"The brand's most important task is orientation and reassurance"

August 27, 2018

Interview with Dr. Kristin Hanusch-Linser

In turbulent times of transformation, the corporate brand can provide stability - internally and externally. Brand expert Kristin Hanusch-Linser explains in an interview how this can be done successfully.

A strong brand not only survives stormy times of transformation, but also benefits from it, says Kristin Hanusch-Linser. The former Head of Communications and Head of the Open Innovation Lab at ÖBB, the Austrian Federal Railways, advises organizations on brand-centered transformation and agile leadership. As part of WU Executive Academy’s leadership program" Pioneers of the 21st Century", she will hold a workshop on "Transformation by Brand" in the fall. In this interview she talks about how brands can ensure consistency in times of transformation and uncertainty and what brand-centered corporate management can achieve.

Picture of Kristin Hanusch-Linser
Brand expert Kristin Hanusch-Linser gives an interview.

Ms Hanusch-Linser, when we talk about brands, the first question is: Where do you see the role of the brand?

Their task is the transfer between product and market. Companies are organizations and thus means-oriented social systems that regulate their development and cohesion through communication. It is precisely at this interface that the brand has its presence: it mediates between outside and inside, moderates the market, the organization and its employees.

What can be done so that the brand accelerates the transformation or, conversely, the change also positively strengthens the brand?

The fact that we live in volatile times, surrounded by uncertainty, is meanwhile noticeable for everyone. Right now, the brand provides support and orientation in the ocean of the unknown, of diversity, of acceleration. A lively, healthy brand decelerates. It is a condensed expression of the "we" feeling and explains the "why"; it calms, gives orientation and reduces perceived complexity.

An interesting point: Most companies want to accelerate. Then why is deceleration important?

Companies can only accelerate from their own stability, it needs a firm foundation. Navigating in an unstable fairway is a difficult task. People need security and commitment to function, not permanent alarmism in an eternal state of emergency. An orientating and reassuring brand therefore supports a healthy transformation culture that takes people with it. It provides support and safety, provided it is used correctly. Reduced to its optical design function, however, it will not be able to exhaust its sovereignty of interpretation.

The meaning and values of a company are gaining in importance in the discussion. Does the brand make sense in the transformation?

Yes, it makes sense. If it gives a lasting effect and is an anchor of orientation for the employees, then it also does so externally. Companies need a condensed statement about what they do to make their services and products distinguishable. In times of transformation, the sense orientation must also be redesigned. The catalogue of corporate values is not enough. A brand does much more, namely the daily "Why" translation work.

So, if the company is in a transformation process but the brand is only decoration, is that a problem?

A veritable problem. Unfortunately, this happens very often, especially in the old models of change management. I'm not a fan of change projects that plan and suggest from A to B: you know in advance what you want to achieve in the end. Transformation is the much better picture. No business leader can say clearly today what will come after digitization, who will be the victims, who will be the winners. Leadership today means navigating safely in unsafe waters - without knowing what exactly comes out in the end. However, this requires an idea, a target image and the brand can help to create a narrative and activate the power of self-organization. We have to adjust to the fact that transformation becomes a permanent state and, especially in phases of extreme stress, a brand becomes a transformative, regulative force as a management instrument.

A camera lens shows a sharp part of the picture that is blur
The brand takes on an orientation and reassurance giving function during the process of transformation to navigate safely in unsafe waters. Photo © CC0 Licence

Would you advise companies to look at the meaning of the brand and the company before starting the transformation process?

Frankly, I don't think much of the attitude "only when we have the purpose can we start with change". This usually takes forever and is expensive. The faster way: An out-of-the-box perspective to see what is inside-the-box. So move the frame, take a look inside and listen, with empathy and openness instead of demarcation and constriction. This also includes the customer perspective. In the history of your own company you will always find valuable clues that contribute to the value of a brand. Every company has a founder's story, a creation myth. At foundation, there were always people with an idea. But it is not enough to say who we are and who we want to be. We must also be able to keep our promises. The really big brand companies have always remained true to their brand promises, but have also managed to adapt to changing markets.

What would be a good example of such a successful brand?

Swarovski is an extremely strong, identity-creating and inspiring brand. A great founder story by the pioneer Daniel Swarovski, who came from Bohemia to Wattens in Tyrol at the end of the 19th century with a great vision: to create a diamond for everyone. This founder's legacy is still alive, still resonates in quality and design as in the brand’s “why”. I find this consistency in brand-centric corporate management impressive. This can be seen in the employees on site and in their success. Swarovski also expresses the brand in the quality of its office architecture. You come to a place curated by the brand: the founding father as a bust in the entrance, a quiet, concentrated atmosphere on the company premises, an infrastructure that promotes innovation and collaboration, employees who are proud of their brand. There you feel everywhere lived, sense-oriented cohesion.

How specifically do I implement brand-oriented management as CEO or manager?

Transformation always also means shaping the transition from old to new patterns without losing social cohesion, the "we-feeling". In phases of transition, however, the sense of togetherness often falls by the wayside. The result is places of escape and subcultures that cultivate their own rituals and sometimes - mostly unconsciously - work against cohesion. Those who rely on the brand activate the power of self-organization. Sociologists also speak of a sense of coherence and consistency. This also requires a leadership model that uses the brand in a coherent, i.e. unifying, way. In my opinion, the most important leadership task is to calm down. A restless spirit will hardly produce innovations, fearful employees are not good co-pilots, especially not burnout-endangered managers. Admittedly, staying consistent and reliable in brand management is harder than indulging in design renewalism. A brand relaunch does not only mean a lot of effort for the organization. It must be considered very carefully how employees and customers do not lose their learned orientation markers.

Red Bull is the classic example. What counts is the brand, not the drink.

The example shows that brand is value creation, good brand policy is profit. This is about a holistic brand world that consistently tells condensed corporate performance about the brand.

What is the role of the CEO in brand communication?

The CEO is always the top brand manager, the "Chief Storyteller", he is part of the narrative that tells the future picture the company is oriented towards.

You say that even as a manager you are an individual brand. How can a manager strengthen his own personality brand?

It is important to bring your own brand into coherence with the corporate brand. I like to work with a positioning triangle here. One thinks about the question "What do I stand for? What do I want to convey in a condensed form" the three most important personal values. For me, for example, these are clarity, respect and out-of-the-box thinking. When I say or do something, these three values are always decisive. This is also very relieving and stabilizing. In our accelerated world, we are all something "beside ourselves", something delimited. We react to this with premature adaptation and look for the same instead of the other. Escaping the convenience of confirmation bias requires that you know who you are. So here too: Brand as a condensed expression of one's own performance.

For more information about the program "Pioneers of the 21st Cenutry" please click here.

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