brand positioning to enable success. Unless your brand is an organic outgrowth and accurate reflection of your business objectives, your brand won’t be reaching its potential.
What should a company do if it’s struggling with brand identity?
Self-serving to say this but seek outside consultation. Get an objective perspective and determine where the mismatch between perception and reality lies. Only then can you reevaluate the messages your brand is transmitting to customers and calibrate accordingly. Many times clients come to us when internal brand initiatives have failed or other outside firms have missed the mark. Appreciating the role brand plays in driving your business strategy efforts is key. From there, it becomes a matter of making the right adjustments and consistently implementing a plan. Everything else should unfold seamlessly.