The World’s Toughest Brands: Service brands are some of the hardest to build. Yet greatness is still possible.

By Josh Feldmeth

The Best Global Brands list rewards outcomes. The more economic value you can drive through your brand over time, the higher the valuation. It’s “show me the money,” and the top 100 brands do just that.

But behind the list lies a secret. While all brands are judged by the same criteria, some brands have it harder than others. And services brands may have it hardest of all.

These disadvantaged brands live in a category without tangible products. They have low advertising-to-revenue ratios. They often are run by executives who lack marketing expertise. The responsibility for building culture and insuring consistent delivery is distributed over sprawling organizations of hard-driving, independent-minded talent. In the land of brand building, services businesses must thrive in rocky soil.

So when a strong service brand emerges from these hostile conditions, we take notice, because in their hard-wrought success lies the genetic code of the world’s toughest brands.

One such success story is the business and technology services company, Cognizant. Since its founding in 1994, the company has been on a roll. With more than 140,000 employees and operations in 24 countries, it is one of the fastest-growing technology companies of all time. To help us unpack the story, we interviewed Robert Painter, Cognizant VP of Corporate Marketing. His insight reveals how Cognizant is building a brand with deep roots, an unrelenting vision and a hard-edged accountability — traits shared by the world’s toughest services brands.

Deep roots in authentic soil

There is a conundrum in business services branding: As the business grows, the brand weakens. We call it the Partner Paradox. The more partners (or senior talent in general) that join the firm, the greater the business growth. But leaders have strong personalities and independent minds. They don’t “do” homogeneity or naturally subvert their own point of view in the interest of a shared vision. That’s the paradox: while brands thrive on clarity and consistency, the thriving business services company actively acquires assets (i.e., people) that, by their very nature, reject common thinking.

Great brands overcome the paradox and subsequently scale the brand globally through a rigorous attention to culture. Accenture’s culture was founded in St. Charles, Illinois, where every new college graduate hire spent the first weeks of their career learning to code while being steeped in Accenture’s cultural DNA. IBM is another example. Its much lauded “Smarter Planet” strategy has its roots in an internal engagement exercise: its 400,000 plus employees aligned to a single strategy that places them — “I’m an IBMer” — in the center of the frame.

Cognizant’s approach is to ground the culture in the founding energy of its leaders. “I joined Cognizant because of the passion of the leadership,” explains Painter. “When I met with the management for the first time, I realized it was a team that has been here since day one. They’ve experienced remarkable growth. Yet, the only thing they were talking about was the next five years: how to grow, how to expand the brand, how to serve clients better. They all had the same passion.”

The roots of every strong brand are anchored in its culture. This is where Cognizant’s story begins: with a passionate leadership team, galvanized around a shared vision for growth and committed to culture. It’s the same for Accenture, IBM, and the other big services brands. It’s textbook stuff really, but for business services firms, particularly those that are growing quickly globally, it’s a very rare and difficult thing.

Unrelentingly relevant

Everyone’s on the bus, but is it headed in the right direction? This is a particularly tricky question in the world of technology. How does the brand ensure that its enduring vision will consistently win in a constantly evolving sector? Cognizant’s answer is simple: be relevant.

Again, Painter: “Branding in technology services is one of the most challenging marketing jobs that you can imagine. It all comes down to a simple term: relevance. We don’t wake up and say, ‘How do we make the brand better?’ We say, ‘Are we being as relevant to our clients as possible?’”

The most relevant brand will always win. It will be chosen more frequently, given a premium, and recommended to others. Yet in the world of technology, what is relevant today may not be relevant tomorrow. Cognizant’s response is a brand proposition that doesn’t anchor on something that is relevant — smartest consultants, best price, most flexible, most global, etc. Rather, they aim simply to be the most relevant.

It’s a positioning masterstroke. It’s simple, memorable, and animating for the organization. It’s guaranteed to drive revenue and profit. And it demands the best from the culture: vigilance to client needs, flexibility, open-mindedness and restlessness for future work. This is strategy in action; a living brand positioning that exists in the client experience, not in the brand strategy presentation.

SAP is the classic example of the case. Since 2000, the brand has been anchored to the purpose of “turning businesses into best-run businesses.” For a company selling software, nothing could be more relevant. And they haven’t wavered, continuing to build around a core proposition year after year. In an industry where “what’s hot” changes by the hour, these brands are unrelentingly focused on what will be relevant for clients, forever.

The freedom of accountability

I used to work for a large management consultancy, and I loved it. We were called in when the problems became too difficult for the client’s management teams. We presented to the C-suite. We had the facts and all the confidence in the world.

It’s not surprising, then, that those responsible for building brands within highperforming services organizations often shy away from accountability. They often don’t have the data they want, and the management to which they report are experts in business strategy and financial engineering. It can be daunting. But where others may see a debilitating need for accountability, the world’s toughest services brands see liberation.

Painter says, “I sometimes feel my job is on the easier side. I’m blessed with management and a board that is clear about the strategic direction, and how we are going to be relevant for our clients. As a marketing executive, this is a real luxury.”

Painter may feel his job has relative advantages, but he certainly hasn’t taken the easy path.

He’s documented a brand journey, a stepby-step road map for building the brand between now and 2015. Each milestone can be measured quantitatively. And while other brands have similar road maps, what’s unique about the Cognizant brand team is their insistence on being held accountable by the organization.

Painter finds this accountability liberating. “These aren’t metrics we keep within corporate marketing. We go to great lengths to share our goals and performance against them with the management team and the board. Quantitative measures are the key. It makes the conversation with the CFO easier with quarterly return on investment. We have nowhere to hide, which I find very reassuring.”