Highlights from Agile Brand (the book)

Posted by Eric Gilbertsen

Once in a while, we are able to set aside the variety — and excitement — of working across many great brands and instead become completely immersed in one. These days are critical to truly, deeply understanding our clients, their audiences, and their industry. So on a recent trip to WEFTEC in New Orleans, I used my travel time to read Agile Brand, a book from Greg Kihlström, another member of DC's vibrant agency community. I finished the entire book on the plane, dozing off only once, and jotting down notes in Evernote. Below are a few of Greg's ideas that stood out and reinforce many of the ideas we apply to brand strategy for our clients.

Understanding Brands

There are many definitions of a brand, but in its simplest terms, branding is a shortcut. When you see a familiar logo or store front, all of your expectations and feelings about that brand flood your mind, consciously or unconsciously.

Kihlström posed this challenge: Imagine a dog.

What dog do you see? Probably not some generic dog in a stock photo, but rather a dog from your life. It might be a pet dog from your childhood or a neighbor's dog. It could be Kenny's Instagram model dog Sidney. Or my cousin's dog that left teeth marks in my ankle as a kid.

A brand paints a lasting image in your mind.

Brand Eras

The book discusses the history of brands and four "eras" in how brands have been defined.

  • Object
  • Idea
  • Experience
  • Relationship

Kihlström makes the point that these eras are additive, and we agree. At the foundation is the object – the product or service being sold. Think of the iconic Coca-Cola bottle. Next is the idea that creates an emotional connection to the brand. In the 1980s, it was Apple challenging us to Think Different, and Nike urging us to Just Do It.

Although experience has always been a part of branding, it became central to brand development as the embodiment of idea and an extension of the object. Think of visiting a Starbucks, vacationing in Disney World, or driving a BMW.

Today, as brands strive for personalization and relevance, the understanding of brands as a relationship has taken hold. Think of your relationship with your Trunk Club stylist, your navigators at Upside, and your virtual relationships with your Peloton instructors and enthusiast groups on Facebook.

The takeaway for brand managers and agencies is that brand equity and opportunity should be assessed by considering these four eras.

Brands as Relationships

We often talk with clients about their brand as a person with a personality. If you met [Brand] at a party, what would that person be like?

So the question is, what type of relationship should each audience have with the brand?

Kihlström poses the very human question: Is the brand a friend, teacher, or coach? Could it be a celebrity or a revered expert and authority figure? If you can answer that question, it changes how you think about activating the brand.

Agile Brands

Finally, the book discusses agile methodology and applies it to brands, marketing, and agencies. Why bother complaining that the requirements changed? They always change. So, if the only constant is change, an agile brand must have both a foundation (mission, pillars, etc.), but also the willingness to iterate, optimize, and evolve its strategies and tactics.

In a book filled with quotes, my favorite was this from Patric Palm of Favro:

"Agencies are tied down by trying to un-budge big ideas."

The point is, a brand needs a foundation as its North Star. After finding its guiding light, a brand needs to be nimble and nurtured by professionals who value testing, learning, and optimization.

I would simply add that a brand should also aim to surprise you, just as surprises bring delight to everyday life. Consistency has its place in laying a foundation of expectations and emotions in our minds, but the element of surprise provides salience.