Brand strategy: Know your onions

08 Feb 2023

A 2020 piece of research by Gartner rated brand strategy as the most in demand strategic skill by marketing leaders. More than analytics, digital commerce or media planning.

The notion of ‘in demand’ implies absence, but a quick Google or LinkedIn search will reveal a plethora of strategists, academics, consultants, and agencies, all ready to help.

This is a conundrum that has come up time and time again in client conversations we have been having at AAR. Whilst finding the right brand strategy partner is one of the busiest areas of our agency selection practice, such is the importance placed on brand strategy, we are also working with more clients than ever on internal structures and marketing ecosystem briefs to ensure their teams and agency partnerships are set up to successfully deliver any brand changes.

With so much demand and so many questions we thought it would be helpful to unpack the discussion; the big sticking points we are seeing in this space, and how to move forward.

An abundance of choice

The problem, it seems, starts with how broadly brand strategy is interpreted and approached by the marketing industry, both agency and client-side; from the very upstream world where brand strategy drives an entire P&L, through to thinking that it’s arguably more about communications and branding.

When it comes to a client’s prospective agency partners there are an overwhelming number of options, from purist brand consultancies through to creative agencies, and from big management consultancies through to smaller consultancies who specialise in areas such as sustainability or inclusivity. As if to compound the problem, how they approach brand strategy differs wildly. 

Given how in demand and vital brand strategy appears to be, this lack of singularity seems to be fuelling the confusion. 

At AAR we have two simple rules of thumb we use to guide our clients:

  1. A brand strategy is only a brand strategy if it informs commercial - not just communications - decisions. 
  2. Just because someone says they can do brand strategy, don’t assume they can do the brand strategy your organisation needs. Invest in the time to find the right partners. 

Commercial first, communications second 

As Steve Forbes said ‘Your brand is the single most important investment you can make in your business’. If marketers want to gain or retain a seat in the boardroom then brand strategy must be in sync with all aspects of business strategy, informing commercial, operational and customer decisions and, yes, ultimately in all communications, too.  

Brand strategy can show up in decisions that put purpose before profit, as per the well-cited example of Patagonia transferring all profits into a trust to fight the climate emergency, through to choices and ideas that transform fortunes and categories, like Starbucks whose brand purpose of ‘one person, one cup, one neighbourhood’ led them create a third space between home and work, personalising every order with a customer’s name and investing in well trained baristas, or partners. 

In a similar vein we have recently been speaking a lot about ‘Creative Capital’: the importance of organisations embracing creativity as a culture and mindset, not just outputs like communications, as a way to drive commercial advantage. In many ways this is a different way into the same point; that brand strategy, like creativity, must be seen first and foremost as a business lever. Once this approach is locked in, the next step is to create the right conditions across the entire marketing ecosystem for these vital levers to flourish.

Together we go further

None of this is easy. We know from decades of experience that brand strategy success relies on activating the often-delicate ecosystem of partners, agencies, internal relationships, structures and capabilities.

We see brand strategy as an undertaking with two distinct but interdependent parts.

Part 1: Talk to the right types of partner agencies

As touched upon earlier, there are lot of different agencies and consultancies out there purporting to do a version of ‘brand strategy’ - from purists to generalists, and specialist consultancies to full service creative agencies - all coming at it from valid but ultimately different angles. 

Getting to the right type of partner or partners requires a crystal-clear understanding of the problem you are trying to solve.

Are you facing into seismic brand challenges that are adversely impacting your bottom line and require a radical re-think and potential re-brand? Or is it less dramatic and more a case of refreshing your brand strategy to feel more relevant and contemporary to your customers? Or perhaps you have recently completed a merger or acquisition and need to revisit brand strategy and architecture? 

It may be that you need to refresh your brand and product portfolio at the same time, in which case you may need a specialist brand strategy consultancy and product innovation agency to work hand in glove.

Or it could be a case that your problem can be solved with a simple refresh of your brand architecture, branding, and creative, in which case getting a brand design agency to partner with your creative agencies may well be enough.

Having a strong understanding of this and the overall health of your brand is key in knowing which agency partners to bring on board and how to manage that ecosystem with your other partners and in-house teams.   

Part 2: Get your house in order 

Whilst getting the right partners on board is critical, it’s only half the job. An agency or consultancy can deliver brilliant, fortune-making brand strategy but its meaningless until it makes the leap from PowerPoint to reality.

Any new brand strategy, big or small, requires support beyond marketing, in the boardroom and at the coalface, from the CFO signing off budgets to the operational and customer facing teams who will be delivering the real-world experience of brand strategy.

With buy-in in place, it's then about designing and activating the right marketing ecosystem, and by ecosystem we mean everything; from culture to talent, to what’s in-house vs out-sourced with partners, through to the technology you may need.

Ultimately, as a marketing or brand team you want to be brand fixers not brand police, inspiring and equipping your organisation to unleash your brand strategy to maximum effect for the benefit of all, from shareholders to customers and colleagues.

Being successful brand fixers means having the right capabilities and ways of working in place. Do you have the expertise to get the best out of external partners and influence across your organisation? Are you working in a way that sequences the critical decisions and outcomes you need to get you from brand theory to practice? Do you require a workflow or asset management system to get things done? These are the sorts of questions we work through with our clients when we talk about marketing ecosystem design. Once it’s set up, just like your brand health, it's critical to regularly measure the performance of this ecosystem.

In summary, your brand strategy is too vital to end up in the wrong hands or mistakenly relegated to a communications task. It requires the right partners, people and processes for the job. Knowing this is knowing your brand strategy onions.

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Victoria Fox


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