Should your brand commit to a deliberate strategy?

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A deliberate strategy is one that locks your brand into an approach for the foreseeable future based on clear data and harnessing the resources of the organisation to make that happen. It is a highly intentional strategy – motivating people to come together and work, in harmony, to accomplish defined goals.

But is it the right strategy for your brand?

To some, deliberate strategy may seem like a strange commitment in these chaotic times. But the decision really comes down to how your senior team, and indeed your wider culture, like to manage your brands: decisively; dynamically; or impulsively.

Deliberate strategy vs other options

Decisive brands treat their strategy as a central path intended to propel the brand forward to an agreed, defined and deliberate destination. There is a clear, measurable track set out against specific timeframes and deliverables.

Brands with an evolving or emergent strategy, on the other hand, may have an end goal but they adjust their strategy as they go, taking in changes to their environment, the marketplace, customer needs and more to revise and inform their strategy on the move. Combining their original strategy (intentional) with these ongoing inputs (emergent) generates a way forward that takes little for granted.

Then there are those brands with an impulsive strategy that take their cues from everything around them. In fact, in its purest form, a brand with an impulsive strategy works on the basis of no stated intention at all. It’s almost anti-strategy. Their approach is more organic, sensitive to the initiatives of their competitors and the pressures of their consumers, and perhaps less defined in terms of what success looks like.

Taking a deliberate approach to strategy

A deliberate strategy suits brands that want to define their direction. They may be brands that are scaling, those that operate in sectors that are less inclined to change or those where consistency is an asset. They can also be brands that have specific targets or goals in mind. That’s a wide range of dynamics to be sure, but what these many brands have in common is an envisaged future that their investors are committed to, that their people are fired up about and that they can clearly progress against.

These brands are visionary and purposeful. They know what they want for themselves – and they can direct their energies to making their plans a reality. Everything they do confirms their central idea. Of course, they can also lock themselves into a way forward that becomes out-moded, that can’t see the customer for the strategy, that sets up false gods or that prevents them from changing fast enough.

A deliberate strategy often favours incumbents with a clear foothold in their markets and a vision for what they want to accomplish. Brands that have successfully used a deliberate strategy include Apple and Boeing.

Taking a wait-and-see approach to strategy

A responsive brand wants to retain the option to adapt. It will use what’s known as an emergent strategy to take advantage of ongoing inputs and ideas to trim its sails. It has a course, but it remains open to changing direction when the right ideas present themselves. Emergent strategy is often used by younger companies to find their feet.

Unlike a deliberate strategy, where everyone is asked to align behind the strategy, brands with an emergent strategy draw on the insights and experiences of their people to help them find new opportunities and refine where they are going. Inevitably they make changes to their original strategy that see new ideas incorporated and some elements discarded.

For that reason, an emergent strategy works for brands that have an uncertain future or that are still working through what their long-term strategy might be. At their best, brands with an emergent strategy are the most responsive – continually monitoring and innovating their way forward to align themselves with changing dynamics.

But they have three inherent dangers: they can become too dependent on the initiatives of others as cues for what they will do next; they can become overly inward, taking their cues from what they perceive rather than the realities of the market; and they can become too sensitive, reading ‘blips’ as trends or choosing to chase down shiny bright objects instead of remaining focused on what really needs doing.

Choosing a strategy without boundaries

The most extreme strategy is one that is not deliberate at all.

Brands pursuing an impulsive strategy often cast themselves as the ultimate pioneers and listeners. They are meticulously tuned to the wishes, impulses and criticisms of their customers, and the actions and successes of their competitors. They can thrive in fast-moving digital arenas, sectors that are highly attuned to fashion and those parts of the economy where innovation is happening all around them. Algorithms, trends, pop culture and influencers are among their many prompts.

They are highly adaptive players – watching what works around them and mining those successes for cues and prompts that they can make their own. Many are capitalised with “burn money” to get to profit.

Their view is that strategy is irrelevant in such settings – because it is too slow and quickly outmoded. These brands may be scene stealers, second-to-market improvers or challengers across a wide range of sectors. But they can just as easily be boundary pushers – introducing ideas to markets and monitoring them relentlessly for traction. They are energised, flexible and fascinating because, when they work well, they read their markets meticulously.

These brands prosper in markets where the attention span is low and consumers are looking for the next thing.

Taste communities vs traditional brand communities.

Because of this, the approaches of these brands tend to be episodic and therefore campaign driven. Their vulnerabilities are that they can lack consistency, and their organic approach can feel haphazard. They can also shift from the victors to the victims of fashion.

Where did these different approaches come from?

The divergence between deliberate and emergent strategy can perhaps best be summed up as a clash of two different schools of thought: Michael Porter vs Henry Mintzberg. Porter’s approach very much reinforces the deliberate strategy approach while Mintzberg champions the more responsive emergent strategy.

Know where you’re going

Some people see deliberate strategy as old-school thinking. We like it because it sets out a deliberate plan that helps brand managers know where they are going and what their brand will need to accomplish. We’re not Porter acolytes in everything, but deliberateness relates well to our belief that companies (and cultures) with genuine vision and purpose have a lot to recommend them.

We work with a number of companies that pursue a deliberate strategy. What’s impressive about this strategic approach is its clarity: things are either on-brand and aligned with the strategy, or they are not. These boundaries enable people to pursue excellence without distraction. The brand has impetus.


Mintzberg’s emergent strategy, as its name suggests, pivots on the premise that long-term views are no longer valuable and that strategy should literally be allowed to emerge and evolve as the brand encounters changing realities. The strategy itself therefore ends up following a course that is consistent with where the market needed it to go.

Academic Karl Moore sums up the case for emergent strategy this way: “Henry’s emergent strategy ideas … reflect the fact that our plans will fail … strategic flexibility is what we are looking for in most industries. The boundaries are more fluid now … The value chain is now shared across firm boundaries and at times, in part, in common with competitors.”

Again, we work with brands that take this more responsive approach. In general, their approach is insightful and they regularly take stock of their situation and what they will do next. This approach though can also, ironically, be slower because there are a lot of inputs. That can lead to plenty of discussion around which ideas will work best, but it also generates a culture that feels democratic and where people feel heard.

So which way should your brand strategy go?

Back to the misgiving at the top of this piece. With so much change swirling around your brands, why would a brand even lock itself into a certain direction?

The answers may just come back to the three things we talk about all the time: strategy,  culture and stories.

Define and chase

A deliberate strategy is a powerful choice for organisations that back themselves to win strategically because:

  • They are forward looking and intentional in how they pursue that
  • They believe in thinking before doing
  • They work best from a written plan

Deliberate brands start with a strong strategy, and then align their culture and their storytelling with their intentions. Ideally, it’s systematic, evidence-based and intended to provide a linear understanding of your Defined  Future.

Brands that rely on their culture for their competitive edge may well choose an emergent strategy because it encourages participation and inputs from across the business.

  • They can benefit from what’s going on around them, and adjust accordingly
  • They believe in learning through doing
  • They can make room for innovation from specialists within the organisation

Such brands often draw heavily on the opinions and insights of their team. An emergent strategy allows them to build on and add to what has been agreed rather than having to align with a set strategy. Because of this, dynamic brands often build their competitive edge through their people.

We designed our Culture to Thrive programme for this way of working. Open – and built around a Principled Culture – that, on the one hand, shapes where the strategy will go (within ethical boundaries), and, on the other, leaves things open enough for people to do their best work and share stories based on agreed values and clear purpose.

Be adaptive

Strategist JP Castelin, an expert at strategising for complexities, cautions against over-simplifying the power of dynamic strategy – referring to an idea he dubs “adaptive strategy” that proposes disciplined and quantified experimentation:

“Actual adaptive strategy is not about running fast all the time, but creating the ability to run fast when one needs to,” he says. “While experimentation … is a large part of it, the point of the exercise is not to “vary the way in which one does business” by running perpetual cycles in sequence, but to make it resilient by running coherent, safe-to-fail experiments in parallel …

“Adaptive strategy, as utilized by those who know it well, is not about reinvention, but adding a responsive capacity that allows one to enhance that which one already knows to work in ways that makes the whole stronger than the sum of the parts. It is not about generalizations or all-ins, but refinement and context.”

If your brand is mostly powered by stories, then an impulsive strategy could make the most sense, allowing your brand to be highly creative and to leap from one idea to the next in ways that continue to surprise the market and help you build a following. An impulsive strategy will suit brands that:

  • See their environment as unstable and unpredictable
  • Want to take advantage of opportunities as they arise
  • Don’t want others to see or know what they will do next


Impulsive brands often start with stories first, and build their strategy around making the most of that idea before they move onto the next campaign. These brands often don’t invest in long-term brand building because they see the offer or the experience as being best in the  moment. Performance marketing is often their thing. Equally they have a more freeform culture that focuses less on rules and principles and more on making each idea work as strongly as possible.

Obviously, we don’t offer change programmes for brands that want to work this way. Instead, we tend to do more consulting work episodically.

What do you need to pursue a deliberate strategy?

If you do decide to pursue a deliberate brand strategy, you need to do at least four things:

Set your agenda

You need a very clear understanding of where you are heading and what your big picture looks like. Who do you want to be? To whom? And how will that re-value you, both commercially and in the eyes of your customers? The last of these questions is the critical one because it requires you to envisage your place and your influence in the market.

From 1952, for example, Boeing made the deliberate decision to shift from making military aircraft for the US Air Force to making jet aircraft first for the commercial market and, then later, for the world’s airlines. (For industries like aviation, with their long run-ins, a deliberate strategy is critical. But, as the problems with the 737 Max show, it also requires big bets that can go seriously wrong.)

Run your playbook

Deliberate brands have strategies that stretch well ahead of what’s visible. That means their planning around the rollout of their strategy is always well ahead of what their customers are seeing, as their innovation programmes push forward with ideas that may deliberately sit in the wings for some considerable time.

Disney are amazing at synergising every aspect of the characters they build. Characters introduced in one place in time make their way across the full extent of Disney’s experiences. Disney’s control of this vast inventory of imagination is masterful and timed exquisitely to ensure they extract every ounce of magic from every opportunity.

Know your brand codes

Brands with deliberate strategies also need deliberate identities so that everything they do is recognisably theirs. One could argue that brand codes are vital for every brand no matter what strategy you choose.

Brand codes are the three or four things that make your brand recognisable in any context. These consistent elements, like the McDonalds arches, ensure you continue to be recognised as your strategy rolls out.

Too often, brand codes are underplayed by brand managers. As Mark Ritson rightly points out, “[Chances are] you are underplaying your codes because to you they seem obvious; but to the customer, they are gone in a second. You cannot overplay codes. You can overuse your logo, you cannot overplay your codes.”

It’s not good enough to be the author of your brands. You have to be recognised as the author in order to get the payback. Brands with impulsive strategies often get this wrong because they’re too impatient. Brands with emergent strategies are also  tempted to keep changing their brand codes because they want them to remain ‘timely’.

Consistency is a discipline.

Lock in new developments and opportunities

Sometimes the stars align and changes in market dynamics bring new ways to boost your advantage and hasten your deliberate strategy. Spotting such a tail wind can make a critical difference to the trajectory of your brand.

The success of the iPhone and the iPad signalled that Apple was onto a winner with its “post-PC” mobile devices. Over the coming years, Apple would expand on that success to build a powerful and seamlessly integrated mobile ecosystem that included not just devices but also apps and services.

The more Apple did this, the more clearly it distinguished its worldview and its product line-up. Some people would see this as an emergent strategy – but in fact, Apple were deliberately looking to put great-looking technology in the hands of individuals. The iPhone and iPad were ways to do that.

(Castelin’s suggestion takes this one stage further by proactively labbing responses to add what he calls responsive capability. We interpret this as lock and load some things – but also look and lab across the business so that you always have options.)

It has to be a deliberate decision

Brand leaders reach the decision to fix or change their strategy at different times in a brand’s fortunes and therefore for a range of reasons. No matter which option you choose, creating, directing and managing your brand strategy successfully takes courage, belief and ambition.

In the case of a deliberate strategy, you are locking your brand into a way forward that will influence how your organisation thinks, works and competes for a significant timeframe.

A reactive or impulsive strategy may be less fixed, but it requires considerable and sustained energy, vigilance and flexibility to succeed.

Our Plan to Thrive is an effective way to set a long term, deliberate course for your brand. Happy to chat about how a deliberate strategy could improve your situation. To find out more, please take a look at how we can help you define your future. Then contact us.


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