Why are most brand strategies so confusing?


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A view on why brand strategies need to be easy to understand, with a review of the key components of such a strategy.

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Why are most brand strategies so confusing?

  1. 1. Words. Words. Words.<br />Why are most brand strategies so confusing?<br />A confusing brand strategy leads to a confused consumer and wasteful marketing <br />One of the more confusing terms in marketing, is what we call “a brand strategy”. Throughout my life in marketing, from my earliest fast-moving-consumer-goods days as marketer, to my days in advertising, I recall brand strategies to be lengthy, “wordy” and confusing. If I recall one instance where a creative person said to me “I am not sure amongst all these words what to focus on”, I recall very many such instances. We seem to “add words” when we do not know what is really important. Or when a strategy is written “by committee”, where it becomes a “wordy compromise” that makes everyone “sort-of happy”. Yet, “many words” make a strategy entirely useless for what it is really intended to achieve, to direct output for the brand. <br />One can say the lengthier a brand strategy, the less useful it is. Why do masters’ and doctoral students who submit dissertations have to adhere to strict rules when it gets to the length of their documents? The logic is that to demonstrate understanding you need to be able to be concise and retain only what is really important. Anyone can add - it is whether you can “subtract” that demonstrates understanding. For brands, this is more important, as most brand output is not delivered by people closest to the brand, it is executed by staff who manufacture or deliver a product or service, or by suppliers to the brand. <br />Most brand strategies are complex, “wordy” and has no – what I would term “internal logic”. This means we construct a strategy where there is no logical relationship between the different elements of the strategy: positioning contradicts values, company and brand values do not relate at all, brand or company values have no relationship with positioning and pay-off lines, values are generic and do not differentiate. All in all, this makes a brand strategy confusing if not counter productive. <br />The problem with a confusing brand strategy is that it makes it very difficult, if not impossible, to have a single-minded and aligned brand expression across all touch-points of a brand, albeit internal or external. Hence, “getting it right” is fundamental to make a brand efficient and effective in how it interfaces with its publics. Not “getting it right” leads to wastage and inefficiency, and more likely, confused staff and confused consumers. <br />To me, the best way to describe a brand strategy is that it is the “voice” of the brand, which sets it apart from a marketing strategy, which refers to the way in which a brand will achieve its sales and business objectives. A brand strategy may be the only differentiator in instances where the marketing strategy is parity. A brand strategy has to encompass the key differentiators for the brand, unless a brand is the “first mover” in a category, when it can focus on generic factors. This means a brand strategy must focus largely on what makes a given brand different.<br />Yet, the brand strategy is as important to a brand, as the way people speak, behave and dress are to them as humans. As we make our minds up about people, we do that about brands. <br />If it is difficult for a consumer to describe a brand, it is largely because we as brand owners are ourselves unsure about what our brand is. You may say that is impossible, yet, in my life in marketing I have found it to be the case most of the time. Just last year I was told by a research supplier to one of the largest banks in SA, when he asked the twenty key marketer staff in a meeting at the bank how the brand was positioned, no-one could give him an answer! After a two/ three minute embarrassed silence, someone started giving him industry generic terms like “customer centric”, “trust”, “reliable”, etc. This is more often the rule, not the exception!<br />A good brand strategy aligns all the brand resources to build a clear and valuable brand <br />A brand is not just a name with category generic or random attributes and benefits associated with it, a brand is a name – and often a logo - with a whole set of associations that are carefully crafted and orchestrated, unique to that brand. <br />It is important to construct this in a way that is unique to the brand, yet consistent and easily understood by all. <br />Once the strategy is clear, the brand is clear and consumers who want to associate with that uniqueness, will support it.<br />Why have a brand strategy?<br /><ul><li>To enable the brand to be differentiated in a way that leverages the competitive opportunity for the brand. This means finding a unique way to fill the market gap.
  2. 2. To ensure that all brand output – which is the acid test for any brand strategy - is aligned. This means marketing communications and the way the brand is experienced by its stakeholders at all points of interface. </li></ul>What does a brand strategy consist of?<br />As with most aspects of marketing, there is no “one truth” to this question, different practitioners, academics and agencies, will have different views on it. Also, like with most aspects of marketing, no “one truth” is above scrutiny – or will ever be accepted by everyone. I always say doctors do not debate what a colon is (thank goodness), yet in marketing, everything is up for debate, even the very foundation concepts of our discipline. <br />In brand strategy there are a few guiding principles that seem to prevail. <br />These are:<br /><ul><li>The brand positioning.
  3. 3. The single-minded message of a given campaign.
  4. 4. The “reasons why”.
  5. 5. The brand values.
  6. 6. The brand personality or tonality.
  7. 7. The brand essence.</li></ul>I will cover each one of these in turn.<br />The brand positioning<br />“Positioning” is used to signify the perception – or “position” a given brand has in the heads of its consumers. No two brands can occupy the same space. <br />Positioning is the “over-riding value proposition - or offer” the brand makes to the consumer, like “With Outsurance, you always get something out.” – probably states its positioning as “The only insurance company where you get a portion of your premiums back if you do not claim.” It differs from brand image in that positioning is by its very nature unique – no two brands can occupy the same “space” in the minds of consumers. With brand image, many brands can have a “good” or “bad” image or reputation - it still does not mean that brand has a prevailing reason why it should be bought over another. In categories like financial services and retail, many brands have good images, yet few are clearly positioned. <br />Positioning must be based upon something of relevance to consumers (a key want/ need/ desire) and how a given brand will offer that, in a unique way (why the brand is better able to deliver upon that need than any other). Unless a brand is the largest, it will become a “me-too” brand if it is not positioned. <br />Positioning permeates all a brand does. Clarity about positioning is the most important decision a brand can make. For Kulula.com, it is that they now make it possible for anyone to fly as their fares are so affordable. For Amazon.com, it is that any book you want, is available online, cheaper and faster than from anyone else. <br />Many brands lack a clear brand positioning. The negative multiplier effect of this is that all other aspects of the brand will also be confusing if the brand owner does not have clarity about his/ her brand positioning. <br />Positioning of a brand rarely changes. Once a brand occupies a given space in the minds of consumers, it is very difficult to “erase and change it”. Consumers do not “unlearn” easily, it takes a long time and may even be impossible at times. It may be easier to launch a new brand with a new positioning, than to change the well established positioning of a brand. <br />The single-minded message of a given campaign<br />Whilst most brands do have central “brand campaigns” that sell their unique positioning, most brands have specific campaigns to communicate specific things to consumers. These are tactical campaigns that change often, unlike the positioning of the brand that remains the same. <br /><ul><li>A car brand needs to communicate a new feature in their cars.
  8. 8. A furniture or grocery retailer needs to communicate a special offer.
  9. 9. A fashion brand needs to communicate their new range of clothing.
  10. 10. A mobile phone company needs to communicate a new value-added service or retail promotion. </li></ul>Clearly, the campaigns emanating from these companies will be driven by the specific messages they need to communicate. Yet, it must still be within the overall brand that is “speaking” to its market. This means the central positioning, brand values, brand character and pay-off line remains the same. <br />The reasons why<br />This refers to the supporting evidence for a brand being able to have a certain positioning. What credentials do the brand have in place that allow it to make such a claim?<br />For fast-moving-consumer-goods it may be that a detergent will wash cleanest because it has the highest active ingredient in its formulation. For retailers, it may be because they are large they can buy cheaply and pass this price on to consumers. For mobile phone companies, it may be that they can offer the best network quality because they have the best coverage. <br />Brand values<br />I find “brand values” to be one of the most confusing issues in brand strategy. <br />In single brand companies, it is likely that the values of the company will be similar to the values of the brand. In fact, it will be difficult for a given brand to portray certain values if they are not the same as those shared by the company. Company values often resonate in the aptitude and the kinds of products and services of the company. If the staff of a mobile phone company is not aligned with the values portrayed by the brand, it will be confusing for consumers. We can see how the Apple brand, as well as the Virgin brand, reflects and are in harmony with its founders. In fact, the design ethic that permeates all Apple products is integral to the way on which the company works. When this is the case, one can say the brand has inherent integrity: it is what it is. It cannot be anything else. <br />In Fortune of October 22, 2007, the CEO of Burberry, Angela Ahrendts, emphasizes the importance of being “British” as a differentiator for the fashion brand. She stated, “Our goal is not to be Hermės or Bottega Veneta. Britishness is so much a part of what we’re about – now let’s do that better than anyone in the world.” This statement acknowledges the degree to which company culture permeates the products it makes. <br />In most instances though, company and brand values are generic. All banks are “ethical”, with high levels of “trust”, with “integrity”, with a key emphasis on “relationships”. Amidst these words that are seemingly added at random, it is very difficult to sense any form of individuality or character. It is simply not possible for all companies to be identical, and if they are, it is unlikely that any one will have an advantage over another. This is the basis for product or service commoditization, where consumers will refuse to pay a premium for any given brand, as the offers in the category are all “the same”. <br />Whilst most banks are seen as generic today – hence commoditised - a bank like HSBC has leveraged the uniqueness of its global, yet multi-national, staff. Because of it working with staff who understands the local cultures as they themselves are from there, HSBC is able to be the “World’s local bank”, a unique positioning that enables global access through local empathy, insights, knowledge and networks. Juxtapose this against most other global banks, who are often “just another global bank” making the very same claims as every other one, i.e. “having global expertise”. <br />In multi-brand companies, brands within the same company can have different values, yet it is unlikely that a company with a given value system will launch a brand that is entirely contradictory to the company values. If a company makes quality products, or are innovative, this generally permeates everything they do. <br />Even when a company has “must have” values like “integrity”, it is important that it has differentiated values to, i.e. “to be a pioneer”. <br />The brand personality<br />The brand personality, many people will say, is the single most important way a brand differentiates itself. <br />The personality of a brand is no different from the personality of a person: it is the prevailing way a brand (or person) is. Personality is reflected in the way something looks, but most importantly, in the way it behaves. No two people are exactly the same, whilst they may look different, the biggest difference will often lie in the way they behave. <br />British Airways are clearly different from Virgin Atlantic. Both have very much the same value proposition to customers - safe global airlines that fly to many destinations daily with similar amenities on board. Both use the same hardware (planes/ airport facilities/ lounges) and software (entertainment/ seats/ food). Much of the difference lies in the kind of person the two brands are: BA is formal, conservative, rigorous, of stature – it uses royal blue as a significant colour in its livery, a conservative and formal colour - on the other hand, Virgin Atlantic is fun, frivolous, irreverent, and that is expressed in its name (being unusual for an airline), the way the name is written - and its colour (red is bold, impactful and cannot be ignored, it makes a statement). The personality of these two airlines encapsulates the reason why some people love, and others hate, one of them. Although some other aspects may differ between these brands, their personalities and resultant tonality, most differentiates them. Travelers will experience very different brands when choosing one or the other. <br />In the same way, Apple differs from Microsoft and Mercedes from Toyota. We can “feel” the differences between these brands. Similarly, even though Mercedes, BMW and Audi are all German, most people will agree their personalities differ a lot. <br />Yet, many brands are far less easy to depict in personality terms. This means the brand has far less “to work with” than a brand that is clearly differentiated. So even though it may be difficult to establish a clear personality for a brand, it is important to do so. <br />The brand essence<br />The “brand essence” encapsulates the single most differentiating characteristic of the brand. It is the hardest thing to decide – and the shorter it is, the better it is! If someone forgets everything else about the brand, this is the one element they must remember. <br />To site some examples I have reversed engineered, Apple is about “defying the conventional”; Bang & Olufsun is about “designed sound”; Swarovski is about “transformation” (as in “your life”, as in the way crystals appear and play with light and colour). Nike is “performance”, Rolex is “the confidence of being the best”. <br />The brand pay-off line – how should that relate to the brand positioning?<br />A pay-off line is the “short-hand” of the company positioning in a way that makes the consumer relate to it. When Nike says “Just do it”, it means the company gives the consumer an “edge” in their performance: by wearing Nike, it will bring out the best in you – albeit in attitude, self-belief or actual performance in sports - even when you “test yourself against yourself.” Apple uses the phrase “Think Different”, this is made tangible by the products the company makes - they are all tangible manifestations of the personality of the company. <br />Yet, some brands change their pay-off lines often. Ideally, this should not happen, the stronger a pay-off line connects with the positioning of the brand, the more enduring it will be. The ideal is to find a pay-off line that can give the brand continuity and which can consistently build the perception of the brand, from campaign to campaign. <br />Over-time, I have become less serious about pay-off lines: if you can get a really good one, it is great, but do not have a mediocre one because you believe you should have one - then rather do without it. A simple brand name and logo, with a clear positioning, is far more important than a pay-off line. If the pay-off line can add to this in a simple and memorable way, it is great. If not, it is counter productive. <br />Conclusion<br />It is important to clarify what a brand strategy is, and to ensure that it’s constituent parts are inter-connected. A dynamic and innovative brand cannot have a pedestrian positioning or personality, let alone pay-off line. There should be an internal logic about how these terms relate and interact. A brand strategy is a “whole” that is more than the sum of its parts. <br />A clear brand strategy is the guiding light for your brand: the stronger and clearer, the better. Work at it to get it better. Test it and test it again. Talk to others and make sure they understand it. Involve external parties if needed, often we are too close to our own brand and we start believing our own perceptions that may not be realistic. <br />Most importantly, make sure it is able to translate into communications and behaviour that sets your brand apart from others in its own product or service category.<br />A brand strategy must make a brand a compelling choice for consumers. <br />