The practice of business transformation has been well studied; thousands of books and articles have been published on the subject over the past 25 years. With this vast body of learning, one might expect success rates to have improved over time.
The facts say otherwise. In 1996, research found that only 30% of change programs succeed1. Thirteen years later, results were the same2, and further evidence suggests that the needle hasn’t moved since3.
With so many tools and so many playbooks to learn from, why is business transformation so hard to get right? There may be one asset at your disposal that’s been overlooked: your brand.
When it comes to business transformation, brand is an underutilized asset. Historically, it’s been regarded as the sole domain of marketing communications—something that reflects business decisions and change initiatives, rather than shapes them.
We believe this is a missed opportunity.
Your brand has the capacity to play a significant role in shaping a transformation vision. It can help overcome the inertia that stifles progress. Below we will demonstrate this truth, and how to more effectively leverage your brand’s transformative power.
What a brand isA brand is a social contract between an organization and its people. It says, “This is who we are, this is why we’re here, this is who we serve, this is how we’re different and this is the value we create.” It is deployed internally and externally through storytelling, creativity, and experiences. But it functions experientially as the sum of interactions that the organization has with everyone it touches. Brand, if authentic and well-crafted, is an effective catalyst for collaboration and action.
A strong brand delivers four key benefits for business transformation:
Distinction: It has the ability to demonstrate, through internal and external messaging and experience, what makes you unique.
Stability: It clearly articulates a set of culturally defining attributes (e.g., purpose, mission, values, positioning) that provide a solid foundation in the face of change.
Participation: It inspires engagement and invites collective contribution to the greater good.
Unity: It has the ability to harmonize and organize activity in pursuit of a common goal.
Brand thinking and business transformation
If your brand has the unique power to deliver those four outcomes, it should play a major role in any change management initiative, especially an intense, strategic, company-wide business transformation.
A strong brand acts as a rudder for the corporate ship as it negotiates the choppy waters of change. It inspires the confidence required to convert fear into sustainable ambition, the sense of stability needed to work through challenges to the status quo, the sense of purpose that comes from participation in the process, and the sense of belonging that comes from the knowledge that you are unified in pursuit of a common goal.
The key attributes that constitute a brand typically include purpose, mission, values, positioning, and identity. What often happens in a business transformation is that attributes like purpose and mission are redefined within the context of the initiative, instead of aligning with how they are defined by your brand and the role they play in it. By using your brand as a guide for how you evaluate your approach to transformation—or your reasons for doing it—you can avoid working at cross-purposes with what your company actually stands for and what differentiates it.
Evaluating any transformation initiative against your brand’s key attributes ensures that the exercise will be consistent with your purpose, mission, and values. If robust, these brand attributes will adapt to find new relevance in a changing environment. For those that don’t, the most important thing is to understand what should remain consistent and what needs to shift in order to adapt to that changing environment.
How brand can be used to overcome transformational inertiaThere are 4 key barriers that create inertia for organizations attempting a transformation. Here we unpack what they are, how they manifest, why they happen, and how brand can be applied to overcome them.
01 — Fear-based transformationFear appeals to the most primitive part of our brain and bypasses the part that governs reasoning. In business, it is usually triggered by a threat of loss or a change in the competitive landscape. The value of fear is that it heightens your sense of urgency and spurs initial action in the face of that threat. But adrenalin only lasts so long, and if fear remains the basis upon which all transformational decisions are made, it can lead to confusion, fatigue, and paralysis.
The behaviour: The transformation initiative is a reactive response to competitive action or change in your industry and turns into a misguided exercise in panic management.
How brand overcomes the barrier: From a competitive perspective, distinction is the most important of all brand attributes. When you attempt transformation because your competitors are doing it, you are relinquishing what makes you distinctive for the false safety of sameness.
A strong brand helps you respond to change not with fear but with a vision of what you want to accomplish. This vision is rooted in who you are and what you stand for. It moves you past fear and creates a vision for transformation that’s meaningful to people, because it’s connected to the business they work for, the values they hold dear, and the value that they create.
02 — Destabilizing transformation experiences
Transformation initiatives can be destabilizing. They inevitably require pivots, adjustments, experiments, and sometimes even new leadership—leaving the organization in a state of stress and anxiety.
The behaviour: Transformation takes organizations into unfamiliar territory, exposes them to unforeseen obstacles, and results in unpredictable outcomes. This level of disruption induces anxiety and provokes resistance to change, leading to inertia.
How brand overcomes the barrier: A strong brand can be a stabilizing force. It helps an organization double down on its authenticity and use it as a source of safety and trust. It provides inspiration and guidance for transformational thinking and creates an anxiety-free space for experimentation.
03 — Transformations that feel distant and exclusiveTransformational change stumbles when it is imposed from above and not influenced or shaped by input from the people on the ground.
The behaviour: Organizations typically set up transformation offices, initiatives, and activities that are pursued by a select few people and imposed on the rest. Employees feel undervalued and uninspired to support the change.
How brand overcomes the barrier: A strong brand invites community participation and drives customer engagement. Leverage all that external learning to drive internal change. Treat employees as if they were customers. Use your brand’s community-building and engagement power to inspire employee participation and ownership.
04 — Fragmented change management initiatives
It’s easy to lose sight of a common purpose, especially when multiple change initiatives are being managed simultaneously with no order of importance.
The behaviour: The organization is running several change management initiatives at the same time, but none are prioritized. Carried out in silos, each has its own purpose and mission, and each is designed to promote its own behavioural changes throughout the organization.
How brand overcomes the barrier: Unity comes from a common sense of purpose, and purpose is a key brand attribute that can guide the integration of programs that collectively advance company-wide transformation while helping employees experience the sense of belonging that comes from pursuit of a common goal. At the same time, brand simultaneously connects and prioritizes these initiatives so that organizations are not spread so thin that they waste energy and lose sight of what’s most critical.
Leveraging the transformative power of brand
We see great potential for brand to act as a filter, a guide, and a motivator for leaders, managers, and employees as they push past the difficult challenges and overcome the inertia that stands in the way of transformational change. Integrating your brand within your transformational planning and execution leverages one of your most valuable assets in support of a process that needs it the most, and will help you beat the odds of a 70% failure rate.
In the coming weeks, we’ll explore in greater detail how brand can help reduce the likelihood of failure.
1 Kotter, John, Leading Change: Why Transformation Efforts Fail, Harvard Business Review, May-June 1995
2 Dewar, Carolyn and Keller, Scott, The Irrational Side of Change Management, McKinsey & Company, April 1, 2009
3 Morgan, Blake, Companies That Failed At Digital Transformation And What We Can Learn From Them, Forbes, September 2019