UNO April 2019

UNO+1: Jose Antonio Zarzalejos interviews Antonio Lopez

“The brand is the public purpose of the company”


Antonio Lopez is a quiet man and a thoughtful professional. Undoubtedly, he is one of the leading figures of corporate communication in Spain, as showcased by his extensive career. Now, he is dedicated to teaching and researching, preparing a doctoral thesis that will probably become essential reading in the sector because it deals with the role of communication directors. Lopez is extraordinarily discreet; his long period as head of corporate communications, first at Banco Bilbao and then as a general manager with the same responsibilities at BBV and BBVA, has seemingly left an idiosyncratic mark.

Few professionals are able to exchange views on the world of brands on the same level as Antonio Lopez. And he knows it perfectly well, as can be seen in the incisive and precise answers he kindly gave for UNO.

Q. It is often said brands display the same attributes as their company or institution

A. Yes, but first come the facts and business conduct, and then intangibles such as the brand, which is not constructed in a vacuum or by brilliant design. It is the consequence of behavior maintained by a company or institution over time. The promise companies convey to their markets must reflect their identities, personalities and realities.

Q. In other words, you have to convey realities, not banalities

A. You cannot say “These are our brand’s attributes” without further reference, as if they could be bought. They have to be a consequence of daily conduct and past history. Of course, one of the attributes a brand should have is credibility, because if the company is not credible to the market and to consumers, the brand won’t generate confidence. If the company does not have a good reputation, the brand will not achieve legitimacy. Brand attributes are not affirmations, but an expression of an underlying reality.

Q. I understand, crafting a brand is hugely important

A. Of course! Building a brand is an ethical as well as communicative action, and one which requires prior reflection. Brand management must be preceded by careful analysis of what we are and how we want to be seen. In some ways, brand is a management tool to encourage behavior, so we can be perceived as we would like and seen as we really are. Brand is a company’s public purpose. Without forgetting the relationship between being and appearing, the most sought-after attributes in a brand are credibility, reputation, flexible adaptation to changing trends and support for the company’s values and reality—and the brand has to be attractive to generate emotion.

Q. So the brand has to be dynamic

A. Of course. Don’t forget a brand is not a fixed image in the collective imagination. It must be active and constantly feed off society’s expectations. What do I mean by being active? I mean it must respond to a growing demand from society to involve companies in community life, whether through sponsorships, major cultural and sporting events or complex social issues social that affect the community. Citizens want companies to be actively involved. They want companies to become committed corporate citizens. According to the Brands with Values study, more than 90 percent of respondents believed brands should “show their face” and communicate with consumers.

Q. Emotional marketing can be seen as excessive. Do you share that view?

A. As usual, excesses can always occur, but emotional marketing, which elevates a commercial relationship to an emotion shared with audiences and in public opinion, establishes a strong, not to mention comfortable, relationship between the company, its commercial offering and customers. A positive emotional bond is essential for companies to get favorable behavior toward their brands.

Q. But emotion does not rationalize, or really analyze

A. It is essential for a relationship to exist between the intrinsic details of a commercial offering to consumers and an emotion, and this should not exist in a fantasy setting. Rather, it should be a response to a consumer need, wherein emotion can help close a purchase. A spectator watching this type of campaign on TV must see a clear difference between the benefits and differential advantages of the product shown and otherwhise-similar ones, and not find himself asking what all this is about. Emotions are difficult to awaken, especially in consumers. It is not impossible, but of course a brand cannot pretend to stir positive emotions in the public without having previously built a good corporate branding strategy.

Q. What importance do you place on design color, and brand image? What relationship should those elements have to the product or service being offered?

A. These are key to providing services and important when buying products in a commercial establishment, because a design that responds to public expectations of transparency—now so important—creates a friendlier environment. I will give two examples: going to a hospital where glass predominates over opaque or barely transparent areas creates a pleasant feeling. Another example: a visit to a bookstore is always a delight because of the cover designs on the books on display. If it is a brazen or thought-provoking design, it is a siren call difficult to be ignore. What is the reason behind the Guggenheim’s success? For me, the building’s design. The design, the morphology of all the sales points, is a translation of brand strategy to brand experience, which the brand delivers at all its points of contact.

Q. So all senses, all perceptions, are in play

A. Yes, there are even brands that rely on fragrance to differentiate themselves from the rest. Zara Home products are printed with the aroma they sell to perfume homes. At Abercrombie brand stores in the United States, shop assistants have a ritual: every two hours, they spray garments with perfume. Just as there is a brand image, there is a brand fragrance, a brand sound and brand music.

Q. What is your opinion of white labels?

A. White labels have been very successful during the economic crisis, because consumers became used to buying them for a clear reason: they were cheaper. In this sense, a change began, shifting from a brand society to a society that looks for more affordable products, and in doing so, they discovered the quality of white labels. Companies such as Mercadona established their commercial success through a commitment to white labels. Mercadona, specifically, consolidated its leadership by guaranteeing the quality of its white labels, which are now highly successful distribution brands. Today, distributor brands represent 42 percent of retail sales in the Spanish market. This has also been true in the pharmaceutical sector with generic products, to which the public is now accustomed.

Q. What do you think of so-called brand advocacy?

A. We must focus on two fields: social life and the digital world. In the first, Edelman’s 2018 report tells us the map of influencers has undergone a certain change regarding the confidence we place in our peers. “One like You,” dropping from the top spot it occupied in previous years to third, was preceded first by a technically expert employee and second by an academic expert. However, it is the collective “One like You” and use of employees as authentic brand ambassadors that companies should focus their attention, without underplaying the importance of business leaders, politics, sports and business.

Q. The role of employees and customers is essential, would you agree?

A. Customers and employees are the preferred groups for advocacy. They make up the “One like You” group, which implies a communications policy that must move these groups based on shared beliefs, born out of the organization’s vision and purpose, right up to converting the customer and employee into advocates for the company. The policy’s success aimed at capturing influencers who can become multiple credible and anonymous advocates. In reality, it is a natural process, one which starts with customer satisfaction and employee culture of belonging. Here, “managing” means “respecting the freedom of customers and employees,” not putting pressure on them or exploiting them, but winning them over through shared values and satisfaction, both in customer service and day-to-day work. It is a natural process. You just have to reinforce it with policies that support commitment and belonging. The corporate brand is, in this sense, a management platform where vision, purpose and the principles that build an organization’s shared beliefs converge. We must forget the old dichotomy between culture and corporate brand; both assets must be understood and managed in an integrated manner.

Q. Brands and influencers. This seems like an interesting topic to discuss

A. The latest data in the digital world shows a decline in influencers. There is growing skepticism, known as Branded Influencer Fatigue (BIF). A Deloitte survey highlights a significant fact: just a year ago, social networks were used by 18 percent of consumers when they were making purchases; this year, this number has not reached 3 percent. Perhaps behind this information is the phenomenon of micro-influencers.

Q. To whom is a brand responsible? Or, in other words, what is its commitment, based on the image it projects?

A. Its commitment is to win the confidence of all audiences that relate to the company and public opinion, which—today, at least—is directionless.

Q. Who owns a brand?

A. Reputation is owned by the public, but the brand is owned by the company, and it must be protected by the highest governing body: the Board of Directors. It is strange that a recommendation from the National Stock Markey Commission (CNMV, for its Spanish acronym) regarding the good corporate governance of a public company does not include an opinion on brand management. It mentions the Board and the non-delegable power of promoting a social responsibility policy, but forgets that the most important intangible in a company is its brand.

Jose Antonio Zarzalejos
External advisor
An external advisor for LLYC, he previously held the position of managing director of the firm in Spain. A journalist and law school graduate from the University of Deusto, he was the director of El Correo de Bilbao, general secretary of Vocento and director of ABC in Spain. He has been honored with several professional awards, including the Mariano de Cavia Award from the Federation of Press Associations of Spain, the Javier Godó for Journalism award and Luca de Tena award. [Spain]

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