BrandSmart 2019: Staying true to yourself when transformation reigns

Change is scary. It’s also inevitable and unavoidable. And one of the best ways to cope with change—and make it work to our advantage—is to get together every so often with our peers and leaders to showcase the newest, brightest and most dynamic new ideas.

Last Thursday’s BrandSmart 2019 was a perfect example.

306 marketing pros from all over the Midwest gathered to hear 35 speakers discuss some of the hottest topics in today’s brandscape, from augmented and virtual reality to influencer marketing to a screen-free future. It was a smorgasbord of insight about capitalizing on disruption.

The day’s three keynotes gave us a look at how scary change can be, but also conveyed a sure antidote: staying true to who you are as a brand.

The thrill ride of transformation

The opening keynote—“Transformation: It’s a Thrill Ride,” from Dana Anderson, Chief Transformation Officer at MediaLink—was a frank look at what makes change scary and why 70% of transformation programs fail.

“Last year was the least amount of change you’ll ever experience,” she proclaimed. Yes, change is that inevitable—yet many people approach transformation as if they were boarding a thrill ride at a theme park. First they play it cool, but once the ride starts, they scream and cry like babies.

How do you lead change when it terrifies people? First, Anderson said, you have to “unsee what you know.” You have to learn to be an insider and an outsider at the same time. And you have to go about it with swagger, because “this is the sexiest, most important work ever.”

Her closing quote from David Letterman was both scary and reassuring: “Most great things you’ve learned come from something terrible.”

A tasty lesson in brand authenticity

How many Lou Malnati’s restaurants are there? If you said, “two or three,” that means the company is executing its marketing strategy perfectly.

There are actually 57 Lou Malnati’s stores, but according to Heather Stege, the company’s Chief Strategy Officer and Interim President, they only want you to be aware of the handful closest to you.

“We don’t do billboards, and we don’t do TV,” she said. “We don’t have an agency. No two stores look the same, and each one has its own strategy. Two words we never say are ‘chain’ and ‘corporate.’

Individual stores support teams and organizations in their own communities, they each have their own email lists, and they each keep a fun, active presence on social media.

How does the message stay coherent when every store does its own thing? The answer is authenticity—the restaurants’ steadfast adherence to the food and the communities they serve.

The only constant from store to store is the food—and that’s barely changed in the company’s almost 50 years. Stege says, “We’ll never be fast. We don’t serve pasta. We tried putting healthy things on the menu, but no one ordered them. We’re not afraid to make fun of ourselves.

“This is who we are.

Making your brand’s purpose your personality

One major change to which brand marketers have had to adapt in recent years is the perceived need to take public positions on social issues. The closing session of BrandSmart 2019 was an all-star panel addressing this concept: “Brand Purpose and the Politics of Everything,” moderated by Jim Lecinski, Associate Professor of Marketing at Northwestern University.

The panelists were:

  • Shanita Akintonde, Associate Professor of Communications, Columbia College Chicago
  • David Armano, Global Strategy Director, Edelman
  • Jennifer Wesley, Head of Industry, Travel, Google

Armano explained that brands now must take positions because “people believe the system is not working for them. They’re looking for alternative sources of trust, and 50% believe brands are better suited to supply it than traditional institutions. There’s a new expectation that brands need to be clear about what they offer the world.”

Wesley pointed out that this expectation should be looked at as an opportunity. “If you’re talking to someone at a party, someone who has a purpose in life is a lot more interesting than someone who doesn’t. Purpose can be the personality of your brand.”

But defining and maintaining your brand’s purpose is a fine balance between the intentional and the organic. “You need an alignment of like-mindedness between customer and brand,” said Akintonde. “And you have to be fluid enough to respond to the times, but you can’t be so quick you come off as schizophrenic.”

Taking a stand, of course, carries the risk of alienating a segment of your potential audience, but all three panelists say it’s worthwhile as long as you’re willing to back your words with actions and continuously follow through.

Besides, as Akintonde pointed out, “Silence says something to your customers, too.”

Which BrandSmart sessions stuck with you? Keep the conversation going by adding a comment below. And don’t miss the full gallery of event photos on Facebook!

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