What does a proper brand look like, according to Karel Novotný?

Straight to the point, I like that! Well, a proper brand is one that works well. Unfortunately, lots of companies look at their brand from the outside, and not from the inside. For them, it’s still more about its form and appearance, about the logo. But effective work on a brand comes from a dialog, from the inside out. A company has to know what it is, what it wants, and what relationship it has with its environment. And that’s where their individual strategy begins.

How are brand and company culture related?
If you want to move forward with a strategy (and you do), then you need to take the company culture into consideration when defining the brand. The way people in the company are used to communicating with each other and the way they treat each other – these very likely tell something about the company’s DNA. Some company owners or clients think their brand should be very heroic, but when I leave their meeting room and go through their offices I see a lot of silent people just hunched over some papers. Not a single hero there, and all that heroism is taking place in the owner’s or client’s head… A company culture is living proof of what the company is really about. On the other hand, this isn’t only about the company culture, as it doesn’t reflect the way the company does business. The sales, HR, and marketing departments… all of these are vital ingredients when mixing together a complete brand strategy—the kind that everyone profits from.

A brand – a brand strategy – already exists at the core of the company perhaps even before it’s founded. The motivations and attitudes of its owners are clearly reflected in their original ideas. The trouble is that this doesn’t happen consciously.

One of the previous JICtalks deals with company culture and mentions that a company culture exists in companies even when it hasn’t been defined yet. I assume the same happens with a brand as well, as the company makes some impression on the people who encounter it. How do you work with a brand? Is authenticity important for you, so the brand sticks to what the company is about?
That’s exactly how this works. A brand – a brand strategy – already exists at the core of the company perhaps even before it’s founded. The motivations and attitudes of its owners are clearly reflected in their original ideas. The trouble is that this doesn’t happen consciously.  People aren’t used to working with it. They have a business model, hire a lawyer to manage their contracts, and get an accountant, of course. A company finds an interesting part of the market, offers a good product, and this somehow keeps moving forward. At some stage, though, the company brand gets hit – a new business enters the market unexpectedly, something goes wrong, the company wants to export to a new country – and it’s suddenly not sure whether it can continue working like it has been. It’s no longer about debits and credits, and it becomes painfully obvious that the brand is missing. It’s also important to remember that building a brand leads a company to becoming aware of itself. A lot of companies never venture beyond advertising and communication.

A good advertising campaign may help a brand more than when the company turns back and starts to deal with itself in detail.

Now we’re bordering on self-awareness. How do you work with company owners or managers? Do you also offer some kind of coaching or therapy?
I do often feel like I’m at a group therapy session. Those who’ve done some form of therapy will perhaps confirm that the two have a lot in common. You visit a therapist to get answers to your questions, and after that it’s up to you what to do with those answers. When I start cooperating with a company, I need to find out if it’s really me and my process that they need. A good advertising campaign can sometimes be more helpful to a company than diving deep into self-reflection about values and culture. Those efforts always pay off in the long run, but when you get hit by a car and start to bleed heavily, you need to stop the bleeding, not drink a balanced mixture of vitamins. A good advertising campaign may be much more useful in a crisis than reassessing who we really are.

What type of assignment do you hear most often? I assume it’s something like “please, create a lovebrand for us, build a brand everybody will fall in love with…”
Sure, that’s one type of demand. This might sound cliche, but I’m going to compare this situation with seeing a doctor. In this example, there are five types of patients. Patient 1 comes and says “I am having difficulties walking”. All the doctor really learns is “something’s wrong”. Patient 2 says “My leg hurts”. That’s a bit more specific and gives the doctor at least something to work with. Patient 3 says “My leg is broken”. In this case, the patient has a hypothesis about what is wrong with them. Patient 4 says “I need a cast, doctor”. Here the patient is asking for a specific treatment without even confirming what the issue is. And patient 5 walks in wearing a cast and just asks the doctor to check it. All of them feel their leg is broken, but – paradoxically enough – only the first one came up with an honest and authentic description of his troubles – “I am having difficulties walking”. They come to a specialist and rely on them to uncover the cause of their issue. And this is the range of clients who contact me. Hats off to the companies courageous enough to venture into the unknown. More often than not, this leads to big changes in their management structures, since the existing one is rarely capable of enduring the necessary change. Then again, my patients almost never ask for what they really need.


Listening to you, it almost sounds like the best time to build a brand from scratch is right when the project or company is born. Wouldn’t that be simpler and less painful for everybody?
Well, that could be much worse and more painful, actually. Let me explain using the human evolution curve. In elementary school, you have your first group of friends, a profile on Facebook, and feel like the king of the world. Now imagine you start working on your vision, mission, and values at that stage – what results would you get? This particular phase is when you’re just starting to discover the world around you. It culminates with puberty and off to the adulthood we go. This is absolutely normal, and we even have a right to do it like this. After all, who wants to be born as an adult? However, very few companies are willing to accept that the same goes for their process. In most cases, they haven’t even sold anything yet, and virtually have only an investor, nothing else, yet they already want some kind of a brandbook. Instead of actual inputs, I receive only their dreams and fantasies. That’s why I refuse to cooperate with companies like this and instead let them gather some experience first. And if they go on without having a brandbook for a year or two? Not a problem at all.

The companies that work with their brands consciously and for a long time use well-established processes. When something outside the company changes, they’re trained to perceive the signals and determine whether it’s a threat or an opportunity, so they can immediately start transforming the product’s marketing, distribution path, or whatever they need. Companies who do this stay out in front of the competition by weeks and sometimes even months.

It’s May 2020, the first coronavirus wave is over, the times ahead of us aren’t going to be easy for a lot of companies. As a professional, which brands would you say won and which suffered during the crisis?
Here it’s important to differentiate between the brands hit by their external environment and those hit from the inside. Something has happened here, and some may cry about it while others may praise themselves. It’s much more interesting, though, to look at how brands handled it internally. Some businesses from among the defeated ones eventually handled the crisis or at least survived. And vice versa. Having an online shop doesn’t make you a winner these days, as some were prepared and others weren’t. Being in the right sector of commodities is a good start, but you’ll still have to make it across the finish line yourself. The companies that work with their brands consciously and for a long time use well-established processes. When something outside the company changes, they’re trained to perceive the signals and determine whether it’s a threat or an opportunity, so they can immediately start transforming the product’s marketing, distribution path, or whatever they need. Companies that can do this stay out in front of the competition by weeks and sometimes even months, while the competition falls behind, usually because they can’t handle it, aren’t in touch with the world around them, or don’t have their internal process set up correctly. The truth is that even the best brand isn’t going to keep a travel agency in business right now. A lot of other industries and businesses have been hit, at least partially, and I’m sure that having their brands set up correctly would have softened the blow.

Care to venture a guess what the future looks like for companies now? After hearing that a correctly set up brand can get us through tough times, do you think many companies will change their ways? What’s your prediction here?
I personally like to stay optimistic and predict that everybody will wake up to the truth and I’ll finally become insanely rich. Past experience tells us otherwise, though—that we’ll quickly forget and everything will revert back to how it used to be. During the first wave, a lot of companies decided to finish what they should have done already and, paradoxically enough, the quarantine was the busiest time for me in the last two years. People just woke up and started to understand. In a standard world, it’s hard to urge people to eat vitamins to stay healthy; people won’t understand until they get very sick, and now that sickness got in our way. When a war breaks out, though, it’s already too late to start training. In that crisis, bullets flying everywhere, you’re screwed unless you’ve adopted a brand process and your people are used to it. Times of peace are the best time to prepare for the next war, in the hopes of surviving it better next time. I’m sure some companies have finally learnt that the time has come to adopt some missing business habits.
 

This interview is a shortened version of JICtalk podcast in which Hanka Šudáková talked with Karel Novotný. Its entire version (only in Czech) is available here.

15. 04. 2021
Photos: Vu Minh Hieu, Unsplash

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