The seven commandments of brand management

If you want to do brand management right, you can’t be afraid of playing with the DNA a bit (actually, that’s commandment number 3 below). Thus ‘seven commandments’ instead of the ten, uh, well, you get the point.

Today, I want to relay some absolutely fundamental truths about managing a successful brand. Full transparency – I was inspired by this story by the very astute, great Marketing Week writer Mark Ritson.

Fasten your seatbelts. Here we go.

The brand management commandments

Remember your roots – Brands have origins, just like humans have families and ancestry. Too often, brand managers forget their brand roots – why the brand was invented in the first place. (For more on this, check out my video on crafting an awesome brand purpose.) What happens when you forget your roots? You start to behave out of character. When people behave out of character, what do we think? We think there’s something wrong. When a brand behaves out of character, same thing.

Walk the talk – Too often, a brand’s purpose becomes nothing more than words hanging in the lobby. This is especially true when brands have exchanged hands from the person who had the original vision to a manager. Or when a brand is merged with another brand. Great example is Chiat Day’s ‘Disruption’ methodology. Chiat Day legitimately disrupted entire categories with work for clients like Apple. But then they codified disruption, it went from being something in the DNA to something akin to a checklist. The words were there, but the spirit and passion were missing. It became just another pseudo-process with little to no meaning.

Play with the DNA – I used to work for a hot local agency that was bought by DDB. As part of the purchase, I was sent to a DDB office that wasn’t doing too well to give them our shop’s religion. The first thing I noticed was that there were quotes by the founder – Bill Bernbach – hanging everywhere. He was a great ad guy – but at the time, he’d been dead 20 years. His culture of trying new things had mummified. I’m certain Bill Bernbach wouldn’t have approved of turning his wisdom into code. He would’ve wanted us to play with that code, hybridize it, push it and pull it into new things – that was the spirit of disruption he had intended in the first place!

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You need to change to stay consistent – When you’re a new brand, you have everything to gain, so you try brave things. When you’re established, and a lot of people are on the payroll, you have the tendency to want to hit repeat. That’s the death of what made you great in the first place. Think of Apple after Steve Jobs. It’s become a culture of iteration on current successes – not bold innovation.

You won’t get fired for trying to please everyone. But you won’t get promoted, either – A Coke executive famously said Coke was the drink for everyone with a mouth. Funny. But even Coke went after a specific segment. You need to be bloody minded about being the ‘favourite movie’ for a very select audience. And if the rest of the world doesn’t like the movie at all, screw ‘em. Harley Davidson didn’t become famous by trying to appeal to Japanese bike fans. Apple didn’t go after accountants. Louis Vuitton didn’t do a bargain brand.

Nobody cares about marketers. They care about founders – Don’t confuse your message with the message from the artist who came up with the brand or product in the first place. Marketing is, by definition, getting paid to put somebody else’s message out there. It will never, ever be as powerful as a message from the person who made it all happen in the first place. So get that person involved in marketing.

It’s all about the pink Chanel handbag – Chanel used to famously create an insane, insanely expensive item for the runway shows. For example, the pink handbag. People who saw this $20,000 bag thought ‘Wow, that’s crazy, and way out of my league. But I could probably afford it in black for $5,000.’ If you’re building a brand, you always build the top tier, the exclusive, the unattainable except by the few brand first. You can always go mass market and cheaper. You can rarely go upmarket if you got your start downmarket.

This story first appeared as a video on

Want more stories on brand building?

Here’s one on building a brand with soul.

Here’s how to build a powerful brand in a lowest-bid-wins world

And here’s one on effective brand positioning.

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