The power of brand symbols

Brand symbols are powerful, and CMOs of professional service firms are uniquely qualified to create and nurture them to project what their firm stands for to the market for clients and talent. Even if, especially if, the work takes them way beyond the traditional realms of marketing and their direct reports. By doing so CMOs can become more strategically influential to their firms and leadership team colleagues.

Brand symbols are everywhere.

Stand for, to stand out 

What exactly is a brand symbol? They come in many shapes and sizes but whether big or small they punch above their weight in terms of their ability to cut through and communicate something about the brand that might otherwise get lost in all the noise. Or in some cases, they work because the issue at stake is just so complex and intangible that normal communications fail to even dent perceptions. A couple of examples you’ve probably heard about relating to the complex and intangible issue of data privacy:

A few days ago Apple and Google, together announced that they wouldn’t allow the UK government’s new Covid-19 test and trace app to be hosted on their platforms. That’s a big deal. Partly because of the obvious risk of being seen to undermine government efforts to control the virus and partly because of the huge sums of money that had been invested in developing the app itself.

I don’t believe for a moment that either Apple or Google were doing anything other than what they considered the right thing, but one result of the refusal has been to get across just how seriously these companies are taking the wider issue of data privacy. You might have seen Apple’s advertising campaign “Privacy. That’s iPhone.” which says exactly the same thing as this story but because it’s advertising we tend to believe it less. On the other hand, it’s hard to read this story and still believe that privacy is a fig-leaf as far as these tech giants are concerned.

What this event demonstrates about Google and Apple’s true brand values is — for me at least — convincing and makes the claims in their privacy advertising campaigns much more believable than they otherwise might be. That’s the power of brand symbols.

Brand symbols are everywhere. When you think of any brand in your head you’re bound to land on something ’symbolic’ — something that symbolises a bigger more substantial idea about a brand.

Take Nike for example. You’re likely to think about a world-class athlete in some sport that’s associated with Nike as much as any of their products. But of course, Nike doesn’t make or sell athletes, they sell athletic gear to aspiring athletes, yes, but mostly they sell kit that the rest of us wear in park runs at the weekend or evening trips to the gym class. Their brand stands for winning: the winner in everyone, not just Michael Jordan et al.

Winning athletes like Michael Jordan are symbols of Nike’s broader brand idea of winning.

Whilst most marketers appreciate the value of communicating existing brand symbols in their marketing plans, far fewer realise that they can be created as well.

Coming to the world of brand differentiation in professional services, McKinsey’s — highly valuable — brand is built on an intense belief in the power of rigorous analysis. As they say themselves, “Our work is founded on a rigorous understanding of every client’s institutional context, sector dynamics, and macroeconomic environment.” It’s part of what makes them the brand leader in their field.

They hire the ‘brightest and best’ analysts and have more PHDs on the team than many universities, but still, it’s hard to get this across clearly. The brand symbol that McKinsey has created to help them project their difference is the McKinsey Global Institute. Everything from the name through to the topics it covers: “How could Earth’s changing climate impact socioeconomic systems across the world in the next three decades?” sounds more like a university than a strategy consulting firm. It’s not a university, it probably doesn’t even have a physical location — the McKinsey people associated with it are dispersed around the world — but still, it successfully helps project and reinforce the idea that the brand stands for rigour.

Brand symbols are a powerful way to communicate what you stand for because they cut through a saturated world of claims and propositions that inevitably sounds very similar, from the position of a prospective client or recruit. The propositions still have a key role to play — like “Privacy. That’s iPhone” — but combined with strong symbols the propositions are more compelling.

Way to go

Whilst most marketers appreciate the value of communicating existing brand symbols in their marketing plans, far fewer realise that they can be created as well. And furthermore, that as CMO they are in a unique position in a professional services firm to lead on the creation and implementation of those brand symbols.

As marketing becomes a more sophisticated and strategic discipline in the professional services sector it’s also important to remember that within the 5-7 Ps of the marketing mix — the number of Ps is gradually increasing with time — are product, place and people. It’s marketing, not just marketing communications. The very best marketers: Steve Jobs, Richard Branson, Phil Knight, pulled on all the P levers to develop and project their brands — using the power of symbols relentlessly as they went.

Admittedly it’s easier to get permission to reach across the whole set when you’re the boss, but the lesson for marketers is that great marketing requires it. If you’re the CMO — not the CEO — you do need to take others with you in the decision making but I’ve noticed many times that the best do this to great effect and don’t limit their influence to the one area where they don’t have to ask permission — communications.

Whether the task is to nurture existing symbols or create some new ones from scratch the process isn’t that different. At Principia, we use the quadrants model (below) as a start point. Once we know what we’re aiming to project to the market we use this framework to develop a range of ideas that could be potential brand symbols.

Using this framework ensures we aren’t restricting ourselves to communication ideas alone — although this doesn’t exclude them either — and we ask ourselves, “what could we do in any of these areas that would, just by their existence, symbolise what we want the market to know about us.”

Brand symbols are powerful weapons and done well can cut through in ways that communications alone can’t match.

Initially, the long list contains many ideas that are fundamentally unworkable but by adopting a sifting process of “if not this, then what?” you end up with a shortlist of ambitious but not totally crazy ideas. Then once these are worked up into bare-bones concepts (typically, one-slide sketches of the ideas) then that’s the time to start involving leadership colleagues who have line management responsibility for the resources that each idea involves.

Deciding on when the right moment is for this is an art rather than a science and differs from organisation to organisation depending on the business and leadership culture — too soon and the ideas aren’t compelling, too late and they tend to invoke defensiveness rather than collaboration. You want and need collaboration.

I often use the example of Netflix’s no rules vacation policy, “Our vacation policy is “take vacation.” We don’t have any rules or forms around how many weeks per year,” as a way to think through the actual challenges of what at first might seem an unworkable idea. It’s a good example of a brand symbol in itself, and one that everyone tends to instinctively think ‘wouldn’t work here.’ Thinking about how the people at Netflix might have first discussed it around the leadership table helps people get into the right mindset.

Just do it

Brand symbols are powerful weapons and done well can cut through in ways that communications alone can’t match. Marketers are uniquely positioned in professional service firms to take a lead on developing and nurturing these symbols, even though doing so inevitably means reaching across and influencing parts of the organisation beyond their traditional realm. But the rewards are worth it.


Ian Stephens

CEO and Founder of Principia, bringing deep expertise and experience in strategic branding to the unique challenges of the global professional services market.