What it is (what it is not) and our pragmatic six-step guide to creating 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 an advertising campaign. Enough. And heaven forbid it’s a TV ad (this one may actually come as a surprise to some). 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. 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 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 commitment and support of the CEO/MD/GM (whoever tops the ladder) and executive teams; and requires the buy-in of every department. That’s right. Every single department.
- 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:
- An advertising campaign (I repeat, not a TV ad).
- Any other tactical channel that makes your MD or CEO look important (or worse, reflects their own behaviours or preference).
- A 50-page document full of conflicting adjectives and feelings that only gets used by the marketing team.
Okay, so you now understand what a brand strategy is, why all the hype?
According to Kantar Millward Brown (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.’
In other words, the weight of your brand in influencing purchase decisions. Why so important? Lower acquisition costs. More volume of 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. 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? Clive Palmer $60M political campaign 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).
So why am I writing about Brand Strategy?
There’s no hiding the fact that the sole purpose of my business is to educate, advise and co-create brand strategy and executions for businesses. This means that it’s in the best interest of MY brand to make sure my clients and prospects understand what it is. Because problematically, confused people don’t buy. Which is kind of a big deal because if no one’s buying you don’t have a business. Conversely, the last thing you want is ambiguity between the client’s expectation and actual project outcomes. Ambiguity breeds confusion. Confusion creates conflict. And conflict is bad for business. This here is exactly why I, too, have a brand strategy.
- To identify any obstacles or issues that need to be overcome to connect with, and keep clients.
- To understand intrinsically the kinds of businesses who will get the best result from my offering.
- To communicate with conviction the core benefit of my business and why it’s better than any other, so that we get picked from the pack.
- To create signature moves that make Chiefs and Indians familiar and likeable.
- To develop client relationships built on trust and confidence in the outcomes we’re delivering.
Trust leads to brand advocacy, and brand advocacy makes me more money. More money to reinvest into my business to innovate, evolve and continuously improve our offering to better serve the needs of our clients, and thus secure our position firmly into the future.
How we approach developing a Brand Strategy.
If you’ve ever worked with an advertising or creative agency 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. Positioning. Manifesto. 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 much colour (figuratively speaking) = no confidence (and therefore lower levels of support).
- Too little focus on positioning = no difference.
- No internal engagement and adoption = weak delivery.
- Poor customer understanding = you’re dead to me.
That’s why we take a very pragmatic approach made up of six steps. (Note: while the following examples relate to an established business that does not have a strategy in place, 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 (competition, context, category), 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. In other words, it’s time to bring in the big guns, the c-suiters, executive teams or whoever will be leading the change (yep, even your CFO – God help us). This is a pivotal and often painful moment when leadership are forced to think about the long game. Vision. Goals. Very few organisations that I’ve worked for (and with) have a business strategy, so this phase often requires a bit of time. Push through it in a collaborative and inclusive manner (workshops are a good approach – I provide a workshop template in my online course), as the result will be transformational. A pretty heavy phase, but the outcome is what I refer to as ‘part 1’ of your strategy: your vision, goals, values, target customer, positioning ambition and strategic priorities. This phase is still mostly rational and fact-based (and for internal eyes only) as the creative magic comes into play in 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. Product. Operations. Sales. Customer Service. Marketing. Remember, it’s an all-in effort when it comes to building a truly authentic brand. Do you need to build the simplest, most intuitive app? Reframe your products or add new? Restructure the team to adapt to a category change? Reimagine your customer service process? And so on. Trust us when we say, now’s the time to rally the troops (even if just a select few based on the confidentiality of your new strategy). 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. A new positioning goal may require change across the entire business. This means that you may need to learn to walk, before you talk. Marketing will only ever be a band-aid fix if you don’t have something truly valuable to offer underneath. Actions speak greater volumes than words, and the last thing you want is for your branding efforts to communicate a promise that you can’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. We covered off the importance of lining up your actions with your goals in phase 3 (walking the talk), now it’s time to translate your rational, fact-based strategy into the language of love – for your customers, that is. Assuming you already have your visual identity established (if not, or if tweaks are required to match your new position, add it to the list), key components include: your brand’s story, positioning statement, value proposition, key messages (or benefits), personality, look, feel and voice (at a bare minimum – part 2 of your strategy).
- 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. Assuming two things, a) you’ve got a long-term, departmental road map in play, and b) you nailed your branding (it’s emotionally charged, relatable, distinctive – yes!), the next step is to consistently and relentlessly implement it across all touchpoints. Consistency is how you become 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. The best advice I’ve read about branding comes from Kevin Budelmann of Peopledesign “effective identity programs require enough consistency to be identifiable, but enough variation to keep things fresh and human.” With marketing channels and usage changing as frequently as Brendan Dassey’s confession on Making a Murderer, you need to ensure your branding can adapt.
- 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 a 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 you set in phase 2 and be sure to put systems in place to measure success – year 1, year 2, year 5. I can assure you that if you’ve worked through the phases outlined here (no mean feat and a gutsy amount of work – I get that), there shouldn’t be any significant surprises (other than a bucket load of success!).
Obviously, there is nothing new or ground-breaking here. It’s simply a culmination of what we deem to be the non-negotiable steps that set your brand strategy up for success. 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.
About the author:
Mandy Hall – founder and Director – came up with the idea for Chiefs and Indians in response to a growing disregard for brand strategy in businesses (of all sizes) due to a perpetuating misconception of what it is, and what it entails. Having started her career 15 years ago at Virgin Blue and finishing her corporate employment as Head of Brand at Compare the Market (responsible for two talking Russian meerkats considered as lovable as the infamous m&m characters in just 4 years of existence*), Mandy knows a thing or two about how to use your brand to rally hearts, minds and wallets.
*Kantar Millward Brown Brand Tracking April 2017