Thys de Beer is the Brand Strategy Navigator and Head of the Honours in Brand Leadership-degree at Vega Cape Town. He is an admitted Advocate and holds a B.Proc. degree from the University of Johannesburg, an LLB degree from the University of Pretoria and a Post-graduate Diploma in Brand Contact Management from Vega and is currently investigating Design Thinking and the construction of Brand Identity on (hopefully) a doctorate level. Thys has a keen interest in human expression and understanding the human condition and spent 7 years in the advertising industry as a strategic planner with global agencies such as DRAFTFCB and JWT. Thys regularly consults on Brand- and Communication Strategy projects to various agencies and private clients as well as writing for Mercury1 Strategy.
Thys was kind enough to sit down with Heavy Chef and answer a few questions regarding branding and the role of brand leaders in digital.
Today there is so much noise – brands are finding it harder and harder to stand out. What can brands do to stand out? How do you break through the clutter?
It’s all about being a Purple Cow , to quote Seth Godin’s book – in other words – stop shouting, start whispering. It’s about word of mouth being so powerful and then obviously using technology now to help break through the clutter. To me, it also about engagement. There’s a move towards brands offering content more than anything else. We’re seeing them engaging with people and giving them not just content, but content that they can relate to. So that also relates to branded entertainment, all those kinds of things. This all goes back to the importance of a clear brand identity – now it’s even more important than before to know exactly who you are and what you stand for. Some people are arguing that now brand positioning is becoming irrelevant – I don’t agree. Linked to this is segmentation: in terms of making sure you target the right people. We are moving away from mass brands towards more nieche brands, in terms of understanding your audience and it’s technology that allows you to do that. It’s about relevance, essentially. Making sure that you speak to the right people, at the right times, via the right message, as opposed to a shotgun approach, just hoping someone will respond.
What makes a good brand leader?
For me it’s about someone who is essentially a servant leader. Servant leadership as a leadership style appeals to me because it is someone who leads from behind but empowers their team with skills and in that process, manage to also be the leader. It’s about what one gains in the process, not “oh, look at me, I’m the leader” – It is about the ‘egoless entity’ in terms of anything from a person to a brand contact council. It’s not about ego, it’s about going back to true leadership and wanting to empower people. It is about inspiring and empowering them to become brand champions because essentially that’s what a brand leader should be working towards. For me, it’s also about someone who harnesses the power of collaboration. Especially in the 21st century, the heirachy is becoming very passé – its about understanding who to collaborate with and how to drive, manage and lead that process. Brand leaders are people who listen to people whether it’s their own staff, all stakeholders, whatever the case may be in terms of their tribe. They’re building successful tribes that people want to follow and be engaged in – you can only do that if you have a conversation with the people you lead.
How are big brands incorporating social media into their brand strategy and how does this change the role of brand leaders?
It’s about relevance for me. Technology offers brand leaders the opportunity to tell brand stories across multiple platforms and in an engaging manner. If you think of trans-media storytelling and all those kinds of things where one story lives across all kinds of different platforms and through technology it is now so much more possible to get it out there and build a tribe. We can now build communities of interest around the world as opposed to using one single physical space. It is about making sure that there is data-driven two way communication – it is about dialogue and making sure that that dialogue is congruent with the brands identity because one can influence that so easily. We need to closely consider the quality of the interaction – and the fact that it’s not about who owns the interaction anymore, it’s about a partnership and in terms of conversation, it is a co-ownership, especially when you consider how conversation is changing.
How do you think the brand leaders’ role will change in the digital age?
Well it will change to a degree, but I think we are heading towards conversation 3.0, in terms of taking it to the next level and using technology to empower people instead of just being a tool in itself. It is about a more meaningful and insightful conversation – one that can begin and continue. Like I said before, digital technology offers various ways and platforms to connect. Someone like Helen Zille for example – she responds to peoples’ questions and so in terms of leading her brand, she is very hands on, very much part of the conversation. Technology allows brands to add value via relevant, type rich information, so once again it goes back to relevance. It’s all about how brand leaders maximize this opportunity – with the help of a team. It is about being open to that, which takes us back to the idea of hierarchies vs. collaboration.
As technology develops and marketing expands into digital, more and more new roles are being born. Do you think there may be a need for an online brand officer/manager?
If you go back to The Chief Brand Officer (CBO) concept that Marty Niewmeier talks about, there’s a certain person that manages the brand and its story. Similarly, it would be important to have a specialist who reports to the CBO because there is an understanding that (online) involves a specialization of a specialized skill and that’s also what a good leader does. A good leader doesn’t try to do everything – they delegate and make sure they harness the collective power of other people. There are definitely opportunities opening up and I don’t think many companies are taking hold of these opportunities.