Minecraft’s Harry Elonen on building blocks of branding and listening to Bob Dylan
With over a decade's worth of professional branding experience and twice the creative awards, Harry Elonen, the Senior Brand Manager for Minecraft over at the world-renowned Mojang Studios, tells us what he knows and doesn’t know about creating and managing brands.
According to Harry, a strong brand requires knowing what to do and what not to do, data-informed decisions, proper brand fundamentals, and an inspiring and actionable brand infrastructure fuelled with creativity. Check out this in-depth interview to learn how Harry and his colleagues work with brand fundamentals, inspire teams to execute on brand, and discover how effective brand management can increase creativity, brand distinctiveness, and brand salience.
Harry, what does brand infrastructure mean for you, and is it central to a strong brand?
Well, I believe we need to start by understanding what a brand actually is. The simplest way to describe a brand is as a person's gut feeling about a product, service, or company. I find this concise definition quite effective.
If we agree on this definition, it means that everything you do as a brand, including your communication, product services, pricing, etc., influences the perception that customers have — or the impression they form — about your brand. When I think about brand fundamentals, I like to use the metaphor of a lighthouse. The brand fundamentals, which include your brand position, strategy, and identity, should guide your organization's decision-making in various areas. To achieve this, a solid infrastructure of tools and platforms is essential to execute your brand vision. This infrastructure should essentially support your employees.
What’s technology’s role in future-proofing a brand’s infrastructure?
I read somewhere that seven out of ten CEOs sometimes ignore data or data insights in favor of trusting their gut. However, if we look at the latest studies, it appears that storytelling, rather than numbers or graphs, is the most effective way to motivate people. It's almost like that Bob Dylan quote: "What else can you do for anyone but to inspire them?"
From that perspective, storytelling becomes crucial in bringing a brand to life. Effective branding often starts with your people, and by simplifying it through storytelling, you can emotionally engage them. This approach reduces criticism, increases conviction, and fosters a willingness to change beliefs and take action. In this day and age, that's what matters most. As for platforms, I have used Frontify, Figma, and of course SharePoint.
How do you collaborate with other departments to maintain a cohesive, efficient brand infrastructure?
Well, when building brands you can acknowledge silos, but you can’t work in silos. Working in silos becomes especially challenging as brands and companies become more complex. Therefore, it's crucial to break down those barriers and foster collaboration. It may sound simple, but it's actually a vital step.
How is your brand organized globally and locally?
I recall David Aaker mentioning that he doesn't believe in brands that are drastically different across markets, and I tend to agree with that. Maintaining a unified foundation is essential, but there should also be flexibility in execution depending on the market. Nowadays, there seems to be a trend towards brands with a low freezing point. The thermometer model is a metaphor for brand management. The freezing point determines what aspects of the brand are managed globally and what are managed locally. Brands with a high freezing point are typically managed globally, while brands with a low freezing point allow for more flexibility and fluidity in the use of brand assets. It appears that lower freezing point brands are more common these days.
Is this a good thing?
In today's era, where data and research play significant roles thanks to entities like Ehrenberg-Bass Institute and industry experts, I believe it's a positive development. Many brand decisions are now backed by data and qualitative or quantitative insights, which adds value to the brand management process. So, yes, I think it’s a good thing.
How do you educate employees about your brand?
I’ve always believed that the brand foundation is one thing, but the actual work begins when you start implementing it. That's where the real challenges arise. I remember a colleague who used to say, "your strategy is only as good as your execution," and I found that quite thought-provoking. It's crucial to get people on board and executing the brand strategy. Without proper implementation in the market, all the planning and preparation won't matter.
In broad terms, you need to activate your employees by creating awareness, desire, knowledge, ability, and reinforcement. Creating awareness internally is similar to conducting a branding exercise externally. You also need to ignite desire and get people excited. Equipping them with the necessary knowledge and capability on how to work with the brand is essential. Ultimately, you need to reinforce the brand consistently to ensure its success.
How do you assess the strength of a brand’s infrastructure?
I don't believe the focus should be on measuring the infrastructure itself, but rather on assessing the impact and effectiveness of the brand. When I start working with a new brand or an existing brand, I tend first to examine the brand fundamentals. This includes understanding the category and how we define the brand. Next, I look at the brand tracking to see how well the brand is performing. I believe that the modern age of branding relies less on a Don Draper type era where there’s one big idea that everyone’s rallying around it. Today, it’s more about data points, insights, and tracking, rather than solely relying on big creative ideas. Unfortunately, these aspects are often overlooked in branding discussions.
In light of recent research shedding light on what is true and what is not in branding, I believe it is crucial to focus on putting figures and metrics behind our brands. The specific metrics should align with our business objectives and long-term goals.
What’s the perfect mix between a strong brand experience and a functional brand portal?
That's an excellent question. I don't think everything should be overly guided and prescribed. Additionally, we don't talk enough about distinctive assets and how to effectively manage and measure them. When it comes to brand assets and portals, it is critical for everyone involved to understand how to work with the brand and have access to the necessary information and resources. Moreover, it is important to identify the most distinct brand assets and identify which ones are not. I find it fascinating that leaving room for creativity, exploration, and occasional breakages can be crucial. Otherwise, you risk ending up with a consistent looking brand experience that lacks expressiveness and becomes monotonous.
I had a colleague who used to emphasize coherency over consistency, and I wholeheartedly agree. The overall brand experience should be coherent rather than rigidly consistent all the time. This is where the new age of brand design lies.
What are your three best tips to enable efficient brand management?
Well, since branding is all about standing out, I'll share four tips instead of three.
- Firstly, you need to have a clear understanding of the three fundamental questions in brand building: What is your category, and who is your target audience? How does your brand position itself within that category? How do you reach your target? It's often as important to know what not to do as it is to know what to do.
- Secondly, strategy is only as good as your execution. People need to execute the brand — without it, your brand work is almost useless.
- Number three, the importance lies more in salience rather than image. We have overestimated the influence of complex and intellectual brand definitions and neglected the concept of salience and mental availability, despite its long-standing presence.
- Number four, prioritize distinctiveness. Many brand professionals tend to confuse this with narratives and other buzzwords. Instead, focus on your identity. How does our current appearance reflect? What is distinct and has equity? What should we let go of? And what should we cultivate further?