What Is Brand Strategy and Why Do You Need It?

“Ta-da!”

I had just finished the pitch of my career. 

 

“Ta-da!”

I had just finished the pitch of my career.  This was a brand campaign for a Fortune 1000 company and one that was surely going to make my career.  This was a dream client and dream campaign.

I left the last line of the brand narrative that I developed, wrote, and now verbally delivered hang in the air. Let that line hang there in all its glory and perhaps to showcase what a brand genius I was.

I walked out of that meeting bouncing with confidence. “I am a branding maestro,” I thought to myself.

The news came quick. I didn’t get the business. I was crushed. While the client was kind to say that the pitch was entertaining (I think that’s a compliment) and that the creative visual aids were beautiful (again a compliment I think?) that the team and I missed the mark when it came to aligning our campaign to their business goals.

Business goals?!  Who cares about business goals?  This campaign rocked!

Well, after I came down off my high horse and took a moment to really hear the golden feedback that the client had given — thank you, unnamed client! — I was embarrassed. I felt like a fool.

Why didn’t I realize the entire point of all this branding stuff was simply a means to an end? There are business goals we are all trying to achieve in our businesses and branding is one of the critical areas of focus and disciplines that help to move us forward (or drags us back if not done correctly).

Branding does not serve to be “pretty”, “look good”, or “just deliver a logo.”  It is a business tool that drives awareness, education, purchases, recommendations, and raving fans.

So as I tend to do in these situations I went on a learning quest. A quest to answer the seemingly simple questions: 

  • How do you connect business goals to branding and creative outputs like logos, campaigns, external marketing, and customer experience?
  • How do you align branding work with client’s needs so they are happy and get what they need?

I’ll spare you the reading list but I poured through every book on branding, marketing, and business I could get my hands on.

And it turns out, the answer is quite simple.  The path to happy branders and happy clients starts with brand strategy.

I often wish I knew what I know now back in that meeting but then I wouldn’t be on this journey to brand building enlightenment.

And I learned that for a brand to be a Wildstory brand it must start with strategy.

And here’s why.

It’s important to remember that brand strategy isn’t a formula. Brand strategy is a framework that is flexible and malleable to the situation.

- Marc Gutman

What is Brand Strategy?

Strategy vs. Execution. 

It’s one of the oldest debates in the marketer’s handbook.  But there’s no need to over-complicate the “what” of strategy.  At Wildstory, we define strategy as the plan vs the doing. 

It answers the question: what the heck are we doing?

If we’re playing football it’s the gameplan vs the game.

If we’re going on an adventure, it’s the route planning and logistics vs the expedition.

Taking this one step further, it’s the plan that helps you to achieve your ultimate goal.

And just like the examples above, it’s important to remember that brand strategy isn’t a formula. Brand strategy is a framework that is flexible and malleable to the situation.

For the purposes of this article, you can think of brand strategy as long term and execution as short term.

You can think of the long term brand vision as the strategy and the short term, day to day marketing and operations of the business as the execution.** 

** Every time I use this definition some professional marketers are quick to object, feeling left out and marginalized. “Hey, marketing is long term and has strategy too!”.   Yes, yes. This can be true. Like many things in life, everything isn’t black and white. But for the sake of this discussion, we’re going to go with the definitions above. If you’re really adamant about this difference, please leave a comment below or feel free to set up a time to take me to dinner and we can debate this over a nice meal.

It Must Begin With Strategy

I get it, You want to be innovative, increase revenue, attract world-class talent, build awareness, grow market share, and delight your customers.    

But how?

Whether you are building a brand from scratch or repositioning an existing brand, beginning with strategy is a must.  This philosophy is a non-negotiable for us here at Wildstory.  

A hill we are prepared to die on is that it must begin with strategy.

But why?

Results.  That’s it.  And who doesn’t like results?

In our experience, those businesses and brands that spend the time to invest in brand strategy are always more successful and happier than those that do not. 

We have seen far too many businesses rush into the execution only to realize they don’t know who they are talking to, that none of the creative feels “cohesive”, and my favorite “we don’t know what to say.”

Remember the story at the beginning of this article? 

The chart below illustrates what happens when you don’t align strategy with execution.

Diagram via Creative Strategy and the Business of Design by Douglas Davis, courtesy of Fred Nikols.
  1. Sound Execution + Flawed Strategy = Shooting Yourself in the Foot. Ouch! That doesn’t sound fun.
  2. Sound Execution + Sound Strategy = A Fighting Chance.  At least we are in the game.
  3. Flawed Execution + Flawed Strategy = Doomed from the Beginning. That’s no way to go through college son.
  4. Flawed Execution + Sound Strategy = a Botched Job.  I hate when that happens.

What this is meant to illustrate is that this game of branding, brand building, and marketing is hard.  It’s an always evolving mission.  Our customers are human and as we know humans are always changing. Developing new tastes, outlooks, communication channels, and purchasing habits. To say our challenge is not difficult would be naive and doing ourselves as marketers a disservice.

So why would we succumb to requests like “I just need a logo…” or “…just make it look good” or the hundreds of other “this will just take a minute” requests we receive?

Why would you, the client, ask for this?

Of course, we all want to be successful and hit our objectives.  I think that these requests come about when:

  1. We are moving so fast and think we know the problem that needs solving. If I know I need a new lightbulb, why not quickly replace it?  But what if the real issue is the electrical behind the light bulb? Or I buy the wrong light bulb for the job I am asking it to do — I like very different light bulbs for reading, working in my garage, or general lighting in my house.
  2. Stopping to ask the right questions and build out a strategy takes time. Sometimes it’s hard work. It requires discipline and trust in the process.
  3. Brand builders don’t want to say “no”. It’s never fun and I know that speaking for myself, I love this stuff! Give me the chance to get working and I’m in.  But I’ve learned that more good for the client comes when I say “no” and require brand strategy before any project.
  4. And logos are easy. Who doesn’t love a good logo? It’s tangible. It’s complete. A logo doesn’t ask hard questions and force you to take a hard look in the mirror and evaluate your business. (Doesn’t just have to be a logo. Insert any “quick branding” request for a logo.)

If the best I can hope for is a fighting chance, well then I’m going to do everything I can to get that chance!  And this is where strategy comes in.

The Undeniable Benefits of Brand Strategy 

The reason I love strategy so much and believe in the process as a must in the brand building journey is that strategy connects our creative work to the business and the business problems.  Brand strategy is not about logos, or colors, or websites. It is about building a brand, which is just another way of saying it is about building a business. 

Like the discipline of branding itself, brand strategy is this wonderful combination of the logical and the magical. And when we bring these two ideas together, successfully then we are able to surface actionable insights (aka distilled inspiration) drawn from data, anecdotes, collective experience, and informed hypotheses.

Starting with strategy allows us to develop insights we may have never seen before.

And isn’t this the purpose of business? To solve problems for others?

Fix the Problem You Actually Have, Not the Problem You Think You Have

Here at the Happy House office, we have a beautiful lawn. But since I am not always at the office I had a Rachio internet-connected sprinkler controller installed. 

The whole reason I went with this system was so I didn’t have to be around. It is supposed to be intelligent and handle itself. I already have one lawn I am responsible for at home. I don’t want another at work. 

But everyday after the sprinkler would run it would trip the outside GFI outlet. And when the outlet is tripped, the sprinklers don’t run as they are supposed to and the beautiful lawn burns and dies. 

I immediately diagnosed the problem as a bad GFI outlet. I replaced the outlet. It still tripped. I had an electrician come and replace the outlet – 2x.  Ever pay an electrician to replace an outlet? Two times? It stings, right?

The sprinkler kept tripping the outlet. At this point, I am losing my mind. I am trying to navigate tech support with Rachio. I am googling this issue every night after work. I am getting frustrated with Rachio, their support is slow and they keep suggesting things that don’t work. They send me a new power adapter. I grumble back at them.

The GFI is still tripping! I am about to go insane. I am obsessed with fixing this issue. I am spending a lot of time trying to fix this issue.

And then Ruben stops by. Ruben is the owner of the landscape business that takes care of the yard. I tell him about the issue and he nods thoughtfully. We stand outside together as he asks me to run the sprinkler system, zone by zone.

And on the last zone, right next to where I am standing, a giant plume of water gushes from a broken pipe, douses the outside outlet, and shorts the GFI.

Ruben smiles at me knowingly.

And that was the problem.  I was spending so much time, money, and energy trying to fix the problem I thought I had instead of the problem I really had. Once Ruben diagnosed the problem it was incredibly easy to fix.

Ruben fixed the broken pipe and now my lawn goals are on track.

Shout out to Ruben!  Big apology to Rachio!

Strategy is designed to make sure you are fixing the problem you actually have, not the problem you think you have. 

It’s also designed to make sure you focus your limited resources (and every company no matter the size has limited resources. It’s all relative to budget and goals.)

Strategy then can be fanned out to impact messaging, identity (visual and verbal), customer touchpoints, content, brand activations, websites, etc.

Typically the problem you have isn’t your logo, your website, your collateral, your typography, etc. It’s something much bigger. It’s most likely that you are losing sales, your target customer doesn’t see your brand in the way it should be seen, you are an awesome product or service but not seeing the results you expect.

These are big problems! Once we know the problem we have, it’s much easier to know how to solve it.

Alignment is power, Mis-Alignment Kills

Let’s go with the thesis that every leader in a business or organization truly cares about the organization.  The marketing team, the legal team, the Chief Executive Officer (CEO), the Chief Financial Officer (CFO), the development team, the Chief Technology Officer (CTO), the Chief Operating Officer (COO), the Founder, the head of Human Resources, the Chief Revenue Officer (CRO) or Sales leader — everyone cares equally about the company and wants it to be successful.

First, we need to remember that the reason a brand exists is to achieve a business or marketing objective.  Many times we lose sight of that and get focussed on logos, campaign creative, purpose, etc. But in the end, the brand is here to further the business. 

So, if this is true, then what’s the problem?

Well, as much as everyone cares, oftentimes they get caught up in their own personal experience and end up temporarily only caring about their own world. It’s human nature. And compensation in a company is typically structured to incentivize focus on your own particular job.

 

Imagine in this scenario the objective we are trying to achieve is to move a giant rock as big as a car.  Each leader has a rope tied to the rock and is ready to put all their strength into moving the rock and helping the company achieve their objective.

As is the case with just about every company, each leader is focused on their own perspective which results in everyone inadvertently pulling in opposite directions. Not only do they not achieve their objective, but the rock also doesn’t move at all, and a tremendous amount of energy has been spent and all that remains is exhaustion and frustration.

This is because:

  • The CEO is concerned with the big picture.
  • The CFO and Finance team is concerned with how the money flows and is spent.
  • The CRO and Sales team is concerned with new business acquisitions.
  • The CMO is concerned with bringing in leads and how they prove their worth with metrics.
  • Account management teams are concerned with pleasing the customers and clients.
  • Human Resources is concerned with creating happy and productive employees

So which of these concerns is the most important?  Well, none of them of course!  They are all important. And regardless of what department you are in, we are all trying to achieve the same result.

And it is this understanding that is the magic outcome of brand strategy. Understanding all the other perspectives is not easy. It takes work. It takes focus. And it needs a common language and nomenclature.  CFOs don’t talk in the same language as CMOs and HR pros.

This common language and vocabulary are what is created during the brand strategy process. It’s a way of understanding all the other perspectives and needs in the company and coming to agreed-upon solutions of how to move forward.

Going back to our example of trying to move the rock, when everyone is aligned and all pulling in the same direction the rock moves easily. There is momentum and the ultimate goal we are all after – company health, more customers, happy customers, fired up employees, a purpose-driven company, and a healthy balance sheet — is achieved.

When teams are aligned and all working towards the same goal, they can build and accomplish amazing things.

In the end, a well facilitated and executed brand strategy process gives every team in the company a voice and ensures that we are achieving company goals not just siloed departmental goals.

Boiling it down to it’s essence – brand strategy is the process of figuring out what the heck we are going to do!

When is it time to undertake a brand strategy process?

There is never really a wrong or bad time for strategy. The beauty is that brand strategy is a malleable framework that can be applied to many different business situations.

From a brand perspective, here is a list of the most common problems we solve with a brand strategy process:

Establishing or Changing Perceptions

I probably hear this one the most and it comes down to the simple idea that you are great.  Your products and services are great. You know you are great.  But the people you want to know you are great don’t know you are great.

Many different factors can contribute to this desire to change how you are perceived. Perhaps your brand has been around for 50 years and hasn’t evolved with the times. Or you’re starting a brand fresh and don’t even have a perception yet. Or you fall somewhere in the middle and the business that you believe in feels like a struggle. You know what you offer is powerful, so then why does it feel like you’re running in mud?  There’s a good chance you need to rethink how you are perceived.

I’ve worked with brands who were founded by a strong founder and when those brands start to grow or the founder leaves there’s typically a vacuum that screams:

 “Now what? Who are we? Where are we going?”

Primetime to be thinking about how the company or organization will be perceived as it moves into the future.

You may also need to reposition a product or service that has lost its customer’s trust.  Think of brands recently that have publicly misstepped: Volkswagen or Chobani.

Think of this in terms of traditional marketing objectives this would most likely include (list from the book Creative Strategy and the Business of Design by Douglas Davis):

  1. Making the target customers aware of this new product.
  2. Communicating product or service benefits in the language and style the target would be receptive to.
  3. Positioning the product relative to its competitors in the target’s mind.
  4. Establishing a brand preference among the potential choices.
  5. Re-establishing positive brand attributes and values.
  6. Loyalty or increased frequency of purchase
  7. Increasing social media engagement around a brand, product, or service.

Supporting a purchase

Outside of basic commodities there are very few products and services that don’t require additional support after purchase.  I recently purchased some artisanal soap and shampoo from Dr. Squatch. I was drawn to their fun, “man” focused advertising and who doesn’t like to smell good?  Since purchasing I have been entered into their email funnel and “on-boarded” into their ecosystem. I now know all the complimentary products they offer, how to order, and where to go if I have any issues.

The business objectives for supporting a purchase may likely include (list from the book Creative Strategy and the Business of Design by Douglas Davis):

  1. Acquiring customers into an insurance, installation, or maintenance plan online or by direct mail.
  2. Decreasing the cost of live phone customer service by driving customers online (websites or social media) to troubleshoot themselves.
  3. Driving customer online to schedule appointments or pickups
  4. Retaining a high level of customer/brand engagement through email content with deep links to the website.
  5. Cross-Selling related products or services based on purchase behavior.

You know what you offer is powerful, so then why does it feel like you’re running in mud? There’s a good chance you need to rethink how you are perceived.

- Marc Gutman

Education

As new products and competitors enter your market, the education objective is crucial to helping your customers understand the differences in similar products when they comparison shop.

What’s the difference between a Yeti cooler, an Otter Box cooler, and an RTCI cooler?  Many times education on the construction, materials, and the benefits need to be communicated across different communication channels. 

Another area of education is to explain how products or services can benefit the buyer. By keeping your drinks cold you can have impromptu neighborhood parties, for example.

The marketing objectives to educate customers may likely include (list from the book Creative Strategy and the Business of Design by Douglas Davis):

  1. Demonstrating the product’s features and ease of use.
  2. Driving prospects to a website to learn more or capturing email addresses for newsletters.
  3. Increasing frequency of use and expanding user activities with the new product.
  4. Increasing app or content downloads.
  5. Highlighting a product’s benefits or differences relative to the competition.

Fostering and Promoting Brand Advocacy

Once you’ve chosen a brand you’re in!  You are most likely to identify with that brand, especially when you encounter their advertising, content, and marketing.  This reminds you why you bought that product and that you made the right decision.

In addition, we all know that it is much easier to sell additional products to an existing customer than acquire a new customer.  Fostering and promoting brand advocacy makes it more likely that existing customers will make additional purchases.

The marketing objectives to promote brand advocacy may likely include (list from the book Creative Strategy and the Business of Design by Douglas Davis):

  1. Increasing sharing from a customer to his or her friends.
  2. Increasing favorable product reviews on websites.
  3. Increasing word of mouth visits to retailers

Launching a new company, offering, or brand

This one is a bit on the nose but it bears mentioning.  Whenever we introduce a new company, offering, or brand into the marketplace we should always start with brand strategy. We answer the fundamental questions of “Who are we?” as well as “What the heck do we all need to do?”

No more explanation needed. 

Driving sales.  

Yes, this one is obvious. Doesn’t just about every initiative come back to more sales? But there are things that move the needle in a quick amount of time.  Many brands need to consider promotions, POS displays, counter cards, trade show booths, display advertising, digital advertising, etc.

The business objectives for driving sales may likely include (list from the book Creative Strategy and the Business of Design by Douglas Davis):

  1. Building a list of prospects based on the best current customers.
  2. Increasing overall purchase amounts.
  3. Liquidating a certain product to make room for another.

Here is another quick checklist that may help you in determining if you need to revisit your brand strategy:

  • There are people who would benefit from your work who aren’t engaging with you.
  • There’s a change you seek to make in the culture, but it’s not happening.
  • You’re having difficulty persuading other people of your point of view.
  • The service or product you make isn’t resonating with those you seek to serve.
  • You’re fighting in a race to the bottom, and it’s wearing you out.
  • You have a brand management problem – assets are difficult to manage, creative doesn’t reproduce easily, the look and feel isn’t cohesive and thus confusing to both your team and your customers.  It’s time for an update.
  • Consistency is a problem

How Do We Do This?

So how do we do this? Instead of the usual brain dump, or random brainstorm where nothing really gets done.

We transfer all of the knowledge residing in your (and your team’s) head within a structured framework and organize it in a container so we can make sense of it all.

This “container” will typically be broken into four areas of focus:

  1. Customers
  2. Brand
  3. Features / Benefits
  4. Goals

The sessions last from 1-2 days with 2 days being what I’ve found to get the most out of the effort teams put into the process. 

Our intention is to surface actionable insights — aka distilled inspiration — drawn from data, anecdotes, collective experience and informed hypotheses.

From here we have the foundation to go deeper and conduct additional work sessions to tease out the “why”, purpose, mission, vision, values, etc.

Make the Customer the Hero of Their Own Life

Our strategy process always starts with the customer. We used to start with the brand and followed an inside out process. This isn’t necessarily wrong. But over time we’ve come to the perspective that a great brand is all about making your customer the hero of their own story when using your products or services.  This is an old axiom I learned during my early career in the movie business.

And over time we’ve found that building a brand around a customer and the problem you solve for them is the clearest way to connect your business goals to your customer’s needs.

Brand Strategy is Like Making a Movie

Brand strategy is a lot like making a movie. There are a lot of different parts that all need to come together to tell a singular story.  And ultimately, for our brand we want to ship a cohesive story that moves our customers to action. Makes them feel our brand and understand clearly what problems we solve for them.

It’s a delicate balance of defining and then weaving all the relevant components together in a way that appears seamless. 

The trick is in distilling all the information into a simple story that resonates and is easily told.

The Elephant in the Room

If you’ve made it this far I doubt you’re the “elephant” but in my experience there’s often one elephant in the room on every team.

Throughout careers people have been exposed to all sorts of different workshops, strategy sessions, branding exercises, you name it.

I rarely work with teams that have never been through these types of initiatives. And of course there is always someone who has had a bad experience and remains skeptical.

This is good. I have no problem with healthy skepticism. I welcome it. I love questioning and challenge. That’s how we get to insights. 

But if someone is so skeptical that they won’t participate or become a roadblock that’s a problem. Just one person can tank a work session. And if I recognize that someone’s skepticism is too deep to overcome, I will be forced to reschedule or session. There is no point in wasting everyone’s time and money for a session that’s not going to produce the results promised. 

Conclusion

Over the years I’ve learned to never work with  someone who says “I just need a, dot, dot, dot…”  

  • I just need a logo.
  • I just need a website.
  • I just need a brand.

I wish I could tell you that I came to that conclusion because of my superior intellect.  But the reality is I learned the hard way.  I took a lot of business from people who called and said, “I just need a dot, dot, dot…”

I rushed to build logos, create campaigns, and take any work we could. And when I look back on all that work I wish I could have those opportunities over again. I made the best decision with the information I had at the time. But now I know the key to success isn’t being smarter or waiting for Don Draper style inspiration to strike — it’s starting every engagement, every project with strategy. 

Because once you get the strategy right, everything else falls into place. Clients goals and business objectives are matched with the creative. The words and images serve a purpose and support a common goal.  Strategy tells us what the heck we are doing and aligns our teams so we can come together build amazing businesses that are the centerpiece of the moments that matter in our customer’s lives. Businesses that are the centerpiece of the moments that matter in our lives. 

And if that doesn’t support why you need brand strategy… I don’t know what does.

 

Want to go deeper on this topic? Recommended reading: Creative Strategy and the Business of Design by Douglas Davis 

Interested in bringing our style of brand strategy to your business or project?

Schedule a strategy call now!

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