Step into the world of nuanced ronins
So, you decided your company needed help from a Brand Strategist.
While looking for your guy or girl, you found an innumerable amount of options. Brand strategy being in a complete boom right now, there’s nothing surprising so far.
What surprised you a little more is after finally picking someone, you discovered that most of the work had to do with communications, copy, or visuals —or a combination of those.
The actual strategic part of it, where you research, discuss, and iterate, felt rushed. That’s normal if it all happened with a quick 30-minute interview over the phone.
Here’s some news for you: you’ve been working with a Communications Specialist, not a Brand Strategist.
In this essay, we’ll paint a picture of what we think a Brand Strategist looks like. We’ll cover how you can make sure you’re hiring the right person for the right things. We’ll establish what we think separates the best Brand Strategists from the rest. And we’ll take a closer look at the one single skill that can bring your business to new heights.
Let’s just start by saying that, as we noted in our essay on the true role of brand strategy, there’s nothing wrong with hiring a Communications Specialist. Most companies do need help figuring out how to say the things they want to say, and how to design them.
But, don’t be surprised if the work doesn’t feel transcending or doesn’t challenge you and your teams’ beliefs. Because you’re not working on the alignment of your entire business around one differentiated and relevant idea. And that’s because it’s simply not part of a Communications Specialist’s toolbox.
Again, nothing wrong with it. We need specialists to deliver great work when and where it’s needed.
The issue with this whole misunderstanding, though? Your guy probably charged you double, just because they called themselves a Brand Strategist instead of, say, a Copywriter.
Now of course, some Copywriters out there are earning more than Brand Strategists. Obviously, this relates to unmatched skills in communicating their value, doing work of immense quality, and delivering results that go way beyond expectations —three things that actually matter when discussing fair pay.
In a way, our con artist actually took something from the brand mastery playbook and applied it to their own business. By calling themselves a “strategist” instead of a writer, they probably succeeded in positively elevating the perception of their services and qualities. Hats off to them.
Few would argue against the fact that a brand strategist commands a bit more money in today’s marketplace than the average copywriter does (for the ones who do, check out PayScale’s latest average US salaries between copywriters and strategists).
These are the signs
To never get caught in such a sticky situation, you need to pay attention to some crucial things when looking for outside help. Some of the things you’ll hear and discuss during your conversations will help you know exactly who you’re dealing with.
If all you hear about is copy, messaging, fonts, headlines, or even websites, you’re probably talking to a Communications Specialist.
On the other hand, if most of the conversation is spent evaluating your current situation and then discussing your needs in terms of revenue, profit, margins —in other words, how to turn your brand into a money-making machine, chances are you’re talking with a Brand Strategist.
Always remember that brand strategy is the customer-facing side of your business strategy. As such, they need to support and promote one another. It’s a company thing in its entirety. Talks about impact, influence, and money need to happen –not just marcomm stuff (marketing and communications).
And if you’re still not sure, just remember this one thing:
Brand ain’t fluff. If it feels like it, you’re probably talking with the wrong person.
Enter: the 20%
In brand strategy, there’s a unique club that only a few reach. Some call it the 1%. Probably because it sounds more exclusive and fancier.
In reality, with knowledge being shared, taught, and applied, it’s probably fair for the entire industry—and to our peers— to think more like 20%.
Twenty out of a hundred. That’s the number of Brand Strategists who actually do relevant strategic brand work out there –a.k.a. work that truly moves the needle and creates bigger impact and more revenue for your business.
Granted, some actually do hardcore strategic brand-building, but their talents and hard work are barely recognized. More often than not, because clients butcher their work, don’t follow their recommendations, or only care about communications to begin with. Cough, cough, dealing with any of those is no fun whatsoever.
Being able to recognize this hardworking crew and their contribution then becomes essential in determining the success or failure of your endeavor for more clarity, focus, impact and, ultimately, money.
The following sections explain what to look for in a brand strategist.
The soft skills
Or, what does the 20% HAVE that the 80% doesn’t have?
Brand strategy demands meaningful answers to big questions. And it demands it from every department, not just your marketing and sales.
As such, it is absolutely essential that, before you engage in any brand-building project, you (1) gather a good portion of your leaders for it and (2) get buy-in from them. The top 20% does just that.
Once everyone is sitting at the table, confident in how this initiative will help them, your hired gun should lead the group from a higher ground. Without a master, your Strategic Consultant bounces egos at the door and keeps office politics and personal agendas in check –hopefully without too much friction.
All-the-while, your Consultant should provide a safe space for everyone to share their opinion and accept course correction and harsh criticism of their own work.
One of the most crucial aspects of the job, though, comes from aligning –and realigning– everyone on the task at hand. Open-ended questions loaded with meaning easily get people talking. This is all part of the plan.
A high-level Brand Strategist never shies away from refocusing your conversations, though. Just like they won’t have any issue reframing something to unlock more insight from a new point of view —but more on that later.
The hard skills
Or, what does the 20% DO that the 80% doesn’t do?
In every step of the brand-building process, the top 20% brings out a very specific set of hard skills: research, interview, data collection and analysis.
Depending on their background, they’ll also bring tangible skills like turning your idea into a story for your website, writing high-impact copy for a landing page, or designing images and symbols for the visual expression of your brand.
Whether you’re launching a new company, looking to get your business out of neutral, or reinventing your brand, there are things a top Brand Strategist will want to develop and define with you. And as the masterless, nuanced rebels they are, they’ll rarely compromise about them.
The main goal will be to help you articulate how and why you are and do different. Way before you even think about saying you’re different.
In other words, the mission for your Brand Strategist will be to define what’s the differentiated idea that sits at the core of your business. Your essence or uniqueness.
To reach a newfound wisdom, you’ll start by evaluating your current situation. Multiple perspectives can help shine a light here. The ones who typically serve you the best are that of your customer, your market, and yourself.
In the early phases of brand-building, a Brand Strategist’s research skills will be extremely helpful to deliver actionable insights and uncover opportunities for growth.
By analyzing your current situation, you should be able to discover a sweet spot of opportunity for you and your business.
Once this opportunity for growth is more clearly defined, you’ll all dive deeper into what makes your brand unique. No one path looks exactly the same. Yet, we believe that strategically building a brand can’t be successfully done without going through the following steps:
- Discussing your mission and purpose beyond making money.
- Defining brand values and training your team to live them.
- Aligning everyone on the differentiated idea your business is built upon.
- Communicating this newfound wisdom, vision, and direction.
- Creating tangible ways to express this idea through assets and channels.
- Prototyping with all senses to create a unique brand experience.
- Driving positive change throughout the organization.
If clarity already exists in knowing your purpose beyond making money, then exploring other concepts can become interesting as well. By being unapologetic about what still needs work and what can be laid to rest, sound Brand Strategists once again separate themselves from the rest.
Overall, the top 20% goes beyond messaging and communication tactics.
High-level brand strategy is more concerned with uncovering opportunities for growth and fully taking advantage of them. As you well know, these can be found in your marketing department, but there is often untapped potential at every level of the organization.
The ultimate brand-building skill
On the quest to work with a high-level Brand Strategist, look for one underrated skill. A trait that reigns supreme in bringing businesses to new heights. A mix of hard and soft skill, it definitely entrenches its owner in the top 20%.
That skill is reframing.
When you look at a question and put it under a different perspective, you get to uncover numerous insights. It often leads to new data, new insights, and new solutions.
Yet, with today’s world being slowly devoured by noise and truisms, the ability to switch one’s vantage point on a crucial issue or bring said issue under a new light seems to become a lost art.
That is precisely why the best Brand Strategists set up workshops and pick multiple brains. Founder, C-suite, sales, marketing, customer service, product, HR are among the most sought-after opinions. Each member will bring their own background, knowledge, and perspective to the same issue, creating new conversations around old topics.
Reframing doesn’t just happen in the research and interview phase, though. It should also be a constant presence in the workshopping and prototyping phases.
By helping people look at an industry, a market, or a company through a new lens,
top Brand Strategists are able to expand the horizon of what’s possible. This delivers ultimate value because it opens up new avenues for innovation, impact, influence, and growth.
Since brand strategy is such a big concept, it is fair to realize that the breadth of available services will keep on growing. The bigger the industry grows, the more subcategories and types of workers will want to benefit from it.
What isn’t fair to people in need of strategic help is for everyone to attach themselves to the bandwagon without very clearly stating what they do and what they don’t do. This can only lead to misalignment, unmet expectations, and ultimately, disappointment.
Hopefully, there are ways to separate true Brand Strategists from cousin experts like Communication Specialists.
The top 20% of Brand Strategists have a toolbox of soft and hard skills at their disposal to help differentiate a business beyond messaging and communications.