Updated: May 11, 2022
If you work in the marketing and advertising industry you know that one of the big issues is the numerous buzz words used and the general lack of agreed upon definitions.
When I first started working in a marketing communications agency after completing my certification in marketing, advertising and public relations I was immediately struck by how nothing was as clear cut and defined in practice as the text books laid it out.
In particular, whenever the word strategy was used, it often seemed to reference specific tactical activities rather than a broad approach to achieving a goal. And then of course there were all the various meanings of the word “brand” from a symbol to a “promise” to a “perception”.
Clearly then, putting the two together brand + strategy meant trying to unravel a complex, almost incomprehensible pairing.
Read on and I'll show you that it's essentially about setting a course of difference for your brand, why that's important and what's involved to implement. But first...
Brand and strategy are intangible
I’ve finally understood why both "brand" and "strategy" can be so hard to pin down. It’s because they both refer to intangibles. They however, yield many tangibles that represent them. And in error, we often assign the tangible things to the intangible meaning behind them.
Origin of “Strategy” and it’s modern business application
Let’s start with “strategy” to demonstrate this point.
The word has military roots. Its origin is attributed by Oxford Languages (via Google) to the Greek word “strategia” meaning “generalship”. “Strategia” derives from “strategos” which itself came from two words “stratos” meaning “army” and “agein” meaning “to lead”.
According to etymonline.com by the 19th century the word “stratégie” was used in France to mean “art of a general” and by 1887 it came to wider use outside of the military.
If we stick to the military for a bit we know that the general is the highest ranking officer, the leader who has purview of all the resources of the army, seeks to understand the enemy and their resources and determines how his side may win in war and maintain an advantage during peace.
“Strategy is the judgment that precedes activity.”
Judgement is of course intangible. His overall definition states,
“Strategy is the purposeful orientation toward success in a complex, competitive conflict.”
This is where the crossover into the business world comes, in that markets are complex competitive environments where commercial entities seek advantage to win customers.
“Strategy is the intelligent allocation of resources through a unique system of activities to achieve a goal.”
Neither "purposeful orientation toward success" nor "intelligent allocation of resources" can be touched.
As Horwath noted,
“Strategy is abstract like leadership or love—you can’t reach out and touch it. Tactics on the other hand tend to be more tangible.”
Origin of “brand” and its modern business application
"fire, flame, destruction by fire; firebrand, piece of burning wood, torch," and later in the 1800s "mark made by a hot iron" (1550s), especially on a cask, etc., to identify the maker or quality of its contents.”
We can see from this reference how the definition of the word evolved and became more symbolic over time. From the fire to the burning wood to the mark made by a hot iron to what the mark signified.
The mark embodied meaning like origin, ownership, identity, and essentially, difference; all intangibles that would still have to be interpreted and understood by anyone seeing or touching (experiencing) the mark.
Applying this to modern business we could say that a brand is about the meaning behind and the experience of a company, product, service, person or their marks (design elements). These meanings and experiences signify their difference from others in the market.
What brand strategy is: putting it all together
If we put it all together to get a reasonable meaning for brand strategy, I’d say that it is simply,
Let's look at another definition. In an episode of the Brand Master Podcast with host Stephen Houragan, Marty Neumeier the well-known author, brand practitioner, speaker and entrepreneur defines brand strategy as:
“A long-term plan to outmanoeuvre competitors through radical differentiation.”
He notes that companies “underestimate how much difference you really need to make it clear to customers that you really are different.” This is why, In his estimation, aiming for radical differentiation is the only way to appear even a little different from competitors to consumers. [watch 5:53 - 7:53 of the podcast episode for this discussion]
What I like about his definition is that it concisely captures the relevance of brand building efforts to a business, especially a for-profit business, that is, “to outmanoeuvre competitors”.
A Brand Strategy isn’t static
What I’d want to clarify about Neumeier’s definition is that a long-term plan doesn’t mean a document that is developed once and remains static. That would never work in a changing market environment.
A brand strategy does however set some anchors for the brand that will endure over the long-term to cement its difference, its identity, over time.
Setting Anchors for the brand
These anchors should answer some questions that will set the course for the brand over time,
Who are we and what are we like?
Why do we exist?
How are we different from the competition and why does that matter to the people we aim to attract and serve. Essentially, what is our unique value to those people?
Where are we headed and how will we get there?
You’ll often see the answers to these questions equated to different brand statements,
Where are we headed? → Vision Statement
How will we get there? → Mission statement
Who are we and what are we like? → Brand story, brand values, brand personality
What is our unique value in comparison to competitors? → Brand positioning statement
Why do we exist? → Brand purpose
Sarah Robb of brandstrategysarah.com is an excellent resource for making an approach to brand strategy clear. Her seven-step system as outlined in her free brand strategy fundamentals mini-course is about answering 4 similar questions through the lenses of the customer, the competitors and the company then setting the brand’s course.
The 4 questions are:
Why - does your business exist?
Who - are you as a person or group of people representing this brand?
How - do you do things and how do you look, feel and sound?
What - What do you do?
Why brand strategy is important
Where there is intense competition there is always the temptation to lower prices to compete. This isn’t beneficial unless a business’ cost structure is specifically developed for low price offers over time.
Where that is not the case, achieving “radical differentiation” allows a business to fetch the best prices for its products or services. In this ideal situation targeted consumers will perceive its offers as far more valuable to their cause, needs or lifestyle than competing alternatives.
Well-known global brands like Apple and Starbucks are great examples of this, but businesses at any level can start to achieve this with a focused course, brand anchors and management that is committed to both.
Implementing brand strategy is about tough choices
The real strategy is in the implementation. That’s the dynamic process of shifting and changing while staying true to the anchors.
A brand-forward business will use the brand anchors to guide its communication, refine its hiring practices, develop its products or services, deliver customer care, build stakeholder relationships, pursue legal and regulatory compliance and a host of other areas required in day-to-day operations.
This process will mean aggressively eliminating actions that are not sharply focused on the brand anchors and the long-term goal of who the business wants to be known as and what it wants to be known for.
As Steve Jobs explained at a 1997 Worldwide Developers Conference (video clip)
“Focussing is about saying no. And the result of that focus is gonna be some really great products where the total is much greater than the sum of the parts.”
He was noting that Apple was focused on making great products and that meant eliminating attention to many good ideas in pursuit of a few highly relevant ideas.
This is perhaps the best guidance for any strategist.