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Erik Saelens Interview: The importance of brand marketing

Erik Saelens is the founder and executive strategic director of Brandhome group, which makes companies grow faster than their markets.   With over 20 years’ experience in brand marketing and communication, Saelens specialises in rebranding and renaming, and has executed and researched more than 300 brand-change operations worldwide. He is also an expert on brand management and M&A and IPO strategies, and draws on a strong operational background when putting these strategies into practice.   Until 2002 Saelens worked as senior brand advisor to the board of Royal Dutch Telecom KPN in The Hague and Brussels. He was previously employed at Sodexo as a member of the international brand management team, having started his career at Walibi, a European amusement park group.

What sparked your interest in brand marketing?

I’ve always been fascinated by the concept of the ‘homo economicus’, because it is a framework that boils down to the idea that full (price) elasticity exists. Brand marketing is just the opposite. Branding is all about creating IN-elasticity with the target customers, and more broadly speaking with all stakeholders. That is what fascinates me about brand marketing.

Which was your most challenging brand change operation?

In 20 years you come across a lot of brand change operations. So there have been (and still are) a lot of challenging operations and none of them are the same. Because branding is such a comprehensive project (at least if you see branding as a strategic business tool) it is a strategic project for customers, so we never talk about customers’ projects unless they are over five years old. As visible as I am as a speaker and writer, I’m as invisible in my job.   It may seem weird, but after being involved in some of the most impactful rebranding operations of the past decade, this is the price you pay: you become and remain invisible. Sometimes it’s difficult for our junior consultants to understand that the better you do your job, the less visible you become.

Now, there is one example that comes to mind: the creation of Elissa, a proposition brand of Tunis Telecom back in 2009. Tunis Telecom was at that time under commercial siege by a brand called Tunisiana that was hipper and attracting all the young people (and thus their mobile spending, since in those days adults in Tunis were still calling a lot on fixed lines). We were sent in by a major shareholder to look at the situation and come up with a solution.   The youngsters did not want to buy from the same brand as their (grand)parents. The Levi’s case, but then in telecommunications. We came up with Elissa (the name of the iconic princess who founded Tunis), put up radio stations for youngsters, created new service concepts, brought top DJs to Tunis …   We fought back and took back the market. The usual – what we’re paid for, basically. But what made this case so interesting was that we had to operate within a complex political situation. This was before the uprising in Tunis. And despite so-called ‘telecoms’ legislation, the family of the former president of Tunis was involved with the competition. We travelled with blank disk laptops, we were followed, we were denied access, we were not allowed to buy media … so what we did is work around it.

There are two very emotional reasons why I will never forget this case. The first is that the young merchant who set himself on fire to protest against extreme corruption was wearing an Elissa t-shirt that I designed. That was the start of the Arab Spring. The rest is history. The second is that two years later I had to testify on behalf of some of the Tunisians I worked with while we were there to get them out of jail.

What are your favourite topics to speak about as a keynote speaker?

That depends. As a marketer I do my research, and there are six things I consistently hear back from the audiences and clients I work with: tailor-made, interactive, fun-factor, positive-energy, confronting, inspiring. My presentations are tailored to the objective of the event/client, and to the audience. In essence, speaking is similar to what I do at Brandhome, only in a different format.   I dig deep into what the client wants, I set up specific research to have some scoops for the audience, and I ensure that there is massive interactivity with the audience. It takes a lot of preparation, but I like to be well prepared.

How has brand marketing changed in the last five years? Do you have any predictions on how brand marketing will change in the next five years?

It depends on which market we’re talking about. You can divide the world into roughly three markets: mature markets like we have in the West, emerging markets such as the GCC and parts of Asia, and markets to be developed, which make up the rest of the world. In the latter two, brand marketing is still the same as it was five or even fifteen years ago. It is about penetration, about becoming known, about reducing risk of purchase, and about status. In the first, it is a different question. Mature markets have changed drastically, and here we will see more change in the coming five years than in the past fifty! Branding is and will always be about creating the above-mentioned IN-elasticity, but in mature markets this will be totally different. Now that I’ve got you interested … my book Game-Ov3r: the end of marketing as we know it covers this. You can download it for free here.

Do you think that branding is important for all companies and organisations?

It depends on what kind of branding you are talking about. Is it corporate branding or commercial branding?   Or, simply put, does it aim at a higher purpose or just to sell something and ask a higher margin?   I think both will remain important, but in mature markets corporate branding, which also entails reputation management, employment branding, investor branding … will become more and more important.   This is due to the fact that the pure commercial brands, also known as product brands, which have a different name than the organisation behind them, will increasingly be little more than distribution drivers, and proof points of the higher purpose of the organisation, the corporate brand, behind them. Pure product brands will disappear in the mid-end market, which will be eaten up by private labels. You will have super-premium and low-cost-volume brands.

On the corporate level, it is a very different game. Being on the board of directors of Unbox, a joint venture between our group and BNP Paribas Fortis, USG People and SD Worx, and other boards in the US, I have a very good view of the global people and talent aspect. This, combined with my day-to-day role overseeing a wide variety of projects as the executive strategic director of Brandhome, tells me the following.   I will put it very simply: depending on what your purpose is, and how you behave accordingly, people will either want to buy from you, or not; people will want to work with you, or not; talent will come to you, or not; governments will see you as an example, or will make an example of you by punishing you.

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