Brand Strategy: Start with these 10 questions

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A “brand strategy” is essentially the framework around which a company makes decisions that impact how people think and feel about it. I often call it a “decision making filter” which is just as much about what a company shouldn’t do as what it should.

But where do you start to determine what your strategy should be? Here is my go-to list of 10 questions to kick off. If your company and its key decision-makers can articulate answers to these questions honestly and clearly, you’re well on your way.

  1. What does success look like? For all companies, success means profitability and probably some level of desirability among consumers. But scratch below the surface of any influential business and you’ll quickly recognise success means doing something to change the status quo. It might mean making makeup-artist-quality makeup available to everyone. It might mean making cycling the most popular sport in the world. It might mean generating enough money and influence to impact environmental politics. The first step in any brand strategy is to articulate what success looks like. It’s merely a descriptor of ‘the big goal’, your ambition as a business. This should be no longer than a short sentence.

  2. Why does success matter? Why does the world need a company like yours? Dig into why your specific kind of success matters. Without your company reaching its goal, what stays the same? Who loses? Understanding why success matters will tell you what your company’s “purpose” is. It should tell you what’s at stake. It should tell you that unless you fulfill your ambitions, the world will be worse off. For example, maybe if everyone has access to makeup-artist-quality makeup, they’ll feel better about themselves. Maybe if everyone rides a bike, they’ll be happier and suffer from less mental illness. Maybe if a clothing company can get big enough to influence environmental politics, they’ll be able to protect the very land, sea and air that keeps us alive and well. Don’t worry too much about the wording of this. It might sound long-winded and a bit academic. Nike’s statement of why success (“make everyone an athlete”) matters is famously “Because sport has the power to transcend societal discrimination.” Definitely not a tagline or a consumer-facing piece of copy. But it guides almost all of their brand behaviour.

  3. How do you define “the world”? The world is a big place, and likely too big. If the world needs a company like yours, what indeed is that world? Where is it? What community is it? It could potentially be a smaller community like “the art world” or “the agricultural community” or a larger world like “women” or “working class Americans” or “children”. But be clear on this. What is your world you want to have an impact on? For Hiut Denim, “the world” is really understood first and foremost as “the town of Cardigan, Wales”. This hyper-focus tells the company a lot about what really matters and what doesn’t.

  4. What group/type of people loses out most if your company doesn’t exist? There will be a very specific group of people who need your company to be successful more than others. It may be if your “world” is “the art world”, the people who miss out most are not really the collectors, but young/emerging artists who are struggling to get a break. Who really is going to benefit most from your success - what is your success going to unlock in their lives. Once this is clear, your greater sense of purpose will feel real, tangible, and human. If your purpose feels wooly and a bit generic, that’s probably because you don’t know who success matters most for. Define it.

  5. What does it say about a person when they use your brand of product or associate with you? Probably best to start where you are. If your company is already out there doing stuff, it already means something to someone. Figure out what using your product honestly reflects about them. This requires some research. Begin with the expectation your brand will mean something different to what you hope and think it does. Within the business, you’ve drunk the Kool-aid and while your brand might mean everything to you and make you feel proud, sexy, intelligent and design savvy, none of these may be true of how the rest of the world perceives your product and customers. Second, don’t be afraid of the truth. It will set you free. The truth may not be as glamorous as you’d like, but tapping into it is powerful. Third, your brand will say different things to different people. That’s inevitable because people aren’t all the same. But here you should be able to identify the most powerful group of people that think and feel something about your company, and what it is they’re thinking and feeling.

    Now what to do if no one knows you exist and no one knows/thinks/feels anything about you? Or what if what people think and feel is not good in any way and you just can’t find the positive? What do you really want them to think and feel? Maybe you want people in your world to feel like entrepreneurs? What if you want them to feel using your product makes them more environmentally friendly? What if you want them to feel they’re part of a creative community?

  6. What would have to be true of your company and brand for people to think, feel and talk about you in the way you want them to? These should inform your company’s guiding principles. What would your products have to look and feel like? Where would they have to be made and by whom? Where would you need to be, physically? What other companies and types of individuals would have to be associated with your brand? What initiatives might your organisation have to become involved in? What would your packaging need to communicate? What kinds of products and services would you have to offer? What expectations would you have to live up to? How can you make sure everything your company does is living up to your desired image and reputation?

  7. What is the most interesting and true thing about your business? What are the things your company is actually already doing? Which ones are most interesting to talk about? What aspects of your company - maybe it’s the people, the product, the location or impact it has on the local community, maybe it’s the founder or the factory it gets made in. One great way to answer this question is to ask key players in the company what makes them proud to work there. What stories do they share with people about their work? What stories can no other business in your category truthfully tell?

  8. What kind of people “get it” without have to be marketed to? Why do they get it? These are your “low hanging fruit” and potentially most loyal, “super-user” customers. Maybe they’ve been hacking an inelegant version of what you offer because they need it so badly. “Everyone should get it” is mistaken thinking. There’s something about your company or product that just resonates with a small, specific group of people without much marketing. Your task is to understand who they are and why they feel what they do. Is it the cultural group they’re a part of? Is it because of the look of the product? Is it because the founder resembles one of them? Is it because the company has simply solved a problem they experience profoundly? This is your bullseye target market because they will help translate the product for people who don’t automatically “get it”. Connect with these people in a meaningful way and they’ll help do your marketing for you.

  9. What is the most compelling aspect of why the company was originally founded? Founders’ stories can be interesting. Usually buried in a story of how and why a company was founded, you’ll find a compelling nugget that resonates with your target audience. Interview your founder (or get someone to interview you if the case may be). Look for epiphanies. Look for tensions and moments when the founders’ beliefs were challenged or confirmed. This origin-al story will help you clarify your brand’s ethical compass. After this “interview”, identify the points of alignment with your company’s purpose and ambition. These things, and the founder’s journey to unearth them, are your brand’s story. It’s tangible, it’s human, and it’s proveable.

  10. What sort of behaviour would challenge people’s expectations negatively and in what ways? This final question is among the most important. What might you do that confuses people? If you want your company to be known for the highest quality and innovation, what might the impact be from making cheap, copycat products? If you want to be known as “for the people”, what does it mean if you do a brand activity with someone who is perceived as a snob? If you want to be known for highest standards of social ethics, what happens if you exclude an ethnic or gender group? This is your bullshit check. Ask daily how your brand’s behaviour confirms or confuses your ideal image. Adjust accordingly.