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Berlin Brief

The Learning Brands: Leading brands to the culture of adaptation

August 11, 2015

I was recently talking with my son’s teacher about some milestones he should have reached, when we came to an important conclusion: his routine lacked the conflict necessary to encourage his development. He needed to have confrontations with other children in order to learn more about himself and learn how to grow. This process is essential in the lives of children to help them adapt to their environment, develop self-knowledge and self-esteem and shape their personalities. My role as a mother is to guide him down this path in the best way possible, always thinking about what’s best for him, today and in the future. It’s not an easy role to guide, to inspire and to give him confidence. I realize it everyday. Where I work, we call this “thought leadership,” and in addition to being the basis for an important conversation about my son, it also sheds light on the topic of generating brand value today.

Observe. Learn. Adapt. Nowadays, relevant brands are those with the ability to continue learning and adapting throughout their journey in the market. And the challenge is to apply creative leadership on these organizational behaviors in order to create brands that are successful in the short term and that develop an identity in the long term. But, wait a minute. Can a brand learn? If we consider learning and adapting as to adopting new behaviors to foster growth and success, the answer is yes. If you take a closer look, you’ll see that that’s exactly how some of today’s most prestigious brands behave: they use their ability to learn to assimilate the world around them and their ability to adapt to react and take advantage of their context to foster growth.

Lego is a good example. In a scenario where new toys and technologies become ever more present in children’s lives and many traditional brands have simply disappeared, Lego defined its mission as “to inspire and develop the builders of tomorrow.” Based on this mission, the company has established a real conversation with its target audience, giving the small and colorful building blocks significant meaning. The brand’s spirit has become a guide for the continuous development and reinvention of its multichannel platform, generating experiences through entertainment, theme parks, games, educational actions and toys with some of the smartest and most entertaining co-branding initiatives on the market. For example, you would be hard pressed to find a person who wasn’t excited about the launch of their Star Wars product line.

A completely different example in terms of origin and culture is, a Chinese e-commerce site that was launched when eBay China dominated 80% of the market. Nevertheless, the company became a market leader within only a few years by implementing a strategy based on learning and adapting. By observing the peculiarities of the Chinese business culture and the market barriers that existed there, adapted its e-commerce system to consumer behavior and developed technologies to improve the way their clients did business. The digital platform moved forward aggressively, making changes to its format and tools. Through mistakes and successes, the end result was accelerated growth that left the competition in the dust.

Like the two companies we discussed, other well-known brands like Netflix, Nike and Starbucks chose learning and adapting as their modus operandi. It’s evident that these new, iconic brands are becoming ambassadors of a new, successful branding culture that generates great value and gives the most dynamic companies a competitive advantage. Many brands that missed the opportunity to change their behavior failed to learn and met a sad end. Some of these brands were just as prestigious and iconic as the ones that are successful today. You must be thinking of one such brand now.

“In a complex and evolving, knowledge-intensive system, agents not only have to learn, they have to learn how to learn, and to adapt and create anew.”(Hodgson, Geoffrey 2000: 89)

If we assume that these behaviors are the key to success in the new era we face, then the challenge is to discover how to make ordinary brands learn and adapt. Is it possible to encourage any brand to learn? If so, this could be the most important role of creative leadership with regard to branding in today’s market. 

For any brand to learn and adapt, it must first understand its cultural purpose. Knowing where it wants to go lets a company continuously adjust its path without running the risk of getting lost. This is a process that begins and ends with organizational culture, because culture is primarily responsible for the brand’s ability to learn. It gives alignment to people within the company.  It shapes products and messages. It engages consumers. It reveals when and what’s wrong. Culture clarifies the path to success. We conclude that at the core culture of a brand we find the principles that guide all actions, and externally we find the symbols and the space used to experiment with brand learning and adaptation. Therefore, the first step in adopting these new behaviors is setting a clear purpose for the brand, one that encompasses its role in the society in which it operates. That’s a good start. From this point we have the necessary self-criticism to start learning and to establish the criteria to guide the process of adaptation. It’s important to understand that a purpose gives the brand an identity and a long-term vision.

The adaptation process, which encompasses creation, innovation and development, focuses especially on the short-term and strives to better align the company with the spirit of the times and to anticipate and satisfy the needs of its customers. Don’t worry about the medium-term, because it doesn’t exist. In today’s dynamic market, we work with the short-term while thinking about the long-term. This is another interesting premise of this new logic regarding brand learning: it has a clear purpose and an infinite series of short-term accomplishments, which, together, build a story and a culture.

You need to be able to identify the moment of conflict in order to motivate the organization toward brand learning. By encouraging brands to adopt a new way of thinking and behaving, creative leaders will have the opportunity to develop new thoughts and discussions about their current practices, making room for new opportunities. The trigger for this change usually comes from an uncomfortable situation generated by the competition, a misalignment with new consumer habits or even by the envy of a love brand. Brand learning comes from acknowledging itself within the greater context. And, in the same way that my son’s teacher and I came to a conclusion about his development at school, we can conclude that all learning originates from discomfort. Conflict is essential to the process of self-knowledge, adaptation and growth. Thought leadership plays a key role in this journey filled with trial and error, which brings coherence to a cultural purpose that lights the path ahead for companies.

Laura Chiavone is Planning VP at DDB Brazil, a professor at the Miami Ad School of São Paulo and mother of 4-year-old Benjamin.

Laura Chiavone

Managing Partner, Business Transformation
sparks & honey