Do all the frameworks and processes that strategists use really add value for brands or is it all just ****? In the spirit of strategy itself, let’s test a number of positions.
Even the mention of brand strategy quickly divides opinion. Some, myself included, swear that a mapped journey is a better journey and that brands that don’t understand where they are heading, why, and with what measures of success, are literally marketing blind. (but then, perhaps, I would say that wouldn’t I?) Others are adamant that strategy gets you started but the make-or-break lies in the interpretation and execution of the ideas. The strategy in other words is less important than the decisions it leads to. And there are plenty who believe that brand strategy is good in theory but only applies to big brands, uses too few real examples to be reliable and quickly crashes and burns in the face of real business needs.
So how should we characterise brand strategy in the light of such divergence of opinion?
Brand strategy is an art
To the extent that it requires an intuitive ability to read situations and promulgate ways forward that outsmart others, shift the company to where it could position itself advantageously and underpin that move with an ethos that is compelling to consumers and the brand culture alike. As I’ve said many times before I believe that a powerful brand strategy requires true creative problem solving. It requires a complete rethink sometimes on how a brand moves forward, and at other times the ability to recognise and know what to keep and work with because that element is something that consumers connect with.
Strategy as an art can make a huge difference if your brand is in a situation where it needs a break-out answer and you need a strategy that can intuitively redefine boundaries and re-imagine meaning in the most human of terms.
Brand strategy is a science
Yes, brand strategy can be seen as a science in that increasingly it’s about being able to analyse and draw conclusions from the screeds of data that now keep marketers updated on the progress of the assets in their care. Reading the patterns and then applying those insights to the structures and architecture of the brand requires the discipline and skill to align brand performance with brand DNA. Doing all of this with an asset that is abstract and completely reliant on emotional connection for its effectiveness can test patience and confidence. You’re trying to be logical about the ways that people will act and react, and while the numbers can tell you plenty, they can also lead marketers to make calls that may make sense on the slides but simply confound consumers in situ.
Approaching strategy as a science is very useful where you have powerful research to work with, there’s plenty of quant from which to draw conclusions and/or you’re working in sectors that are evidence-driven.
Brand strategy is a process
There’s no shortage of brand strategy processes to be found online and all of them will get you to some version of a brand strategy. Process of course is vital to any strategic endeavour. It enables a company to arrive at a conclusion and certainly any company following a brand strategy process will in all likelihood emerge with an overall intention (be that a vision, purpose or ambition), a position for the brand in the marketplace and a set of values that purport to make that happen. It’s tempting to assume that if you’ve done this then you have a brand strategy. Too often of course you don’t. You have brand paperwork – a view of the brand’s future that ticks the boxes but does nothing to advance the brand competitively.
The power of any strategic process doesn’t lie in using it, but rather in where using it leads.
If your process just leads you to being another look-alike brand, it has acted as little more than a pathway to mediocrity. Trust a process, by all means, but don’t depend on it alone – because in itself it guarantees nothing. You will of course need to show clear process and explain the value of that process in almost any sector, but it is most useful when you are looking to show others the journey and how and where they participate.
Brand strategy is crap
The world of branding is filled with theory and conjecture, arguments and counter-statements. Not surprising in some ways, because of course we are all working with ideas. But it’s easy to reduce brand building to theoretical discussions that argue points, incorporate sweeping examples and are completely impractical. Grounding brand strategy back to real problems and real answers is the antidote to accusations of fluffiness. As in all areas involving ideas, there are those that can do this and those that can’t; those that want to solve problems, and those who claim to know what they’re doing and don’t. A key frustration expressed to me recently was that brand strategy is too pie-in-the-sky, too hard to explain, too difficult to make a case for, particularly in medium sized business settings, because it doesn’t feel real.
My own view is that accusation could be levelled at much of marketing. We’ve got so involved in the technicalities of what we do (think digital marketing, content, SEO …) that we’ve lost sight of how it all works together and who it’s supposed to work for. The onus is on all of us to justify our role and our value, or risk being dismissed. But increasingly, we should be looking to explain to non-marketers how all the pieces fit together to deliver cumulative value, and that’s something every marketer needs to take responsibility for.
Note: A version of this post has been published elsewhere under the title Brand Strategy: Art, Science or Process?