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The Great Debate: Why Experimentation Matters to Branding

We spend oodles of hours working out the kinks of our branding. As marketers, we get down to the nitty-gritty of taglines, color palettes, and guidelines. Then, get it approved,  document it, and launch it to the world.

For most companies, that’s it.

We spend all of our time making sure people use the logo and tagline correctly. But we can’t get employees to get excited about it or customers to pay attention. Even with all we’ve invested, it’s still a struggle to get noticed in a world of iconic brands with million-dollar budgets.

How do we keep a brand intact yet still keep it fresh and relevant?

The Two Sides of Branding

Branding creates a way for people to know that we sell donuts while another company sells air compressors. If we don’t have a brand, we don’t give people context for how to know us. The companies that invest the time to come up with a brand story and image that really sets them apart already have a jump on their competition. But these days, that’s table stakes.

We have to give people opportunities to play different roles in their relationship with our brand. One that moves them from passive spectators to active participators. But to make this work, we have to understand the two sides of a brand.

The Fixed Side

These are aspects that shouldn’t be changed once they’re set. The brand purpose, values, logo, tagline, typeface, and voice. Once these are established, they are important to guard because consistency gives people context. You want to always show up as the same “person,” whether you connect with someone online or in person. That’s everything from websites to emails to salespeople and customer service reps. Consistency is your golden egg.

The Flexible Side

The critical part of branding starts with your brand purpose because it’s your North Star. Without it, you don’t have a filter through which to make decisions for experiments. That’s when you see brands do all kinds of crazy things that disrupt the credibility that they’ve established. But once you’ve entrenched your brand purpose across your employee base, you now have a foundation that lets you experiment with how you express yourself.

Experimentation to Better Engage Employees

Global Manufacturing and Technology company Emerson Electric celebrated its 125th anniversary in 2015 with a year filled with brand experimentation. The innovation-driven company had seen a trend that was having a significant impact on its business. Graduate engineers wanted to work for sexier companies. Companies like Netflix, Apple, and Google. They were having a hard time recruiting young professionals to work on vortex flow meters, temperature transmitters, and garbage disposals.

To keep its innovation edge, Emerson CMO Kathy Button Bell knew she had to experiment with how the brand showed up in the marketplace. She started by partnering with Hank Green, a YouTube science sensation who already had an avid following of young people—the same audience Emerson was looking to recruit. She followed that with commercials on prime-time TV (something B2B brands never do) to announce the launch of the #ILoveSTEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) content hub. She’s continued to experiment with many things the brand does, including how it launched its new company values to employees.

For Button Bell, taking a chance and partnering with Green was worth the risk alone. With their mutual goal of encouraging people’s interest in science, their relationship has helped Emerson reach a broad audience while also building its identity. In a three-month period in early 2015, traffic to Emerson’s website spiked—from about 25,000 page views to nearly 500,000. One benefit to Emerson has been the growing number of people who visit its careers page, resulting in a larger pool of people who want to work for the company.

Racing Toward Experimentation

Then take a look at NASCAR, a brand that was losing traditional fans fast and couldn’t gain traction with a younger generation that watched any screen but television. Evan Parker, vice president of content for NASCAR, took a new look at things as simple as team structure and how they told stories. He and his team experimented with how they built relationships with fans and drivers, with short-form and long-form content, with different types of content and channels, and everything from GIFs to livestreaming. The results? Hundreds of millions of online views, a Facebook docu-series, and, most importantly, a broader audience.

Both Button Bell and Parker understand why experimenting is so important. First is that it keeps a brand fresh and relevant. Second, it opens opportunities for partnerships and potential new lines of revenue. And last, it energizes marketing teams and inspires them to think more broadly about the brand and the impact they can have on it.

Experimenting gives us the opportunity to turn a fixed, static organization into a flexible one that feels alive and thriving. It lets us express personality and allows us to show the world that we’re not an organization driven by products, but rather, businesses led by people who want to connect with other people.

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