Big Questions and Meaningful Answers
This world is a fast-evolving one. Powerful concepts in essence get diluted daily. Considering how easy it is to share self-taught knowledge these days, it’s no wonder it’s getting harder and harder to keep a vast encompassing concept such as “Brand”… on-brand.
An ever-evolving subject matter, vulnerable to major technology-induced disruption, Marketing has actually become a playground for School-of-Hard-Knocks alumni and self-proclaimed gurus.
The Brand space is no different.
As Brand is clearly continuing to make a strong case for one of the most important functions of any company’s business strategy, floods of newcomers, pivoting creatives, and marketers are trying to seize a piece of the cake. And they all come equipped with their own definition.
The more people enter the field, and the fewer official definitions of the concept of Brand, the murkier and fluffier it’ll get.
This essay discusses the concept of brand and the confusion between brand strategy and brand communications. It explains how to think about strategically building a strong brand. Finally, it explores why, in this hyper-competitive era, building a brand might be the one thing that moves the needle in the right direction for your business and your legacy.
One crucial distinction
In short, your brand is your essence and your brand strategy helps define it. We’ve all heard it before. We’ve all seemed to accept this. Yet, not everyone agrees on how to go about it.
As we move to establish shared knowledge about what brand strategy is and what it can do for you, one thing needs to be clear: each individual will tackle the concept from a different angle, based on their own reality, and past experience.
A copywriter-turned-brand-strategist might have a strong attachment to making Brand be all about website content, social media posts, and print ads. The brand strategy will then heavily focus on verbal expressions.
For a designer-turned-brand-strategist, the idea might be related to a logo, fonts, colors, and… design. Her form of brand strategy will often take on the visual expressions of the brand.
Those two examples are the most commonly misused definitions of what brand strategy is about. They represent the issue the entire branch is now facing when it comes to educating and elevating business owners.
While both of these examples are integral parts of your brand strategy, you can’t let that be all.
What these truly are concerned with is actually brand communications or messaging; a small part of the entire brand-building process that can only happen at later stages for it to be truly relevant.
A lot of Brand Strategists out there are actually portrayed as such when, in reality, they are Brand Communications Specialists.
Now, let’s make something clear: there is nothing wrong with being a Brand Communications Specialist, or asking for help on the brand communications front.
Seeing people use the terms “brand strategy”’ and “brand communications” interchangeably does tend to become irritating, though. So let’s settle this…
Brand strategy is the groundwork for everything that follows. It sets the essence of who you are, what you do, and where you’re going. It also gives strategic and creative directions on all levels of the organization. It is the foundation for everything else.
Brand communications is a function of the brand strategy. It only comes in at the later stages of the strategic brand-building process. It is concerned with expressing the brand and its strategy in a coherent and efficient way.
Very simply put…
Brand strategy articulates a meaningful, differentiated idea and establishes directions. It is brand.
Brand communications learns from it and expresses it accordingly. It is branding.
Why you should care
While so many dilute their message with buzzwords and fill their communications with unnecessary fluff, using the right word at the right time can be a real differentiator in itself.
Using only the essentials shows how aligned an organization is with its identity and what makes them unique. It is a clear indicator of someone who is in command of the perception they’re trying to create.
By asking big questions and finding meaningful answers, brand strategy creates this clarity, which in turn creates opportunities for growth, differentiation and more money—three outcomes closely related to your business success or failure.
A sound brand strategy creates a resilient organization, made up of highly motivated members on all levels, unfazed by trendy aesthetics or messaging. It creates a business whose only concerns are defining and expanding on a truly unique, differentiated, and highly relevant idea.
Once again, the difference between brand strategy and brand communications comes into play.
Brand strategy’s main concern is finding out ways to be and do different.
Brand communications’ mission is to come up with words, images, symbols and stories aligned with this difference.
To reach a high level of clarity and more opportunities for impact and growth, the strategy must happen before tactics such as product messaging and web design do.
Big questions and meaningful answers
When you work on your brand strategy, whether with the help of an agency or not, your first, second, and third goal is to uncover how you can be and do different things differently.
Strategic and creative thinking are at the center of the brand-building process. Together, they help extract one single truth your business is built upon: your uniqueness.
Your uniqueness is an idea that is relevant, differentiated, and meaningful to you and your ideal customers. It’s the one thing that will stimulate business growth and deliver what any savvy business owner strives for: differentiation. This will in turn lead to better customers, simpler processes, more impact, and more growth.
When all is said and done, what uniqueness provides is an opportunity to become the only choice –a highly sought-after position.
Finding this unique idea —one that is closely tied to your identity— involves a lot of thinking, but also a very strong understanding of human behavior, common knowledge, symbols, and what they mean to people.
By digging deep into your company’s shared experience, examining your current competitive situation, and researching your customers, one single truth will start to take shape.
Uniqueness and meaningful differentiation don’t just happen with ideas, though. Once you find that single meaningful idea, it’s time to work on how to express it.
This takes a lot of prototyping, iteration, revision rounds, and testing in the field. It requires a lot of creativity to find the exact words that need to be said to express this idea. Not the fluff and buzzwordy content and stories ordinary brands tell each other daily.
To create an impactful and meaningful organization –one that will stand the test of constant market evolution– the entire business needs to align on its unique idea. Once again, as important as stories and visuals are, brand strategy is not about just saying things differently, it’s about being and doing things differently first.
This means evaluating what each business unit brings to the table, how they operate, and how every department creates tremendous brand value in the eyes of the only ones that matter: your customers.
Every department needs to pull its weight. Sales, product and design teams, HR, customer service, and any other business unit needs to participate in expressing the brand value and enhancing its perception.
Without the alignment of all teams and leadership around the uniqueness of the organization, without a crystal-clear focus on how to create value with this idea, and without systems put into place to bring the idea to life, true differentiation will not happen.
And all efforts to say you’re different will be lost in the cacophony that is brand communications, messaging, and advertising.
Towards a more strategic future
The 1960s Mad Men days are over. Hiring doctors to tell audiences that they themselves smoke cigarettes to persuade and sell more are gone. Nowadays, an organization that hides its mundanity with misaligned stories and images is bound to fail.
For an organization to find success and growth, strategy has to happen before anyone can even begin to think about brand communications tactics.
Building an impactful brand and business requires patience and critical thinking grounded in reality to align on a strong foundation. It needs creativity to find a truly unique and meaningful idea. It demands discipline to execute and express its total value with all aspects of the organization.
Only with strategy first can we then build meaningful, overarching stories and communications concepts to expand our differentiated position.
Brand strategy starts and ends with thinking really hard about big questions and finding meaningful answers.
Without it, there can be no clarity on how to become the only choice.