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Maintaining Your Brand at Scale

Maintaining brand consistency becomes harder the bigger you get. It’s also the quickest way to erode your brand equity and create confusion around your brand.

We’ve created this very comprehensive guide to help you ensure your brand’s design system can scale.

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How to Maintain Your Brand at Scale

If you’re reading this article, it probably means that your company has grown significantly since it was first conceived. What was once a hair-brained idea scrawled onto a whiteboard is now a complex organization with multiple brand touchpoints split across several departments and teams, maybe even across multiple cities. And in many cases, you may be looking up at a daunting question: how do I maintain my brand at scale?

com·plex or·gan·i·za·tion
An organization with multiple disparate departments, a large mix of products, several subsidiaries, and/or a broad number of marketing channels. Complex organizations may include educational institutions.

There comes a point in every organization’s life where scale confronts operational reality. How do you keep doing what you were doing in a bigger way that doesn’t sacrifice the quality and reliability that got you here in the first place? It isn’t an issue that is unique to marketing and branding, but these aspects are usually the last ones to be addressed. 

Understandably, scaling your brand doesn’t seem as important as, say, scaling your finance department or production facilities. However, your brand is an important part of your organization. It’s who you are, and as you continue to grow, consistency across all your operations and brand touchpoints is imperative. Since a brand is a reflection of your company identity, if it gets diluted, so do you. Your brand also represents you in front of the public. Uncontrolled variation on brand presentation can cause it to lose its equity, its recognizability, and its associated reputation even going so far as to harm it.

By the time you get here, you may be looking at a Wild West of incoherent messaging, a complete disregard for visual guidelines, and internal and external confusion about who you are and what you actually offer. Often, the state of a brand reflects the thoughts of your employees and customers. If it seems disorganized to you, it probably seems disorganized to them as well. But there’s hope! By undertaking an effort to protect and standardize your brand, you’ll also work to clarify your company’s position to both your internal and external stakeholders. Two birds with one stone!

Traditional approaches to maintaining brand consistency in complex organizations

At this kind of scale, organizations usually pick one of two options to address their brand consistency issues:

  1. Centralize marketing operations
    In this model, all branded assets and communications are created by or passed through a singular team. It’s a great way to ensure consistency since every item goes through the same set of hands.

    However, this can also be incredibly time-consuming. For fast-growing companies, it’s often the case that, marketing teams lack the resources to keep up with the demand for branded materials. What ends up happening is that either strategic projects get sidelined by a flood of minute requests (like letterheads or business cards) or requests take forever to process, sometimes even a few months! 

    The former handicaps your team’s ability to stay proactive while the latter leaves other teams waiting for time-sensitive material. Additionally, a centralized marketing department may be too far removed from the purpose and the audience of a particular project to produce content effectively. For example, if someone is creating a product-specific brochure, the people creating the materials may not have the in-depth understanding needed as say a product development team.

    PROS
    – Guaranteed consistency
    – Easy approvals and standardization
    – Full visibility on brand usage and messaging

    CONS
    – Strained resources
    – Slow delivery times
    – Lack of field-specific knowledge
    – Disengages other departments from brand

  2. Decentralize Marketing
    The second option organizations have is to empower individual departments and teams to create and publish branded material by themselves, usually with a set of rules such as a brand guide or branded templates. Unlike the centralized approach, decentralization gives teams the ability to work independently and produce the collaterals that they need in a timely manner. It also reduces the burden on the company’s marketing team, allowing them to focus on more strategic objectives.

    However, decentralization poses a greater risk of diluting the brand, because each department has unique capabilities, talents, and resources. Even with specific rules, a lack of centralized checks can lead to individual interpretations of brand guidelines that make your brand seem disparate and confused. Since departments are working independently, there is also no coordination between marketing efforts. Quickly, you’ll start to see duplicates of similar materials that follow wildly different design and content standards. It’s a land of pixelated pictures, comic sans, and Microsoft ClipArt next to a logo that cost you thousands of dollars to create.

    PROS
    – Autonomous teams can respond to opportunities and threats quickly
    – Freed-up central resources for strategic projects
    – Shared brand responsibility

    CONS
    – Little to no visibility into overall brand presentation
    – Inconsistent, desperate brand usage
    – Quality depends on individual team competencies and skill

A flexible brand maintenance model for the new economy.

Whereas over-centralization stretches the capacity of your in-house marketing team and causes delays, decentralization can lead to disparity and a dilution of your brand. So what do you do?

When our clients come to us with this problem, we recommend a method called centralized decentralization. This may seem paradoxical, but by taking the best of both strategies, we can create an effective third option that helps maintain brand consistency without exhausting the internal capacities of your team. 

We’ll define this methodology a bit more and provide key strategies and systems that you can set up to start addressing the challenge of maintaining a brand at scale.

Defining Centralized Decentralization

The tug of war between centralized and decentralized processes isn’t a new one. According to an article in the Harvard Business Review, the concept goes as far back as biblical times “when Jethro advised Moses to distribute responsibility to various levels in the hierarchy.”

However, ping-ponging between the two opposites has defined the conversation about centralization for some time. While the Harvard Business Review’s 2017 article deals with the process of decentralization, a McKinsey article six years earlier asks the question: to centralize or not to centralize? In fact, most of the thinking on this subject has focused on knowing when to transition from one to the other.

Recently, there has been a paradigm shift in the way thought leaders approach organizational management. In an increasingly digital world, organizations need the speed of decentralization with the clear direction of a centralized command. The need for a third, better solution has shifted the way we view operational excellence.

This is best summarized in McKinsey’s article, “The five trademarks of agile organizations”. In it, the authors explain this shift as a transition away from viewing companies as machines and towards viewing them as organisms. In essence, breaking down the traditional structures of corporate hierarchy to give way to fluid, dynamic, and responsive team-based models of management. 

“Like the cells in an organism, the basic building blocks of agile organizations are small fit-for-purpose performance cells. Compared with machine models, these performance cells typically have greater autonomy and accountability, are more multidisciplinary, are more quickly assembled (and dissolved), and are more clearly focused on specific value-creating activities and performance outcomes.”

McKinsey

In this new style of organization, teams or “cells” are independent and responsive, but still align their goals and strategies with the larger “organism”. Through continuous dialogue and support, teams are empowered rather than instructed, and are able to execute autonomously. In essence, they are centrally decentralized. 

There are many advantages to this way of thinking. Organizations can respond more quickly to changes in their environments, pivot and adapt faster to new information, and encourage better collaboration and a much more effective working environment. Today’s tech companies largely function this way and it’s in part the reason why they are so successful. Fully digital organizations like Google, Facebook, and Amazon use this method to confront the challenge of having several different coding teams, while still being able to launch products and rollout updates cohesively.

A cultural paradigm shift.

Why don’t more organizations take this approach to marketing and brand maintenance? Simply put, successfully implementing a centralized approach to decentralization is hard. Really, really hard. For many organizations, it means completely re-visiting their corporate culture, and even how decisions are made throughout the organization. Let’s take a look at the kinds of changes needed to implement this new, agile approach to marketing:

  1. User needs are at the heart of the organization.
    Because marketing is no longer solely owned by marketing, the principle of user-centred design needs to be adopted by the broader organization.
  2. All strategy and decisions are informed by real data. This way, decisions are made logically and based on concrete reasoning as opposed to assumptions and guesswork.
  3. Continuous learning and iteration. Agility implies adaptability and responsiveness, even in the system that supports it. To do so, an organization must constantly be willing to learn and grow. This requires a culture of learning and fierce dedication to self-improvement.
  4. Networks of empowered teams. The key word here is “network”. Networks leverage the power of individual teams through a strong support system. Multidisciplinary teams across the institution are empowered with clear goals, hands-on governance, resources and ongoing capacity building.
  5. Solutions are flexible, scalable and easily accessible. Strategies and systems should provide enough structure to be useful, but remain flexible enough to accommodate changing needs and new information. Additionally, technology plays a key role in improving operational efficiencies, enabling redesigned business processes, providing added value, and boosting the organization’s overall performance.
  6. Data is comprehensive, relevant and widely available. Relevant and timely data is available to everyone, empowering various teams and departments with the insights needed to improve performance. Additionally, performance data––from the effectiveness of administrative processes to recruitment and fundraising––is collected and shared openly, with insights informing strategic initiatives and tasks for further improvement.
  7. Tools, resources and guides are available to everyone. Cooperation, not competition. Openness is a key principle of agility. When everyone has access to the same resources and information, work becomes a process of sharing and improvement instead of protection and silos.

Because of the significant overlap between the needs of today’s organizations, you’ll find these principles scattered in articles about digitization, agility, and even healthy work environments. However, they all rely on a strong foundation of collaboration, support, flexibility, and continuous improvement. Without these, setting up a centralized decentralization model becomes a Herculean task.

This article focuses on centralized decentralization in the context of brand management, but it’s important to remember that it’s actually a piece that fits into this larger puzzle of change management. If your team knows how to work agile, then adapting those skills to brand management becomes incredibly easy. Conversely, perhaps managing your brand at scale can be the first step in transitioning the way your organization functions overall.

In either case, keeping these ideas in the back of your mind will help you create workable, long-lasting solutions as you start to tackle the issues of brand scale at your organization.

The Lead + Support Model

Unless your entire business is stacked with designers, copywriters and strategists, successfully decentralizing your marketing efforts will require buy-in, strategy, support, and training from your marketing team.

Enter stage left, the Lead and Support Model. If centralized decentralization is the destination, a Lead & Support model is the vehicle that gets you there. 

In this approach, the marketing team provides strategic guidance to internal teams and empowers them with the data, strategy, guidelines, resources, and skills needed to promote their departments and services in an impactful, strategic and sustainable way.

This approach requires a bold shift in how a company views their marketing department’s role. Instead of acting as brand gatekeepers, the marketing department helps to cultivate and adopt a shared understanding that a brand is owned by everyone rather than owned by one ‘digital superhero’.

Before you begin

If all this sounds like a Herculean task, it’s because it is. But when done right, your company’s teams will begin to function more like a living organism than a machine, executing brand and marketing initiatives deftly and quickly, leaving your competition behind in the dust.

Setting up this sort of model within your organization is probably one of the hardest steps. That’s because it requires cross-disciplinary coordination and buy-in, and it requires a perspective shift on the part of everyone involved. We’ll get into some examples of systems and procedures you can get started with, however, here are some Massive tips that will set you up for success:

  1. Top Down
    A customer-centric culture of brand advocacy starts from the top. If the CEO doesn’t use the right logo in a company slide deck, no one else will feel like it’s their responsibility to do so. Start from the top and work your way down.
  1. Treat it like a project
    For this to succeed, maintaining your brand at scale needs to be treated like a strategic project. It is! Strong brands and streamlined brand management have material impacts on your business. Brand awareness and loyalty can make significant improvements to your business and customer loyalty. It can also drum up new business opportunities.
  1. Get the right people and let them at it
    There are always those in the organization who are passionate about change and want to see a company grow and improve. They are the ones who are usually pushing for changing policies and processes, and they are often working on these in their off-time. Identify those people and empower them to start working on these changes. Doing this does wonders for employee morale, but it also ensures that those in charge are committed to this mission. 
  1. Have clear direction
    If you want others to use your brand correctly, you need to have a really clear understanding of what that means. Brands that haven’t been touched in 20 years or are disconnected from the business will be harder to standardize across an organization. Maybe it’s even time for a rebrand.

Getting Started

Before you go tearing down and reorganizing your brand management, you’ll want to start with two key items: an assessment and a strategy. These will inform the way you plan to structure your new system, and can also help clarify the goals, desired outcomes, and indicators of success.

Assessment

Your assessment should take stock of how effectively your brand management system is operating today, how your stakeholders are responding to it, and whether there are any areas for improvement. Here are some activities that you can use:

  1. Brand dump. Make a comprehensive list of every single place where your customers (internal and external) interact with your brand. Include social media, HR training guides, merchandise, websites, and anything else you can think of. For the best results, try and do this with a team so that all of your bases are covered.
  2. Content creation record. Over the course of two weeks or a month, make a record of every branded asset your current team has to create. You’ll start to see patterns that will help to inform the resources and templates that you need to create for your brand system. For example, if you’re constantly getting requests for a logo, making a self serve resource centre with visual guidelines can help take this off your plate.
  3. Team capabilities. What special skills does your team have as it relates to branding and content creation? Are there any hidden Photoshop ninjas or blog writers in your midst? Doing this will help you understand how much responsibility teams can handle and how much training they might need. It’ll also help you identify internal skill sets that everyone could learn from.
  4. Resource evaluation. Collect every inch of material that has your brand on it. Guides, templates, the works. This is also a good time to take stock of your tools and vendors. You will likely find redundancies and discrepancies which can be fixed in your new system.
  5. Survey. The purpose of this exercise is to improve your brand and encourage clarity around its message and vision. To do so, you need to know where it stands right now. It’s always a good idea to do regular brand audits, but for this purpose, you can also send out surveys, to employees, and if you’re brave enough, to your customers. Check out this sample survey as inspiration.

The first assessment will of course be the longest and most involved. However, ideally it becomes a regular habit. We recommend annual assessments. It’s like cleaning your room. If you wait too long to clean, then the task becomes unwieldy and overwhelming. If you maintain your room with regular tidying, the task becomes simple and even enjoyable (or so my mom used to tell me).

Eventually, annual assessments can be more proactive. What events are coming up in the year that we need to plan for? Where are there potential opportunities for collaboration? What areas can we strengthen our team’s skills?

Strategy

Once you’ve conducted your assessment, you will be armed with lots of information and new insights. Now it’s time to turn those into actionable changes. There isn’t really one way to do this. Strategies will look different for different organizations. What’s important to remember is that your strategy should:

  1. Be informed by data from your assessment
  2. Keep users at the centre of the solution
  3. Follow the principles of agility and centralized decentralization

Your strategy will include building out resources and systems to help you manage your brand at scale. In our experience, there are a few things that every organization should consider as they start their process. Let’s go over a few of them.

Building Out the Systems That You Need

In complex organizations, you’ll need to build out systems and structures that can help support the initiatives of your central marketing team. Instead of relying on manpower, these systems do the heavy lifting and help address some of the issues that you might currently be facing in your organization.

Brand System

A brand system is the Library of Alexandria for your organization (at least while it was still around). It’s important to make a distinction here between Brand Systems and elements of it such as Design Systems and Brand Guidelines. Although key elements, the latter two are merely parts of a larger system. In addition to visual guidelines, brand systems also outline your brand story, its voice, its strategy, symbols, mission, purpose, vision, and everything in between. 

Taking a comprehensive approach to a brand system is needed because it covers all points at which people interact with your brand. Because it’s easier to assess visual brand touchpoints like user interfaces and websites, subtler aspects like voice and messaging are frequently left out. To facilitate brand consistency, you need your team to be competent in all aspects of your brand.

There are many ways to set up a brand system, and it differs depending on the size of your organization and the type of work it does. An app developer may have a greater need for icons and assets than a retail company. A restaurant chain may need to specify interior design choices while a cloud hosting company may not. In each case, the conversation around creating these materials should ensure that it provides the most value and clarity for as many people as possible. 

In an article from Smashing Magazine, author and brand design expert, Laura Busche, talks about the six things that all brand systems should be:

  1. Accessible
  2. Empowering
  3. Holistic
  4. Extensible
  5. Flexible
  6. Iterative

Essentially, brand systems must be open to everyone. This attitude brings all team members into the brand, rather than dictating to them a set of arbitrary rules. It also prevents brand silos from occurring. Brand systems should also be simple to use and provide access to templates, images, and files with clear directions and explanations. With the right navigation and set-up, people will find what they need, and it’s much better to give them more resources than fewer.

When setting up your brand system, you can lean on knowledge experts within your organization. A graphic designer is likely the best person to prepare the section on logo use, while a copywriter may be better suited at explaining tone.

Training Infrastructure 

You’ve probably tried to implement some sort of design standard or brand guideline within your organization before. The only thing less read than a brand guideline is the terms and conditions for new software or hardware. Regardless of the number of examples you provide and the number of times you refer to a brand guideline, it feels like no one uses it.

One reason might be that while you have the materials in place, you lack the proper training infrastructure. Training infrastructure refers to regular events that focus on building skills at all levels of your organization. Through hand-on training, employees can better develop their understanding of the brand, its guidelines, and improve their ability to independently execute on tasks.

Brand training should be part of the onboarding process and include:

  1. A working knowledge of the brand and its significance to the organization
  2. Guidance on how and when to use a Brand System
  3. Examples of correct and incorrect brand use, specifically tailored to the situations that the trainee may find themselves in
  4. Contact information and support services for questions and issues

However, training doesn’t stop there. The most successful organizations are ones that continue to offer educational opportunities that cover topics such as basic copywriting, image modification, and tips and tricks for office software can drastically improve the polish of independently created items. These regular meetings are also opportunities to encourage cross-departmental collaboration.

Ultimately, even with comprehensive training and detailed guides, mistakes are bound to be made. As part of your training infrastructure, be sure to include regular check-ins and audits. These can help identify weaknesses in a team’s skillset which can help suggest strategic improvements like adjustments to your brand management, topics to cover at the next lunch and learn, or hiring requirements for a new job position. They are also opportunities to establish a dialogue between central marketing and distant departments. This is a key component of a collaborative brand model.

Network Hubs

One of the issues with decentralization is that teams quickly get siloed in their approaches and fall into repetitive patterns because there is no interaction with the rest of the company. To address this, part of your brand management system should include network hubs.

Network hubs are subject specific groups open to any individuals in an organization, regardless of their position or team. The goal of the network hub is to build competency and share ideas related to specific fields. For example, there may be a Network Hub for Social Media, for Event Planning, and for Retail Displays. 

Network hubs operate on a principle of cross-pollination. The idea behind this is that best practices are shared horizontally across an organization rather than standardized vertically. What this means is that skills, resources, tools, and standards are collaboratively determined. One team may discover a neat software and share it at the next network hub. Other teams may choose to adopt it or share their solutions. Eventually, the most effective solution becomes a defacto standard that was co-created rather than dictated from above.

Cross pollination is extremely effective because it prioritizes user needs, encourages collaboration, and creates a culture of sharing. It also facilitates coordination and discussion beyond the constraints of a single team since network hubs apply to subjects and skills, not just departments and individual teams. Furthermore, when information sharing is democratic, it is also more widely accepted and practiced.

In your organization, you might have several brands that manage many different social media channels. A social media network hub would be a place to discuss the best tools and software for editing photos or videos, copywriting practices that have resulted in the best engagement, and more efficient ways of content scheduling and reporting. The knowledge of one team is benefitted by the many.

Network hubs should have the opportunity to meet regularly and discuss their challenges and successes. It’s a collaborative way to troubleshoot issues and share tips that teams have discovered. For companies with virtual team/chat software like Slack, specific channels or groups can be created for this purpose. 

Network hubs also reveal opportunities for collaboration among departments. Joint events and marketing initiatives can be shared among a set of interdisciplinary teams that lessens individual loads and creates a better product.


Massive Tip: Use the following Agenda template to help you facilitate your network hub meetings.

  1. Review the content calendar to flag opportunities for collaboration, or any unexpected projects that might be of shared interest to the team.
  2. Report on the success of initiatives shared learnings and insights with other departments.
  3. Share stories focused on users, customers, external partners, and the organization itself with the goal of channelling them into social media and other marketing channels.
  4. Anticipate and identify the need for NEW templates and resources in the near future.
  5. Discuss ways to improve workflows, brand consistency, and marketing Best Practices.

Culture

As you start to implement some of these systems within your organization, it’s important to remember that they all work off a strong foundation and culture of collaboration, openness, and flexibility. The principles of agile organization perform best when this foundation is cultivated across all levels and departments of an organization. In fact, a foundation like this cannot be compartmentalized because, by its very nature, it needs to flow through every single person and part of a business.

Despite what many books and blogs may claim, there is no one way of becoming agile, and implementing another company’s system may not necessarily produce the same results in yours. What’s more important is to understand the principles behind these systems, find specific ways to apply, and then grow them within your organization through exemplary, dedicated leadership.

It may seem like hard work, but it has enormous benefits:

“Research shows that agile organizations have a 70 percent chance of being in the top quartile of organizational health, the best indicator of long-term performance. Moreover, such companies simultaneously achieve greater customer centricity, faster time to market, higher revenue growth, lower costs, and a more engaged workforce”

McKinsey, The five trademarks of agile organizations.

As you go through your brand management improvements, you’ll observe the most success and the least resistance when you implement these changes alongside a cultural shift within your organization. No amount of slick brand systems or learning lunches will fix the issue of an unmotivated, incapacitated organizational structure. As I mentioned before, shifting towards a model of centralized decentralization can both benefit from your brand management goals, and influence them. 

Conclusion

Now that you have a better understanding of what centralized decentralization looks like, it’s time to start making some changes! Remember, your best asset for success will be a genuine, enthusiastic desire to grow your brand with your organization.

Don’t forget, if things start to get hairy, you can always lean on external support to help you with both strategy and implementation of a brand management system. The changes and strategies I’ve discussed above are not easy and they require a lot of hard work. Sometimes, it’s nice to have someone else support your initiatives and guide you with relevant knowledge. Make sure that whatever external partner you choose has the right experience and forward-thinking attitude you need to build a powerful brand that work at any scale and can sustainably grow with your organization. 

Want to work with Massive? Drop us a line and tell us about your project.