The 360 brand

James Heaton

In my strategy workshops I often ask the seemingly simple question, “What is a brand?” The answers I get are usually focused on how an organization pushes its identity out visually. This is a natural definition. It’s the definition of brand that you typically see expressed in brand guidelines manuals, and it’s a useful definition.

Many branding agencies do visual branding well. They give the brand personality of an organization a coherent and beautiful visual expression. This is important work, but oftentimes it is not the work that most needs to be done.

Your brand lives in the minds of your brand consumers. So whatever it is that they retain about you as they go about their lives, whatever it is that they think of when your name
is mentioned — that is your brand. It is not what you say, but what they say. Brands live to the extent that they are coherently diffused out into the world.

How do you achieve coherent diffusion of your brand idea? The visual brand is of course an important part of this. Getting that solved is often a major project in and of itself and there is a whole industry built around the achievement of that goal.

But that’s only the surface. It’s not even the most important part, hard as that is to achieve, especially in large complex organizations. It is also slightly dangerous because it’s easy to measure and literally easy to see: If you lay out all your printed materials, all your ads, your website home page and whatever else you put out into the world and it’s all consistent and coherent then you’ve done it. Mission accomplished.

But you can have this visual brand and still have a poorly branded organization.

The 360 brand expression

Colleges and universities typically suffer from this kind of brand failure. They have a strong visual brand (and they spend a lot of money on this) and yet they still have very weak brands. The failing is understandable. Most of these institutions are so complex and have such diverse constituencies (prospective students, faculty, alumni, funders), all with differing needs and demands, so it’s no wonder that they just settle for visual consistency. Pushing through to a brand idea is just too hard. Too many hard choices are required, and it seems that few in the branding profession are insisting that this happen. This is probably due to the level of difficulty involved, and getting the visual brand right may be regarded by all sides as challenge enough.

What’s missing in the college examples, and in nearly all but the most well-branded organizations, is the 360 expression of the brand built around a core set of values (sometimes called attributes). In a 360 brand the brand lives not only as a product of the marketing and communications function within the organization, but as a living, breathing truth in all aspects of organizational life.

The visual brand is not an end in and of itself. It is an expression of a larger brand truth that is scripted into everything from hiring practices to the strategic plan. It is a culture and the culture is expressed through the behavior of every single employee — from CEO to part-time receptionist.

A truly branded organization — a 360 brand — is not only consistent visually, but is consistent with itself in all things. Or at least it is actively working toward the achievement of that goal. This is hard, and it’s much harder to see and measure than the visual brand alone. It is also not usually the responsibility of the marketing and communications department, but must be worked on organization wide and is thus also an executive function.

This structural impediment is probably the reason it is so rare. Rare is the CEO who is able to focus on the change that market reality dictates: You must have both innovation and marketing (writ large, and so including branding) to survive in an always competitive world. Executive, HR, communications/marketing, operations, curatorial — all the components of your complex organization must work in concert to achieve a 360 brand, but doing so will give that organization the power to have its full effect in the world.

This is a question of survival, but also a question of what impact you want to have in the world. Why do you exist? Why do you matter? Why should I care? If you believe your answers to these questions matter that they have meaning and should be known — then you need more than just a visual brand.  

James Heaton is president and creative director of Tronvig Group (, a marketing strategy firm in Brooklyn. He blogs regularly at