Later today I will be presenting the new strategic brand platform to the Board of Directors for an organization I’ve been working with. I thought I’d take this opportunity to share my approach to brand strategy.
Why do you need a brand strategy?
I believe a brand is a driver and compass for the organization – it focus and aligns all decision-making and it guides what we do/don’t do and what we say/don’t say. Having a clearly articulated brand strategy ensures everyone who works on our brand shares one clear, consistent, common understanding of what our brand stands for and how it competes. And this, in turn, helps them align their behaviors and decision-making with the brand so that it is delivered through every touchpoint with the outside world.
Simply put, if we are clear about our brand, so will our customers be.
The brand strategy should be clearly articulated and written down. Whether your organization has 5 employees or 500,000 – whether you’re just starting the business or it’s been around for decades — it’s dangerous to assume everyone knows what your brand platform is or to rely only on informal means for sharing it. Particularly in these times of so much change, it’s easy for efforts to become unfocused or focused on the wrong things. Your brand strategy should be codified.
Also, with so much buzz about customer co-creation and the power of word of mouth vs. traditional one-way brand communication, some pundits have proffered, “Your brand is whatever your customers say it is.” This would suggest that there is little value in defining and articulating your brand strategy – I completely disagree.
An organization must know and make clear what it wants its brand to stand for and how it wants it to be positioned. There is definitely a place for collaboration and integration with customers on how the brand manifests itself and how it is expressed (see 2 great presentations 1, 2 on this topic from German agency nouve, but I believe a brand strategy is as valuable a tool for business leaders today as it ever has been – if not more.
What is a brand strategy?
A strong brand strategy is really comprised of a complete strategic platform:
- brand identity – what your brand stands for – the values and attributes that define your brand
- competitive brand positioning – how your brand compares to existing options – this includes your target customers, the frame of reference in which they consider your brand, and the unique benefit or value you provide to them
An example I came across years ago is Campbell’s.
The two parts of the platform are integrated and interdependent. The brand identity explains who/what the brand is; the competitive brand positioning explains how the brand does what it does. The brand identity tends to be more timeless, serving as the constant foundation of the brand; while the competitive brand positioning can change as the competitive context and target audiences change.
Your brand understanding is incomplete if you only have one part. Without a brand identity, your company lack beliefs and principles to guide its market activity. You define yourself more by your context and less by your organization’s strategic intent. Particularly in categories in which the products have become commoditized (fast food, for example) or in which the distinctions between competitors is difficult to ascertain (healthcare), the who and the what of the brand is the basis for most of a brand’s differentiation.
Without a brand positioning, the business orientation of the brand platform is missing. In isolation, a brand identity can seem only conceptual. You need a brand positioning to reference who you are selling to, what your business scope is, and what you do to create value for your customers. If the brand is defined separately from the business strategy, often the two aren’t aligned — and so when conflicts arise, the brand takes a back seat to the business.
Together the brand identity and competitive brand positioning function symbiotically – complementing and supporting each other.
A strategic brand platform is intended to provide richness and depth, not complexity. Some of the best brands can be summarized in a single word or idea (Southwest Airlines = fun; Disney = family magic). But in order to fulfill its potential as a business driver, leaders must expound on the brand and dimensionalize it into a full platform.
There are many frameworks that can be used to communicate the brand identity and competitive brand positioning. Building blocks, circles/wheels, four-boxes, etc. — each is relevant to a different type of brand. Storytelling, images, and videos are often helpful approaches to expressing a brand strategy.
What makes a brand strategy good?
The strength and integrity of a brand platform can be judged by several criteria.
- Is it meaningful? – is it relevant and compelling to our target customers? Some brands create new desires; others simply meet existing demand – either way, people must value what the brand stands for and delivers.
- Is it believable? – does it over-promise or set up false expectations, or does it pass muster among even the most skeptical of customers?
- Is it differentiating? – does it give us a distinct advantage over competitors? The advantage must be noticeable, understood, and appreciated by your target customers.
- Is it feasible? – does it accurately reflect our organization’s capabilities? A brand platform can be aspirational but it must be possible.
- Is it sustainable? – does it enable us to provide value and compete now and in the future? The brand should be an enduring proposition which drives continuous improvement and innovation, not a fad-dependent or short-lived idea.
How is a brand strategy used?
As I explained earlier, the brand drives everything the organization does. So it guides and influences R&D, product/service development, manufacturing, operations, sales, distribution, employee recruitment/training/development, stakeholder engagement, strategic planning – oh, and also marketing.
In the case of the organization I’m meeting with today, the new brand platform is of particular interest to the staff, who see it being particularly helpful in their prospective employee interviewing/screening process (“The brand personality explains the exact kind of employee we’re looking for,” said one manager).
Also it’s serving as a guide for the website re-design they’re undertaking, ensuring that the experience of using the website is aligned with the brand attributes we’ve developed.
I hope this information has been helpful. I haven’t done a post like this in awhile — I’ve been doing more observation and analysis lately. So if you’d like to see more posts like these, please let me know. Also if you or someone you know wants to know more about engaging me to develop a strategic brand platform, here’s an overview of my Brand Platform service offering.
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