Brand strategy returns to radical simplicity
Branding was born to make things simpler. A collection of clear signs, telling a focused story, replacing complicated explanation. It helps your audience recognise you, hire you, and understand what makes your company a better choice. It’s fundamental stuff. Hopefully, the right branding influenced the right brand perception. And, according to Keller’s definition of brand, your brand supports the creation of ‘a mental structure to clarify decision’.
Brand platforms were born to articulate the ideas driving your branding. Your team and your agencies could then understand what it was all about, so they can deliver on it. Create the communications that tell your story. Design experiences that deliver the promise.
But somewhere along the way, things went horribly wrong. As marketing professionals were working on making things clear, consistent and easy to use, for many companies things were getting complicated. It started with something positive – a wider recognition of the importance of brands.
As companies realised the strategic value of their brand, branding became ‘too important to leave it up to the marketing team’. At the outset, this was a positive development: C-suites became interested in branding and marketing, connecting it to business strategies, and HR departments saw the brand as an important tool in the war for talent and the cultivation of organisational cultures. Both groups were connecting the brand with corporate social responsibility programmes. Strong brand programmes were creating robust platforms that the whole organisation could get behind.
But worrying side effects were showing, which took some time to identify. As more stakeholders became involved, they called to put more meaning into the brand to make everyone happy. Brands are about meaning, but when large groups of stakeholders define the meaning of their organisation together, there’s a risk of things getting convoluted. The committee effect dulls the focus and clarity of the original intention. Agencies compounded this trend. While fighting to set their offerings apart from each other, agencies came up with a variety of methodologies, not equally valid. Then there's the regular churn of stakeholders and suppliers, each adding to the mix. Before you know it, simple propositions become Frankenstein’s Monsters.
Now a company didn’t only have a vision statement, mission, and values (a far from perfect framework to begin with), it felt compelled to add a purpose, a promise, and multiple propositions. Too often these were written as paragraphs of impenetrable and verbose strategic language authored by committees in workshops. As a result, they became hard to develop, to rally people around, and even tougher to execute. A frequent symptom was organisations repeatedly going back to the strategy – re-examining it as they are over-engineering it, with little energy left to execute it.
Brand portfolios didn’t escape complexity either. Portfolio proliferation has long plagued companies with diverse services, products, and activities. Stakeholders tend to create new brands for many good reasons: creating interest, establishing expertise, communicating complex offering, productising services (or turning products into services – the boundaries are more blurred than ever). All noble reasons. Unfortunately, for most scenarios, creating new brands is the wrong solution. Those objectives are almost always better addressed through creative marketing and market actions.
But change is coming, thanks to the wider effects of brand focused efforts. Branding introduced idea-led, integrated thinking into marketing departments. This approach proved essential in a world where everything is interconnected, and media is integrated by definition. Branding also became one of the key ways to outsmart a tough, post-crisis market, where outspending was no longer an option.
Brand platforms are being simplified. Vision, mission and values, are being replaced by a single, concise, brand narrative. Duplication is avoided when you realise that other narrative elements, such as Purpose, Promise, and Proposition clearly overlap. They simply offer different emphasis and you can generally choose the one right for your brand and forget about the others. While you’re at it, throw away any strange looking models, especially if their shape doesn’t contribute to their meaning and if they contain purely informative elements that belong better in your full brief document.
To simplify brand architecture, extend your master brand as long as it’s possible. The arguments to create sub-brands, whether endorsed by the master brand or not, are clear-cut and limited:
- If you’re introducing new audiences with conflicting values to your original ones
- If the new offering introduces attributes that conflict with your current ones
- If the endeavour is high risk to the degree that its failure might damage your overall brand equity
So what to do if your audiences are diverse, or if your range of services become much wider? In most cases, you will be better off evolving your communications to modulate across different audiences.
Markets will keep becoming more global, competitive and complex. We need to keep our tools simple to cut through that complexity. The standard over the next decade will be leaner, simpler, strategic models. Brand strategy is going back to its powerful fundamentals. Strong ideas, leading to unique creative execution, manifested through compelling actions. Ideas driving creativity, driving action.