A Brand is a Relationship

Insights from an expert - an interview with Cynthia Round


Cynthia Round is an expert in her field. She has led brand transformations for organizations such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art and United Way Worldwide. Earlier this year, we asked Cynthia to help us clarify Civilla’s mission, vision, and values. Since then, we’ve spent many hours defining and refining these elements with her guidance. The experience was powerful - one full of lessons worth sharing. So, as our work together came to a close, we sat down with Cynthia to reflect on her journey, her perspective, and her process.

MB: So, we asked you to help us get clear on our brand strategy. Why in the world did you say yes?

CR: Well, there are many reasons why I not only said yes, but said so enthusiastically. As you know, I’ve spent my career building brands in the commercial, nonprofit, and cultural sectors. But now, I’ve decided to focus my energy on using brand strategy to create positive change in the world, so I only work with nonprofits and cultural organizations. I ask myself, “Do I believe in the organization and am I inspired by their work?” For Civilla, the answer is absolutely yes.

Not only do I love your big bold ambition and care about your mission, but I also believe in your ability to succeed.

MB: We are very grateful for that, Cynthia. You often talk about brand strategy as a “strategic asset.” Can you talk about your point of view on how brand drives mission?

CR: Well, it starts from my belief that brand is much more than a logo, a trademark, and a tagline. I think it's even much more than a perception, an image, or an experience.

I define a brand as a relationship. If the brand is a relationship between an organization and its users, then understanding and being true to that brand all the way through the organization—from vision and mission, down to the most personal level with individual users—is critical. Building true relationships as a brand is both very hard to accomplish and also a very simple idea.

MB: How did you come to that kind of depth of understanding?

CR: It started in my work at Ogilvy & Mather, the advertising agency where I worked for 15 years. Ogilvy made it a real practice to build the brand across the full experience, not just in paid media and image building. My colleagues and I took this to heart.

Throughout my career, I saw a lot of people fluttering into the brand space, but then they’d lose it as a center of gravity. As I moved into the nonprofit world, it stayed as my center of gravity. In fact, it became ever more important because, initially, many of the organizations I worked with were quite allergic to the idea of brand. A lot of them were very suspicious and thought it was a commercial concept. But when I could explain brand to them as a relationship—that all we were trying to do was understand the essence of how they were significant in the lives of their users—the resistance went away. I found this to be a very powerful perspective to bring into the nonprofit sector.

MB: You’ve reiterated your belief to us that organizations can’t achieve brand strength without a deep clarity on mission, values, and vision. What happens when leaders don't keep their eye on the ball?

CR: I strongly believe that the leaders in an organization are the Chief Brand Stewards. They have to understand the brand and live it. Everybody in the organization does, but it is the leaders at the top who must be the stewards.

When brand fails to run through the organization, you get cognitive dissonance with your users. A brand relationship is just like a human relationship: If you say one thing, but you do something else, it immediately begins to raise questions for the people that you are most connected with. For a brand, it’s the same. People might give you the benefit of the doubt one or two times, but then suddenly you're talking about eroding trust, which is the foundation on which any relationship, brand, and organization is built.

MB: When you came to Civilla, you started walking us through your process in a really beautiful way. Can you describe that process?

CR: It's an interesting question because I don't really think of myself as having a process. I think I have a couple of strong beliefs that really drive my interactions. When I'm beginning to work with a new group, I come into it with a strong belief that the answers are in those leaders that I’m talking to. They know why they started an organization, or in the case of much older organizations, they know why they joined it.

And so my process is really one of simply engaging in conversation and asking questions: What would success look like if we did that?  How will you know when you’ve been successful? To what end do you think you want to do that? I listen, ask questions in different ways, and mirror back their answers. Through this process I encourage the language and then distill it until I feel that we’ve reached radical simplicity, clarity, and consistency—my three principles.

Once the language feels roughly right, it’s time to get out of “my opinion, your opinion” and talk to your most loyal users. They're the ones that will tell you how you are significant to them and whether the language resonates. Through these interactions, you are trying to better understand that emotional connection and adjust your language accordingly.

MB:  What needs to be in place in an organization to ensure that it stays honest and true to its brand over time?

CR: First, you must inspire and empower the entire organization around the mission, vision, and brand strategy. You must give them the tools they need to make day-to-day decisions that are also authentically aligned with the mission and vision.

Second, you have to reduce all of the barriers and obstacles of cost, time, and money— things that cause people to resist any kind of change you’re trying to make. You have to make it easy and desirable for them to change.  

You must also execute your brand in a way that is aspirational to people. If you’ve done your homework, and gotten it roughly right, then it will be expressed in a creative and beautiful way that people want to be associated with. That's critical.

Finally, you have to stay intentional. Someone in the organization needs to be designated, accountable, and rewarded for helping the organization stay on track. Even though people have good intentions, it's easy for things to get lost in the day-to-day. We all lose focus on things, so you need someone to remind everyone that this is not a one-off project, but something that must be carried through the work in every way.

MB: We are really grateful for your time Cynthia. As we close, is there anything else that you would like to add?

CR: I would just like to recognize the openness with which you all tackled this effort. Even though you know why you started Civilla and what you're trying to do, you’ve embraced even the most basic questions and reexamined what you know about yourselves. This will be just as important for your work moving forward as it was for our work together.

Adam Selzer