It's no secret that the web changes the way that companies should market or brand themselves. But there's still some confusion as to how these changes manifest themselves. So I'm pinning some colours to the mast.
Nowadays, the actual values of company staff are becoming increasingly transparent because of the web. This is standard Cluetrain stuff, but the message bears repeating. It has become damaging for a company to say they have particular brand values if these differ from the ACTUAL values that their staff has. And as more people get involved in online social networking tools, and their activity subverts the hierarchies inside company walls, the more visible their actual values become.
So how is the role of branding changing? For me, it's just like branding cattle, where the brand much reflect the actual qualities of the animal. With companies, branding allows a company to understand and present a consistent, unified image - but it must be the truth, never a contrivance. All companies have staff that hold a variety of opinions and perspectives, and a company's brand nowadays has to be sufficiently flexible to not just reflect this, but support it too. It is unwise to retrofit a desired perception onto the unwilling (or unable).
This has a knock-on effect right the way through the company, particularly on HR. You can't hire people and then say "here are your new values"! It's now more important than ever that the actual values of the company drip through every element of the company, from the hiring process through to how staff are treated day to day. And of course this should permeate through to a consistent visual language that can be applied everywhere.
So as with advertising and PR, I think there is an opportunity opening up for those who can understand how the landscape is changing and adapt quickly. Branding still has a key role to play. And it turns out that the companies that have already behaved in the above fashion to begin with have stolen a march on their competitors. Companies like First Direct, Southwest Airlines and Virgin have adopted these policies all along, and frequently feature in best company and best employer lists. Their warm and friendly brands are reflected in their people (well, in most cases anyway). They're also well placed to get through the financial crisis as a result.
And on the other side of the coin we have companies like Microsoft. It doesn't matter how many times Microsoft re-badges itself - and they've really struggled with this - it's an obvious veneer, and I'll bet many people assume Microsoft's real values are reflected in their aggressive and anti-competitive behaviour. Microsoft has many smart and well intentioned people in their ranks, and if their values were reflected in their corporate brand it wouldn't do Microsoft any harm at all. Much as I like the Blue Monster, and everything it stands for, it didn't have much of an impact on their brand image - not from where I stand anyway.
Personal Attack Cow photo shared under a Creative Commons licence on Flickr by Repoort.