Brand Strategy: what it is, what it is not, and our pragmatic 6 step guide to developing one.
By Mandy Hall.
I know what you’re thinking (if you’ve even made it this far into my article): how many times does a brand specialist write a blog to clarify what a brand is? Your brand is not your logo. We get it. Not even your colour palette. Preaching to the converted. Nor is it a social media campaign. Enough. Trust me, I feel the exact same way. But here I am. Again. But I assure you that this blog is somewhat different. I’m not going to hark on about brand, or even branding (much). Today I’m going to address the mother of both – brand strategy. The most unappreciated, undervalued third child in the family (who plays a pretty significant role in the success or failure of its emotionally charged, fun loving siblings).
So here’s what a brand strategy is, and what it is not.
A brand strategy IS:
- An internal guiding document that provides a clear, actionable (I repeat, actionable) and measurable plan to achieve a future desired position for your brand.
- It defines who you are, why you matter, who you matter to, and why you’re better than the alternatives (all of which comes from knowing your customer, capabilities and marketplace inside out).
- It NEVER succeeds without the full support of the leader of your ship (whether that’s yourself or another), and his/her merry men and women. And requires buy-in across the entire organisation. That’s right. Every. Single. Person.
- It underpins the approach you take to your branding which is the external expression of your strategy that you use to appeal to, and create fruitful relationships with your customers.
A brand strategy is NOT:
- Graphic design: your logo, colour palette nor look and feel.
- A marketing tactic like social media. LinkedIn. Or even PR. (These are the things we use to bring your brand strategy to life).
- A 50-page beautifully constructed document full of conflicting adjectives and feelings that’s difficult to apply in the real-world, or that never gets used.
Okay, so you now understand what a brand strategy is, why all the hype?
Bear with me, because i’m about to get technical for a little bit, but I assure you it’s for good reason. According to Kantar Millward Brown a global research agency (KMB), there are three critical components to driving brand equity (which is the holy grail of business effort) – salience, meaningfulness and difference. Before I explain what each mean, let’s look at KMB’s definition of brand equity:
‘Brand equity is a commercial asset, the value of which is determined by the ability of the brand associations to predispose people to choose the brand over others or pay more for it, both now and in the future.’
Kantar Millward Brown
In other words, the weight of your brand in influencing purchase decisions. Why so important? The more you become known (and liked), the less you have to spend (both money and effort) acquiring customers. Which leads to more sales. The ability to charge a higher price. Trust. Loyalty. Referrals. All in the name of more profits. Need I say more?
Back to the three components of equity, which by the way have been determined based on a study of the world’s most successful brands in delivering results (that’s right, tangible, monetary outcomes). In a sentence; saliency is how well your brand comes to mind; meaningfulness is how well you meet your customers’ needs and their affinity towards your brand; and difference is your unique value. (You can read more about it here).
So how do you achieve these three things effectively to increase brand equity (the pinnacle of success)? Start by having a brand strategy and plan.
- To be salient you need to be distinctive, memorable and able to reach and engage your target audience.
- To be meaningful you must understand the functional needs of your customers and how to connect with them on an emotional level.
- To be different you need to carve out your unique space and separate yourself from the competition.
All of which takes understanding, alignment, and a concerted effort starting from inside of your organisation, out. Brands that lack purpose, risk becoming invisible. Consumers are the most connected and disconnected than ever before and trust levels are at an all-time low (I mean can you blame them? Donald Trump case in point). Brands need to be authentic. Make someone’s life better. Offer a superior product. Consistently deliver positive customer experiences. Make a real difference in the world. To achieve this, your organisation needs to start by singing off the same hymn sheet (and then of course execute effectively, which is the NEXT big hurdle).
How we approach developing a Brand Strategy.
You may not have worked with an advertising or creative agency before, but if you have, you’ll know that a brand strategy can be heavily focused on all the fun, colourful stuff, often containing lots of statements and descriptions that start with the word ‘brand’. Essence. Promise. Manifesto. Purpose. Experience. Blueprint. Personality. Voice. Values. I’m not undermining these things as they can play a critical role (if you actually understand what they mean). Having left the big corporate rat race to start my own business, and now working with clients who don’t have a marketing budget that extends into the $Ms, I’ve had an awakening to the pitfalls of traditional brand strategies in delivering what they intend to achieve. To summarise:
- Too much jargon = no action.
- Too little focus on positioning = no difference.
- All talk, no walk = superficial and short-lived.
- Poor customer understanding + market research = you’re dead to me.
That’s why we take a very pragmatic approach made up of six steps. (Note: while the following example relates to an established business with a team, the principles can be applied to all).
- Discovery: the first phase is critical to the entire process and is centred around understanding your organisation’s customer, capabilities and marketplace. Start by conducting an audit of your business’s performance, services/products, existing customers, capabilities and marketing insights. Coupled with a detailed assessment of the environment in which your business operates you should end up with a range of issues and opportunities that will fuel (or fault) your strategy.
- Direction: now that you’re armed with the issues and opportunities, it’s time to carve out the direction you wish to take your brand in. Even though there are many considerations when setting the direction, the outcome should be simple and actionable. A positioning ambition for your brand. This phase is still mostly rational and fact-based (and for internal eyes only) as the creative magic doesn’t come into play until phase 4: Branding.
- Team engagement: you’ve agreed the direction and it’s solid. You identified a range of strategic priorities that span the business to make your positioning ambition true. Remember, it’s an all-in effort when it comes to building a truly authentic brand. Now’s the time to rally the troops. Use the brilliant minds you have in your organisation to gain buy-in and contribution. After all, they will be translating your strategy into actions. Actions speak greater volumes than words, and the last thing you want is for your branding efforts to communicate a promise that your team doesn’t deliver on.
- Branding: finally, on to the fun stuff! Your branding is the creative expression of your strategy. It’s the all-encompassing persona your company uses to connect with your customers to achieve your desired brand position. Your branding includes everything that touches the customer – actions (such as values, ethics, partnerships), interactions (customer services, front of house staff, website experience, purchase and post-purchase support), visual (logo, imagery, colours, packaging) and verbal (language, messaging, tone) identities.
- Implementation: when the rubber hits the road. A good strategy that fails to implement effectively, is worth nothing. Nada. Zilch. Actually, it is worth something. The tens of thousands of dollars (or even hundreds of thousands depending on the size of your business) that you’ve invested in time and money to get to this point. Implementation will make or break your brand which is why we include it in our steps to success. Consistency is the key to becoming known. Do not digress from the agreed message because it’s not to your taste or you feel it’s ‘tired’ because you’ve used it a million times. Fact: on average a prospect must hear a message at least 7 times before they take action. Unless you have a million-dollar marketing budget, you’d be lucky if your customers have heard or seen it once or twice. Stick with it. Make it count.
- Monitoring: hooray, your new brand or positioning is live. It’s now time to listen to your customers. Make tweaks to your strategy if necessary. Although you won’t see results overnight (especially if you don’t have lot of dosh to tell people about it), you should have an idea after 3-4 months if something’s gone terribly wrong. Look back at the goals and be sure to put systems in place to measure success.
Obviously, there is nothing new or ground-breaking here. It’s simply a culmination of what we deem to be the foundations to making your brand strategy work. And if there’s one thing we’ve learnt the hard way, it’s that brand strategies can fail before they’ve even taken off.