It’s easy to say that strategy is important, another thing entirely to implement it the right way. If I just say the phrase “brand strategy,” you’ll probably assume it’s important, even knowing nothing about brand, strategy, or brand strategy. But you can’t just clap your hands, say “strategy,” and assume things are going to work out.
So how does one develop a brand strategy? What do you need to succeed? And why exactly should you care in the first place?
What is a brand strategy?
Put briefly, a brand strategy is simply a strategy that dictates how your brand will be presented in the marketplace; where you’ll show up, how you’ll sound there, and what you’ll look like. It’s a plan built around maximizing the long-term health and performance of your brand while leaving room for smart and effective short-term tactical moves that mean your brand works today, tomorrow, and a year from now.
Why do you need a brand strategy?
Your brand touches everything in your business. That’s not just “every part of your marketing”; when I say “everything” I mean it. Your brand should be a part of whatever outward-facing media you create, sure, but it should also be a part of how your coworkers deal with each other. It should be a consideration when you make strategic decisions about the business as a whole, like whether or not to merge with a competitor or whether this is the year you try to double growth. That’s because your brand doesn’t just represent what you want to show your prospects. It represents who you really are, which means that decisions that don’t fit your brand don’t fit what’s right for your business.
Obviously, then, that means the things you choose to do with your brand cannot be haphazard or done on an ad-hoc basis. You can’t just randomly change things, wildly swing from tactic to tactic to try to fill short-term gaps. A strong brand requires consistency, or else it really isn’t a brand at all. And consistency requires planning, and strategy.
So how do you create that strategy?
How do you develop a brand strategy?
Your brand strategy is different from some other parts of your marketing strategy in that it’s a little bit more tangible. Once your brand strategy is developed, you’re going to see it in the form of a lot of pieces that you can immediately start to implement in the marketplace. That said, there is some critical pre-work that’s a must when you’re developing a brand strategy.
Separate short-term brand wins from long-term goals
Everyone wants results. Many want them now. And in some cases, when it comes to your marketing, you can find short-term wins with relatively little risk to your long-term goals. Trying something new in your paid media setup, for instance, isn’t necessarily going to affect the rest of your paid media efforts forever. But when it comes to your brand, making quick changes to boost performance now—without thinking about the future consequences of such a move—could lead to issues down the road.
For example, think about a midsize local business. It’s been a staple of the community for decades, passing from parent to child for several generations. The business’ name is the family name, and always has been. But let’s say a trend emerges that moves away from family names in businesses. It might be tempting to follow that trend and totally rebrand that business. But will the trend last forever? Is it in that business’ best interest to toss aside decades of brand awareness in your marketplace to capitalize on what could very well simply be a fad?
This is something of an extreme example, but it shows the point. Following what’s cool today doesn’t always mean success for your brand. There are risks, even if you do see a boost in the short term. So while you don’t want to sacrifice results now for success down the road, you also can’t just ignore your future to win today. You have to balance between the two, always, to make sure you win today, tomorrow, and five years from now.
Brand research means no guesswork
When you’re strategizing, you don’t really have room for much error. That’s not to say that you need to fret over every single decision—just that you shouldn’t wing it. Do what you can to make sure you’re operating from a place of knowledge, and making smart strategic decisions that are based on that knowledge rather than your gut. That means one of the most important things you can do during the process of building your brand strategy is research.
There are two important overarching things you’ll learn from brand research. First, what does the external community—your prospects, clients, customers, competitors, etc.—think of your brand? How do they feel now, and how are they going to feel in the future? Second, what about your internal community—your employees, your business stakeholders, the CEO, and investors?
To know what direction you want to take your brand strategy, you need to know where it stands today, and what is and isn’t working. And even if you’re an expert on your brand—actually, sometimes especially if you are—it’s important to get a different angle on things. You’re only seeing it from your perspective, but you’re not your audience. And if you’re used to things as they are, it might not even occur to you that things could be different.
There’s a lot of different ways you can get the information you need. Surveys allow you to get a lot of surface-level information from a large group quickly. Interviews take more time and effort, but you’re going to be able to get into a lot more depth and detail. Focus groups can give you some of the best of both worlds, as you can get multiple perspectives at once without sacrificing depth. Digital analysis can show you competitors you didn’t even know you were competing against.
What do you get out of this? Insight into every part of your brand. You can do competitive analysis, determining who you’re actually competing against and what they’re doing—as well as what gaps exist in the marketplace. You can audit your own communications to learn all the same things about the marketing you’re already doing. And you’ll gain valuable insight into your brand’s perception, awareness, and associations.
With all this done and the information in hand, you’re set up very nicely to build a brand strategy that’s going to work for you.
Build up the pillars of your brand
Now that you know what you have and what you need, it’s time to plan the ways in which you’ll execute. First of all, you’re going to need to think about your goals. What is it you want your brand to do for you? Where do you want to expand, where are you willing to pull back? Obviously, it’s important to base these goals around what you want for the business as a whole. If you’re taking a year to enhance your processes and prepare for scaled growth, you shouldn’t set brand goals that involve massive growth today. Once again, your brand’s the foundation for your business as a whole. It can’t just be off doing its own thing—everything your brand does has to serve the overarching business strategy.
Once you define goals, you can (finally) start the process of thinking through how you can shape your brand to meet them. A lot of this is going to fall under the umbrella of defining your brand identity—building out the positioning, promise, personality, purpose, and expression of your brand. Things like whether or not you should make changes to your logo or name, deciding whether your color palette needs an update, and thinking about ways you might refresh or update your website’s design all go into this. The answer might be minor tweaks, but mostly staying the course with your existing successful brand strategy. Or it might be a total rebranding process.
One way or the other, if you’re thinking about your business’ goals, what your competitors are doing and where there are gaps, and balancing short- and long-term wins, your brand strategy is likely to be a success.
Measure twice, cut once.
Your brand isn’t something you can treat frivolously. It’s critical to think before you leap. Strategize, plan for the long game. It’s the best way to make sure you minimize mistakes, and maximize the return on your brand investment. So follow your brand strategy process, and keep all these things in mind while you strategize. It’s the best route to a strong brand that moves your business in the direction you want.
Thomas fills a few roles at E3—writer, editor, and resident European soccer expert—but his chief responsibility is content creation. When he's not crafting thoughtful content for the Element Three blog, he's captaining our kickball team, watching the Mets, or talking up Indianapolis to anyone who will listen.
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