Mapping the brand

I’ve always been fascinated by maps; I can lose myself in maps just as easily – and perhaps as ironically, as losing myself in the landscape.  The detail, the contours, conveying 3 dimensions in 2 dimensions; the sense of personal discovery, even knowing that there’s rarely anything new to discover.  Maps, unlike books, which as you turn the pages leave what was written behind as a memory, lay everything out in front of you to see. The past, the present and potential futures, right there.

But we tend to manage brands like we’re turning the pages of a book. The past is there, vaguely remembered, but as soon as the page is turned its tangible form, its vividness is lost; it’s not visible today as it was yesterday or 10 years ago. We plot the future with the past as an indistinct and selective memory. This is why with the churn of people that modern businesses have it’s very easy to justify changing a new course for a brand. Individual interpretation of what went before becomes more justifiable when the facts of what happened aren’t mapped out clear to see.

Maps then are a better way of thinking about how to build a brand if you are bothered about building a sustainable brand for the long term. Why?

A map shows the past. You may notice that a ‘weather forecast’ is often more of a ‘weather hindsight’ focusing most of the time on explaining what had happened rather than telling us what is going to happen.  And it would be easy to think that a map merely shows the lie of the land today – in fact,  they show the past and the present. They show the marks of man and the marks of nature. 

And as we look at a brand today and we audit it’s various touch-points and assets, so too is it easy to forget the marks of the past. Yesterday’s brand custodians ran activity that built the franchise.  Today’s brand custodians should look for those foundations and build from there.  Sure, as you dig, there will be a lot of detritus to sweep away but buried there will be the foundations, still strong, still supporting the brand today. Part of stewarding a brand is to log the activity; the learnings and reveal it, share it – ensuring that tacit individual knowledge becomes organisational learning. The brand’s past becomes a tangible asset deployable by the brand to its future advantage.

A map illuminates today. Like a map of the landscape, categories and brands have a terrain that can be mapped too: that of competitors, customers, consumer, the company and its context (shopper dynamics, legislative changes and so on). Cognisant of the past, a mapping approach builds more certainty and confidence over where you are today and how that is perceived relative to other factors. Mapping the past makes your future brand strategy more likely to be distinctive and defensible.

A map points to the future.  Look at a map of some mountains and put yourself on a summit. On a map you can see the routes of descent, the options open to you. A couple of ridge routes, a few longer but less challenging descents, or the ‘direct descent’, vertically off the edge. It’s the same for brands: you have options and often options create inaction. A mapping approach, where learnings from the past are published and shared; where the situation today is clearly laid out narrows the options for the future. It helps you to choose between the real contenders and the cul-de-sacs, which sap resource for no benefit.

There’s something else too. Maps connect the senses. Maps are perhaps the original infographic. They uniquely combine words, imagery and dimensions. They’re labelled in a common language that decodes complexity, quickly. More than this, in their own way, they are eye-catching, arresting and simply beautiful – to paraphrase Terence Conran, a perfect example of form and function coming together to produce something that not only works, but is also aesthetically beautiful.   For brands they can be anything you want them to be: an illustrated story; an annotated flow chart; a potato stamped visualisation. The point is bringing to life the outputs of your strategy or plan in ‘map’ form engages, educates and informs in a way that few other media can.  Too often, we stop at a PowerPoint presentation and hope that our voice over will do the rest.

But what is a ‘brand map’? In truth, it’s not some rocket-science new invention. I’m not even professing that it should be a term you use. It’s not a brand plan but a brand plan plus. Too often, brand ‘plans’ aren’t that. So many suffer from being a random assemblage of fanciful opinion – justifying data snippets that don’t build into a clear narrative. An effective brand map isn’t that. It’s an purposed plan that is clear on how the past has informed current status; that shows the context of the brand today and evokes the senses to flow, logically, unerringly through to the commercially exciting possibilities of the future. It’s a story laid out so that everyone can see how it builds on the greatness of the past to make a future consistent yet even greater. 

David Preston is founder of The Crow Flies, a research, strategy and innovation company that discovers and maps the direct route to success for categories and brands.  david@thecrowflies.co.uk; +44 (0) 7885 408367
© The Crow Flies, 2019