Brand strategy definition

    What I Do for a Living.


    When people ask me what I do for a living, as a brand planner I usually say “brand strategist.” When I see that quizzical look in their eyes, I babble on about writing “paper strategy” and creating an “organizing principle for product, experience and messaging.”  Which doesn’t really change their expression.  Moving forward I’m just going to say Brand Strategist which is kind of self-explanatory. (I used to say brand consultant, but that made me sound retired.)

    The fact of the matter is I’m an advertising him/he/his. 

    The most expensive application of brand strategy is advertising. And good brand strategy, like a good, tight ad brief, is the creative artist’s best friend. No one sees a brand strategy — everyone see advertising. That’s where the money is. So realistically, I am an upstream advertising person.

    When you have a smart, business-building brand strategy in place, every tactic produced can be judged. As on strategy or off.  If it is on, you are putting deposits in the brand bank.  If not, you’re wasting value promotional dollars. You may get a click. You may get a sale. But those are not long term sustainable. Think win battle, lose war.

    I’m an ad guy who specializes in strategy. And I build foundations. There I go again…





    The Secret of Brand Strategy.


    The name of my company is Whats The Idea?, and it’s fitting.  But it’s not the whole story of this brand strategy business. To most consumers the word “idea” conveys a business only about an idea. In brand strategy the idea is important – it’s the key thought or boil-down of the brand’s value proposition. But brand strategy is here defined as “an organizing principle for product, experience and messaging.” And that goes beyond an idea. More accurately, the organizing principle is one claim (or the idea) and three proof planks — supports for the claim.

    A claim unsupported or without tangibles to make one believe, is simple-minded. And sadly, simple-minded is what much branding and advertising is. Proof planks are the structure of the brand strategy.  It’s the science behind the claim.  Why three?  Because three can hold up a claim… and three can be remembered.

    By itself the “idea” is not enough to build a brand. It must be supported by discrete clusters of proof. And that ladies and gentlemen is the secret to proper brand strategy. To measurable brand strategy. Not the brand voice. Not the brand mission. Not the brand personality. All mildly important, but not foundational.  Those elements are tactical and the domain of ad agencies.

    So, if your branding agency or content creator who purports to do branding talks about voice, mission or personality, ask them about proof of claim. Organized proof of claim.



    The Science of Brand Purchase.


    Asking people if they will buy a product is a form of quantitative marketing research. It’s directional but flawed.

    We launched a web page development product in 2007 that quantitative research told us was something people would use like crazy. The functionality of the tool: uploading pictures, video, audio, original text and other digital objects, like Facebook and MySpace yet without the restrictions of a design template, was universally desired. Projections were for 60% adoption of adult targets. On paper.

    When the product launched, usability was poor. Not intuitive to the non-techie prospect. The startup failed — even though the research suggested otherwise.

    Asking people why they bought a product after purchase is a more accurate form of market research. And a better predictor of future results. But for startups it becomes a chicken and egg thing.

    When a brand strategy client is having a poor sales swing, it’s my job to understand why. It’s my job to get inside consumer heads and reason out the buy/no buy behaviors. In my world – the brand strategy world – I look for the three most important reasons a person prefers a product, typically found among customer care-abouts and brand good-ats.  Then I package those three things under brand claim closely tethered to the three benefits. This becomes the organizing principle for product, experience and messaging aka the brand strategy.

    This organizing principle becomes the science of purchase upon which to build quantitative research. That’s the chicken. Quantitative research sans strategy is science without a hypothesis.




    What Comes First the Brand Strategy or the Product?


    My definition of brand strategy is “an organizing principle for product, experience and messaging.”  Most practitioners get the “messaging” part. And a growing number understand the “experience,” especially those with branded storefronts. How a customer experiences the brand at retail is more than a passing fancy.  Dunkin is a very different experience than Starbucks.  But when it comes to an organizing principle guiding “product,” many underdeliver — which is quite odd since the product almost always precedes brand work.

    So why does one create an organizing principle for a product that already exists? Well, it’s useful when making changes to the product. When creating product extensions.  When franchising the product. When dealing with supply chain issues. How about when dealing with quality control. Or hiring people who design the product. Apple certainly gets this. No Evil Foods understands. Marmot subscribes. 

    Marketers who fully understand their product’s, provenance, heritage, DNA, differentiators and UPS (unique selling proposition), have the easiest ways forward. And the most organized. And most principled.



    Enculturation in Branding.


    One of the hardest parts of being a brand strategist is getting clients to comply with the strategy. If it results in a new logo, no problem. Signage changes, though never quick, are done. Website home page, sure. Ad campaign, lock ‘em and load ‘em. But enacting the strategy throughout the daily course of business, that’s hard.  Employees just like to do business as usual – thinking branding is for the marketers.

    I define brand strategy as “an organizing principle for product, experience and messaging. When employees understand this principle – comprised of a value claim and three proof planks — they know how contribute. Sure they will still do their jobs, but they will understand the “why.”

    Yet more often than not brand strategy is not shared with the rest of the company. And if it is, it’s not really enculturated. It’s more likely sent out in an email or Slim Jim brochure. It’s like generals leading from a bunker.

    Before I begin working with new clients on master brand strategy I need to spend more time explaining the importance of sharing, understanding and compliance within the company.  The entire company. And company partners. A friend of mine with a company named Kudzu Brands, is onto something.






    Insights are the oxygen of brand planning. Insights about the target. Insights about product features. Insights about the competition. I could go on…and I will. Insights about the market. Insights about prevailing category attitudes. And insights about culture.

    Every planner mines insights. It’s what we do. And it drives the brand planning sector of the business. The fact is though, 95% of current planners’ jobs revolve around insights that drive tactical successes. By the project. By the pound.

    At What’s The Idea?, the job is upstream of marketing tactics. We set master brand strategy. That is, we establish an organizing principle for product, experience and messaging. Once that organizing principle (read, brand strategy) is developed – our job is done. It can effectively remove the need for brand planners to oversee much subsequent tactical work.  Now, I wouldn’t recommend that — brand planners are still the people most likely to find deeper strategy insights to refine important tactical executions, but it’s a thought.  

    I was once at meeting of Conagra’s Banquet brand with all of its agencies. Must have been 40 people in the room. Maybe 8-10 strategy/planner types. Far be it for ConAgra to tell its agencies who to bring to a meeting, but a tight, defined brand strategy would have saved them some time, money and danish.  




    Unorganized Marketing.


    What is the pent-up demand for brand strategy services? What keeps company officers up at night that a brand strategy can fix? The answer: Unorganized marketing.

    The Oxford Dictionary defines organize as “give an orderly structure to, systematize.” Therefore, unorganized means the opposite — not organized or not orderly. Disorganized has a stronger connotation. It means to “destroy the system or order; throw into confusion.” It indicates a chaotic mode.

    The fact is, most companies in need of brand help suffer from unorganized marketing, not disorganized. That’s because they never had an organizing principle for product, experience and messaging. They may have a logo, tagline, marketing plan, even a good ad campaign, but not a constant framework that governs everything.

    So what is the result of having unorganized marketing? Loss of time developing programs. Loss of money in poorly performing media and tactics. Lack of focus around customer care-abouts and brand good-ats. And poor accountability because marketing doesn’t know what to measure other than sales. With unorganized marketing big data becomes little data.

    My job as a brand consultant is to dig deeply into business fundamentals, determine care-abouts and good-ats and create a framework of values for presenting a brand that creates sales and loyalty.

    This is upstream planning — and too many marketers are afraid to paddle up. Ergo they lose sleep and sales.



    Unbridled Proof Needs to Be Organized.


    My alma mater Rollins College recently posted a marketing video on YouTube. Set to violin music it is a visual listing of accomplishments over the course of the year. Lots of number 1 rankings followed by certain student honors, awards, social initiatives, celebrations of students past and a recap of campus investments and improvements. Had I done discovery on the brand I’m sure many of these things would have been circled as proofs. (I run an evidence-based brand planning shop.)

    But what must happen with proof in brand strategy and marketing efforts is it needs to be organized. Rollins tried to organize it but the vid just came off as a sophomoric listicle. All attenuated at the end of the video with a line “Make Tomorrow Happen.”

    Marketing videos are not an amalgam of randomized brush strokes, they’re an organized equation of value. Some might say a story. Something that creates a lasting and indelible memory.

    Brand strategy is an “organizing principle for product, experience and messaging.” The operative word is organized. Sans organization the proof is a marketing list. Sans proof, the marketing list becomes advertising.


    Packaged Goods and Experience.


    I define brand strategy as a framework for product, experience and messaging.  The experience component is often a bit of an outlier but good branding companies take it seriously. Experience as a brand component is particularly important in retail and business to business but how does one deal with experience in packaged goods?  A bottle of salad dressing is a bottle of salad dressing. You can say “packaging” is experiential. Perhaps “labeling.” But opening a bottle of Samuel Adams is the same as opening a bottle of Bud. It’s tough.

    Along comes the internet and now we have a little something more to play with. Web experience can be built so as to adhere to brand strategy. Not via messaging, i.e., pictures, copy and sound but through the actual user experience. The brand strategy claim and proof array should be delivered in actions, navigation and visitor behavior.

    As an example, let’s look at Highland Brewing whose claim is “Pioneers in craft.”  The website experience should deliver on the claim. Perhaps some tips on how to make beer. Or a demonstration of what makes a craft beer different from a mass-produced pasteurized beer. Someone around the campfire this weekend said done poorly a website can be an “electronic brochure placed in the ether that gathers dust.” Well let’s make websites package learning, create new behaviors and reward deeds – that’s how you can upgrade your packaged good experience.




    Words Are Important.


     As you know, words are important. Unless you use them as marketing effluvia. And that’s a challenge for most copywriters. Many writers think it’s the words not the content that carry the water. So long as the words don’t get in the way in terns of communication and function, the writing itself is not as important as the content.

    For a few years now I have been defining brand strategy as “an organizing principle for product, experience and messaging.” I’ve taken a second look at this definition and though “organizing  principle” is, indeed, what a brand strategy is, the word principle can be a bit misleading. And fluid. Part is the problem with brand strategy is it’s a little like interpretive dance.  Creative people like it that way. Open to interpretation is freeing. By replacing the word “principle” with “framework” the dance is still there but the interpretation is removed.

    A framework makes it easy for marketing tacticians and builders to make stuff. With a framework you are either on strategy or off. No interpretation.

    A framework is tied to brand objectives, which are tied directly to marketing objectives and therefore measurable revenue. Framework is existential. Principle not so much.

    Brand strategy: An organizing framework for product, experience and messaging.  Me likey.