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The truth about brand strategy

With as many views on what brand is as there are…  brands, Steve Cook, Head Of Strategy and Planning at Marketing Team Direct explores the truth and how to benefit from it.

The last 25 years have been fascinating. The growth in brand understanding, practice and exploration has taken the subject from art to science, from marketing function to boardroom policy and from image change to shareholder value. The last few years has seen an acceleration in brand science and sophisticated brand strategy development – enabled by technology shift, data acquisition and interrogation, and, let’s be brutally honest, the need for businesses to transform fundamentally in order to survive and thrive.


And yet, there are still businesses that consider brand as an image, positioning, sales and marketing tool – something distinct and separate from the rest of their organisations infrastructure, operations and business strategies. These businesses consider brand as a cost (a bit like marketing) rather than an organisation wide investment in their conduct, operation, offers and future. As a consequence, they never realise the true value of embarking on brand development as central to business strategy and planning.


It would be easy to assume that B2B brands have been slower to adopt a sophisticated approach to serious brand development than their B2C counterparts. This may be true from an overtly image, marketing, channel and consumer experience perspective, and it has certainly been true in the last few years as Lead Generation and sales support activity have been the priority. However, as Joel Harrison brought into focus in last month’s editorial, focusing on lead generation alone is being increasingly seen as a dry well, and savvy businesses are returning to a focus on their brand. It is the best B2B organisations that have most rapidly understood, and begun to utilise brand strategy as a fundamental business strategy - for their longer term transformation, marketing, operations and financial benefit


Simply put, brand is 'what people think of us'. Brand strategy is, and always has been, about growing and maintaining business equity (What people think of us) in the minds of an organisations whole audience base. This can only be nurtured if the entire business is driving towards this end state.


For this to be truly affected, 2 essentials need to be in place -


1) Brand development has to be routed in authentic, real and sustainable profound TRUTH. Truth that is constantly and continuously portrayed inside and outside the business, and remains what truth should be - believable and highly emotive.


For this truth to be profound, defined and continuously delivered, a business needs to look in on itself. Too many businesses have confused brand development with marketing activity and as a result, have defined brand strategy based on customer and audience need. As with any other profound truth, brand can only be discovered on the inside, not in the perceptions of others.


2) Brand strategy has to not only have the advocacy of business leadership, it has to be owned by it in order to ensure that every aspect of business (brand) conduct, decision making, operation and offer delivers against this profound truth - hence the argument that brand strategy is business strategy - to be managed and maintained with the same levels of rigour, care, long term planning and investment. In fact, as David Wheldon has recently stated 'brand should be the primary focus of C Suite and leadership teams... and all other decisions stem from this recognition'.


With these essentials embedded in the psyche and culture of a business (and I don't mean the development of internal comms drives and brand guidelines), brand can contribute to business transformation and growth in many fundamental ways, some immediately apparent, others less so.


We live in what B2C organisations have long understood as being a transparent world. Anything other than continuously reinforced truth will be discovered and exposed by empowered and information rich customers and audiences. By association, truth, when properly identified and communicated, will gain deeper trust from cynical and time poor audiences. This gain of trust, once won, needs to be carefully maintained and built on, but will ultimately yield greater rewards, more effective sales and marketing outcomes (including lead generation) and more deep rooted internal stakeholder advocacy and adherence.


If a business subscribes to the ideas shared here, it will ensure that all decisions are driven towards gaining greater rewards by continuously reinforcing truth. Business acquisitions and mergers, corporate governance, reputation management, transformation strategy, regional development, recruitment and talent nurturing, shareholder activity, technology investment, financial management, in fact every business activity, will be geared towards this.


In recent times, brand has become a dirty word, an even an ‘unnecessary cost’ and something that gets in the way of marketing speed, automation, tactical relevance and much else. Recent thinking has recognised that, although owned in many businesses by marketing teams, brand has a wider impact and remit. 'total marketing' and 'the marketing organisation' are buzz phrases designed to broaden brands remit across a business without upsetting the marketing status quo. Surely, it is now time to reinstate brand as the central business strategy that it's always been rather than simply marketing 'fluff'. If you are a marketer with brand responsibility, isn't it time you ensured that your 'total marketing organisation' supported you more fully? After all, Brand strategy, when properly engaged with, is about as far from being fluffy as you can get - and that's the essential truth.