With a career in brand and marketing with giants – General Foods, Amex, and Labatt’s – David Kincaid has a simple but profound thesis: Your brand is your promise to the world. It is the value of a promise consistently kept, the central organizing principle of your company. It must be treated like a precious investment. It is one of your greatest assets – pulsing beneath all the processes, people, finances, and vision of your business. Tap into that brand promise and – most importantly – find a way to communicate it to your people. Then you’ll see its magic work.
David Kincaid started as a Brand Assistant in the packaged goods industry. His Day One task was not: Read our brand book, put our logo on something. It was, instead: Introduce yourself to everyone in the company. Find what matters to them.
In his previous industry, in a different era, “brand” was understood differently and perhaps, more intuitively than it is today. Brand was more practical, more material, more immersed in both on-the-ground and executive roles. It was not glossed over as it is today as “Just a Marketing Thing.” It informed every decision, from finances to strategic outcomes.
This is why Kincaid’s argument, your brand is your promise and the responsibility of the CEO, may feel more natural to him than to us. But to miss its wisdom is to miss an argument that has profound implications for how leaders run their companies, even how they see themselves. Brand, as seen by Kincaid, can be an unabashedly progressive force for leaders navigating an increasingly competitive and challenging world.
Your brand is your promise.
In other words, your brand is your emotional, visionary anchor. It shapes every decision. It calls for a fundamental reckoning with why a business was made in the first place – not just to produce more more more, but to deliver world-changing value. Where Purpose is “soul,” Brand is body. Only the best understand this enough to let it ground and augment their business and communications.
Interview with Mark Attard and David Kincaid, Author of The Brand-Driven CEO
Livewire’s CEO Mark Attard meets David Kincaid to talk about empowering Brand – this big, elusive, visionary beast. The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Mark Attard: Your body of work over the last 10–20 years has this through-line about brand as the central organizing principle of a company. What have you learned about “brand as a business system” and that intersection with communication?
David Kincaid: Everybody is involved in contributing and delivering the brand promise into the market. Everybody plays a different role and contributes a different element to delivering the business system that enables the brand.
Your brand has a value – it sits on your balance sheet, the goodwill line. It’s an asset – you can make decisions that devalue your brand. It isn't your marketing – it’s not an ad campaign or a cost you can defer. Your brand is your reputation. It’s the promise you make to customers and every decision you make that enables you to keep that promise.
The person who’s responsible for that ultimately is the CEO, not the Marketing VP. When a brand has a problem or an issue in the market, it's the CEO that has the accountability for dealing with that.
Your impact and influence on the brand are critical. And the most important part of effective impact and influence is communication.
MA: I think a lot of CEOs would get enormous value from your latest book. Can you tell us about the principles in there – that would make leaders in our audience say, “Aha. That’s right.”
DK: To this day, many schools still teach brand like it’s been taught for the past 50 years. The four Ps of Marketing: product, price, place, and promotion. But if it's a brand-driven organization with a brand-driven CEO, the four Ps you actually need to focus on are People, Process, Partnerships, and Intellectual Property (I cheated a bit with that last one).
In the interviews that I did with over 100 CEOs, the one that they all gravitated toward personally was the “People P.” At the heart of that was knowing you've got to hire the best people. But if you haven’t figured out what the core competencies are that you need to deliver your brand promise, how do you know you're hiring the best people?
Competencies are not about things that you do; it's about how you approach your job. Critical thinking or strategic business sense or finding cost efficiencies, creative problem solving, communication, whatever they are.
Those are key elements that need to be thought through, identified, and communicated in a way that people can say, “I understand why we need those types of competencies in this company to deliver our brand promise.”
A skill – I can send someone to school and they can learn the skill. Competency -- and I mean your personal calling, your unique perspective on how you think and approach your job -- is oftentimes something you're born with. It's part of your DNA. Like a personality. You've got to get that all nailed down, and then you’ve got to communicate it to your leaders and out into the talent market.
MA: Knowing what competencies you need requires knowing what your brand wants to be. But then you have the challenge of embedding that understanding through the whole organization.
DK: I think the pandemic and the hybrid working environment started to draw more attention to this: intent. Now that I'm not sitting in the office with you every day, I can't talk to you directly. But what I can deliver to you is my intent. What are we trying to accomplish, and what do I need you to do within it?
Communication isn't just what comes out of your mouth, or your pen, or your computer. It is the leader’s behavior. You set the model, and you are the role model.
And with the intent clear, you’ll recognize the right people: I hired you with the right core competency. I also hired you because I believe you will add to and nurture and further develop our culture. These are all the responsibility of the person at the top, and they all link back to effective communication.
MA: The intention of the CEO sets the standard for hiring.
DK: Right. I'm in no way suggesting that the CEO needs to be involved in every hire. But if I know where I'm trying to take this company, then I know what the values are and the purpose that I’m going to structure the organization around.
If I just said, “OK, the three of us, let's just get up and go.” The first question you're going to ask is: “Go where?”
But what if I told you: “We're going to go to Montreal, and we have to get there in the fastest way possible.” Your understanding and ability to make informed decisions is completely different.
That’s really what we're talking about here. A lot of organizations, as they grow and become more global, they lose touch with that simple reality.
That’s where effective communication is vital. And it’s not quantity of communication. It’s quality.
People need to be aligned in their thinking. We need to share an understanding of where we're going.
But then it's the feeling that gets people to actually take the action. People don't decide to do something when they have all the information. They decide to do something because it feels right for them.
Go back to our example. Somebody replies: “I really don't want to go to Montreal.”
Then don’t get on the train. You belong on a different train. And that's not saying you're a bad person – your goals and your competencies are needed working on a different brand.
MA: With certain organizations, we’ve seen that there's a big difference in those that are “closest to the center” compared with those working closest to leadership. These people are just that much more tuned-in to where the company is going, and often that much more engaged.
But that opportunity to work “close to the center” is gone to a degree now. Today, with everyone dispersed, it’s extremely difficult to have that global alignment at every level in every site. What can a CEO do to build for that alignment?
DK: I remember a CEO who said: I've really only got three jobs:
Make sure the vision is inspiring.
Communicate it, bring it to life.
Make sure my shareholders are pleased with my ability to deliver the results so that I can keep us on track toward that vision.
70 – 80% of their time was spent on these three things. That's all they did. And the brand is a very successful brand.
MA: With the acceleration of business today, the pace of change, if you're not focused on connecting people to a more inspiring purpose, your people will be missing that motivation and drive. Is that right?
DK: It is. And add to that the impact of shifting to the hybrid workplace. Inspiring people is more difficult when I'm talking to you through a screen. This is an impersonal device. I'm trying to communicate something that is extremely personal to you.
Glass half full: It teaches CEOs how to communicate even more effectively, to get to that emotional impact that you mentioned.
In what you do for a company, you're trying to create pride: “I'm proud of where I work. I'm proud of my role within it, even if it's just making a T-shirt. But it's going to be the best T-shirt with the highest quality because we're a premium product.”
Or maybe the vision was: We're going to be the lowest cost, most efficient producer.
“OK. I'm going to be proud of figuring out how to make a T-shirt for $0.75.”
It's not either-or. You have to pick where you are on that marketplace spectrum and then organize your brand's business system and communicate based on that positioning.
Whatever you do, new products, new direction, none of it matters if you don't launch it properly to the inside first – to the employees.
MA: I’ll build on that. We’ve seen clients succeed best when their purpose, brand, vision, and standards are wired through the organization, which then gets people very much connected to their company. It becomes easier for someone in that environment to stay connected even when they could think: I'm just here to clean a machine between midnight and four in the morning – because why they are doing it matters directly to the brand.
What is the role of brand in the employee experience?
DK: It’s absolutely critical. It's even more important in a service-based organization. Because it's all about how you deliver your proposition. Delivering starts with the employees; it doesn't actually start with the consumer.
If they're not aligned to where I'm trying to take the business, if they're not motivated by it, inspired by it, and if they don't understand or see a compelling role for themselves within it – what have I got?
A brand is the value of a promise consistently kept. Sure, I can go out and make a promise. But if I can't deliver on the promise? Then I don't have a brand that customers can trust.
MA: As you said that, my mind went to the fact that you've got one person making the promise, you've got thousands of people making sure it's delivered consistently.
DK: Exactly that. It's a powerful lens. That's why I use a visual analogy of an iceberg in my classes and book.
Above the water line, that’s what the world sees – the logo, price, services, PR. But beneath the waterline there’s culture, core processes, operations, knowledge management, HR, IT, training, internal comms – the whole company is there.
Say you really need an OtterBox for your phone. Making the promise is easy, but what if every time I drop this thing, it cracked? Somebody under the water line in the manufacturing or supply chain didn't do the job that's needed to deliver the promise consistently.
It wasn't the iceberg above the water line that sunk the Titanic. It was everything underneath that ripped a massive hole in the unsinkable ship.
MA: In a hybrid world, many people's connection to their organizational experience has changed. What in your mind is the importance of connecting them to Purpose and to the fact that what they're doing is enabling a particular moment with a customer?
DK: At Level5, at the beginning of the pandemic, we doubled the number of Town Hall meetings. And the very first thing we started every meeting with was: what's the vision of the company?
Communicating the vision, the purpose, the direction of the company – we figured out how to do it quickly so it doesn’t bore people. We said, “As a reminder, this is how we treat our clients and these are the core values that we hold each other accountable to every day and how we work together. OK, now for the update on the business.”
To some, it might seem like overkill or redundancy. But I think, because of the nature of the work environment, we were all having to survive in that little touch point. More often and more consistently was actually a good thing for us to do. We survived; here we are. We had the best year in the company's history last year. Our turnover rate has dropped significantly. I don't think you can ever over communicate that kind of stuff.
MA: There's the old adage: As soon as you're getting tired of hearing yourself repeat that same message, you may have just started to say it enough times. But then, I think the creative aspect of bringing that message to life is what takes you from informing to engaging and inspiring.
DK: That's a great way to put it, and it's what makes it memorable. Most importantly it gets people emotionally connected to the message.
MA: And that emotional currency is worth tenfold when you're looking to drive commitment from somebody.
DK: 100%. Because commitment is an emotion, right? You're getting emotions to create an action.
MA: If we’re trying to deliver brand promise, emotional currency is what’s going to get me through the discomfort. Because you’re committed. You get the end game.
To end our discussion, what was the most common “aha” moment either a CEO or C-Suite leader would say to you they got out of your book?
DK: Two things. One of them was very practical. At the end of the book is a self-help set of questions that ask: Are you a brand-driven CEO? Is your team brand driven?
But the biggest “aha” I would say, was the number of CEOs that either sent me a note or spoke to me and just said, “I've always kind of felt it, but you've articulated what I wasn't able to articulate, and that was my role as a CEO, my accountability, in delivering brand promise.”