How to keep the integrity of your brand strategy?
When the expectations of consumers are on the rise, and the competition is acting more intense, brands can behave like a universe. Due to necessity, they expand at light speed in all directions into more categories and carry added weight on their backs. It is clear: new categories tempt new customers, and brands are meant to generate revenue. Sometimes however they try to go too far and lose themselves in their own complexity.
Want an example? Currently many beer companies sell non-alcoholic isotonic drinks and a variety of flavoured lemonades for high schoolers alongside their beer brands. Yes, beer is still a part of their assortment, but it stares awkwardly from its corner… The integrity of a brand in that context becomes a serious challenge. Because how would you combine the beer insight and benefits – that decide the meaning of a brand – with all the peripheral categories that have nothing to do with it? PowerPoint slides will survive everything, so in theory it’s possible. How it works in practice, however, will be apparent in 3-5 years, when we ask adult beer enthusiasts about the best beer brands and their beer related capacities. I’m curious myself what they will say. Some brands will most likely slowly descend into the orange pop soda abyss in the meantime.
There are many manufacturers who are like Midas: whatever they touch turns into gold. Look at Caterpillar – an example of one of the longest and most interesting leaps in brand development. It went from heavy construction machinery to fashion and accessories, emphasising strength and durability. I also notice an element of pop-culture fascination of powerful technology and an awe for their capabilities. Cat shoes tell a story about their owner and his longings. The lifestyle version of the brand is not just some extra cash, but also serves as an image and PR amp. We also want that, right?
Brand as a composition
A brand is a cultural creation, just like a movie, dish, book, or football team. To work effectively, it must make a balanced composition. The more it is simple and elegant, the better it tastes. A dish we like to come back to is usually a balanced combination of many flavours, aromas, and a visual presentation on a plate. A football team is also based on composition – the players in the first, second or even third tier. Good old Barcelona – contrary to popular belief – was based on a legendary team of people, besides Messi. Messi fit in the legendary FC Barcelona from 8 years ago because the people who played with him balanced the dynamic puzzle – especially Xavi and Iniesta in the middle of the field.
Good brands work similarly: they are effective, because all of their elements – assortment, price, consumer experience, subtle references to cultural occurrences in communication – complement each other in a harmonious way. It is getting progressively more difficult over time: back then we only had simple 4P. Newer concepts like 6P, or even 7P, tell you to add elements, but don’t bring much information into the question of how to corelate them so they create a CONSISTENT and COHERENT story. It often results in constructs that look good on paper but fail in real life.
Experience shows that out of all the available „P“s you should pick a couple of „P“s that are necessary to the category and concept, and care less about the others. You can be figuring out a brand by using a set of hints given below, for example:
- WHO – your target group and their state of mind,
- WHAT – a product understood as an item, service, image, or maybe even mood?
- WHERE – how do we receive it and how we experience it?
- FOR HOW MUCH – the price compared to the useful and emotional value that we get in return
- MEANINGS – how do we talk about it, what are our cultural references: do we amuse, teach, or scare?
- IDEA – what bigger meaning does it tie together?
- Przykład marki doskonale poukładanej
An example of a perfectly figured out brand
One of the most interesting brands that have their world perfectly figured out is Prius. It introduced electromobility into the car industry, in a much larger degree than Tesla in my opinion. It also became the icon of change in Toyota and in life. It created not a Copernicus-like revolution, but a slow, systematic, and thoroughly Japanese evolution based on a hybrid available to the common folk.
Prius is a great brand not just because the car is so cool, but because all the details are consistently put together. A futuristic name, Hybrid Synergy Drive brand, a brave communication about a farting sheep, and finally – design. Many people will disagree, but I believe Prius is also perfectly ugly. Someone could ask, why does the ugliness of the model matter? There are two answers to that question.
First, related to the rational aspect – Prius was designed in a way to minimize the CX air resistance factor: it equals 0.26, which at the time was an amazing result. It’s not just a fact. It’s a vision and a big marketing sense: there are no compromises in our creation, even the usual pursue of a beautiful line didn’t bother the engineers…
The second reason is related to emotions – customers buying this car will pay a lot for a slow ride, making far-reaching concessions due to their worldviews. An unattractive car highlights this attitude and gives a moral high ground: if you live consciously and responsibly, you accept that you can’t have everything.
As we can see, the path to a good marketing mix doesn’t lead through optimistic and smooth statements. Sometimes you must come to a rough but real sense of a certain phenomenon: the ugliness, the self-restraint, and the stench. Big companies don’t like that, and then suffer unnecessarily while fixing stuttering brands.
What slows brands down?
Running can help us understand this issue. It’s a good metaphor of market activity and competition. Running is basically moving forward fast, right? In a correct running technique, our entire running body, all the parts and forces work forward. Of course, legs are crucial. Intuition would show that the bigger the step, the larger the speed. Wrong! Making steps too long causes thigh and knee to work forward, but the heel that’s extended too far forward hits the floor and slows you down. Contradicting forces collide with each other in the knee with the strength of an explosion and the entire system slows down. It can also injure your knee, torn apart by huge forces.
A brand strategy is similar. Usually, due to strategic contradiction in the premise we have one or few brakes in the. This brake stops us in our tracks and doesn’t allow growth. We should get rid of it as soon as possible. How do we get to it though? How do we identify the thing that scatters energy and halts development? Examples of a contradictions in the brand concepts are often subtle and not visible at first glance.
A mismatch between the product design and the distribution method
Let’s imagine that we managed to create an amazing designer-grade Bluetooth speaker – let’s call it Mammoth. JBL’s lows pale in comparison. Aside from the fantastic sound, our product looks amazing, cold metal chassis is awesome to the touch. Your senses are squealing from contentment. But in an online store the Mammoth looks very similar to the other speakers. You can’t hear the sound, and the photos don’t carry the magic. It’s difficult without in-person contact to convince a customer to spend more, because they’re buying something special. We need a unique and inspiring experience on the level of an online presentation or a contact point, in which one can experience the Mammoth physically, currently absent in the business model.
Contradiction on the level of communication style and client’s self-perception
Let’s assume that a brand offering complete telephone solutions, home and mobile internet, as well as customer service outsourcing for businesses started using a method of communication based on educating. It positions itself as a guide – it discovers, explains, and enlightens. The target group are small and medium business clients that often perceive themselves as the masters of all domains. This quality helped them achieve success in business after all. They feel like they themselves could teach the vendor many things, so the archetype of a guide which we are trying to achieve has too much of a patronizing nature.
The possible variants of those kinds of contradictions are practically infinite, for example:
- mismatching the price to the emotional gain,
- references to outdated cultural codes,
- unclear brand propositions, caused by using ambiguous terms,
- benefit expected by a completely different target group than ours.
Before you start to expand this kind of brand, you should figure it out and sharpen it first. When we feel like something isn’t working, even though we have a great product and an amazing offer – simple questions about sense, logic and common sense come into play. And those sometimes fail all of us when we’re working with our own brand and ideas.
1. Is your vision of the future of the category unique?
We all look for new, upcoming trends and phenomena, to expand our business in a wider market, technological and social context. Tough luck – we read the same essays from Hatalska, Trendhunter or Mintel. The main task is not about making yourself aware about trends but about identifying those which connect with our brand in a meaningful and unique way. They give us an opportunity to occupy a special position with our supply of knowledge, technology, or brand equity. Referencing the upcoming trends also requires courage. We have to endure emotional discomfort from this temporary incompatibility, and wait until our vision succeeds. But it is worth it to take it on, because if our vision is the same as everyone else’s – we can assume that the brand with the largest marketing budget wins. Is that you, for sure?
2. Does your brand fulfil the needs of customers, or internal longings of the organization?
We very often face, while working on brand strategies, that the brand or certain products are directed „inwards“. Instead of trying to satisfy the real needs of customers, they are a result of internal obligation or process in the organization. The imperative of using some relevant trend regardless of context is also very strong. That only creates products and concepts that contradict the interests of a company or consumer brand. They are not only difficult to defend in a competitive market, but they also weaken the base brand, for example in distributor relations. Not only the business won’t grow because of that, but the fundaments will weaken.
3. Are your priorities clear? Don’t you want to kill too many birds with one stone?
People generally do not like to get into conflicts. They can pay a lot to avoid them. It’s similar in marketing processes, we often avoid polarization at work, i.e. in branding. We assume that the more universally we work and communicate, the larger the group of customers that can agree and identify with us. An example of the train of thought: „I want to create a brand for Gen Z, but I don’t want to lose retirees in the process… After all they also buy the category sometimes“. Life, however, is not so simple. It’s easy to lose clarity of the main concept when we establish too many goals. Several ideas in one don’t mean benefits, but problems. Everything that is „double“ in a brand is suspicious.
4. Does our customer know about us what we assume they know?
One of the most common reasons of a brand’s indisposition is customers’ lack of awareness about important aspects of our offer. As marketers and experts of our own category, we make the mistake of assuming that the customers have basic knowledge about our subject. That they can tell apart offers and consciously choose between features. They can’t, and typically they make choices without looking into details. We must inform the customer about a unique quality or feature in an understandable and effective way. This requires commitment, time, and a marketing budget. A small campaign and a bit of content on Facebook won’t always be enough.
5. Is the core of our company stable and will it endure expansion?
Marketers that see an opportunity clearly will usually quickly get bored with their own achievements, their sights spontaneously escaping in another direction. They think that since their brand exists and works, it means that it surely will manage. But brands and businesses at the beginning of their path have a certain fragility, they easily deviate from their trajectory. Quick and brave scaling is a double-edged sword – it gives a chance for new income, but has effect on a young brand, changing it before it matures.
A Gen Z shoe brand becomes a Gen Z clothing brand, and the next month – a Gen Z, millennials and boomers clothing. The next year it’s an online, mega-lifestyle brand of everything for everybody. Does that bode well for it? Before we start expanding, let’s ask this: does the awareness of the brand, its offer and attributes are built at least minimally? Have we mastered our home part of the market, are we safe there? Does the concept fit with what we want to do next? Will one brand cover it all? Do we need more of them?
A brand can go from category to category, but carefully and step by step, respecting its own DNA and giving the customers time to absorb the idea. One good example is Oshee, introducing multiple new products apart from their home turf of clean isotonics and vitamin drinks: sub-brands for kids and sportspeople with Lewandowski, Witcher for gamers, even energy drinks, coming into conflict with the concept of health and supplementation. Oshee understands its’ boundaries, they did their homework in basic categories and now they can do more.
6. Are we vigilant, flexible, and ready for a step back or sideways?
Experience shows that usually the second or third attempt at creating a business model and brand structure brings the right marketing solutions. A soft or hard launch of new activity gives a ton of priceless knowledge. Because the friction happens: our concepts collide with real life. With a customer that „doesn’t understand“, or understands not what we want. Kind of watches our communication and likes it but doesn’t get it.
What are the hard results? Do you feel the energy in this? If not, on what level does the whole thing fall apart? This is an ideal moment to create an optimal brand strategy if we only can observe and listen carefully. We can carefully match the elements of a puzzle, optimize it, start over, or quit. Maybe we didn’t dream of it, but at least we’re reducing risk. Are you ready to quit your own solutions? Can you „kill your darlings“, as screenwriters say? Or do you close your eyes, brute force forward, and see how it goes later?
How do we take care of the health of the brand and what tools do we have for it?
Our natural state is being in constant motion, in offensive. We look forward, race with competitors, always in shortage of time. In this situation the ability of strategic perceiving can be suppressed through intensive stimuli, emotions, and outside pressure. It’s important to take care of a regular window for stopping and discussing brand strategy, its current situation and future. We can then calmly take on new interesting challenges and be ready for changes. When the brand has lost momentum, we need a sharp and quick diagnostic. What can we use?
- Category sale data – a look at data in a dynamic view and from above often brings interesting answers; we see increases in unexpected areas, or decreases in image segments, fundamental for the entire business, for example anti-aging in cosmetics.
- Tracking research – you can see components, meters, and attributes in which a brand clearly stands out from competition, or slowly weakens. They are often signals that we lose context matching; we can then deepen our analysis in quality research.
- Quality research – we can check what customers think about the brand in the context of the market, other brands, or social changes. Do they think what we think they think? In quality research we can discover phenomena that we weren’t aware of, or really understand the ones we knew but we didn’t realize their importance and consequences.
- Ethnography – it lets us follow the behaviour of customers in their natural environment. Does what they say about us and the category match what they do? Talking to customers has this important flaw, besides many benefits, that we only have contact with their consciousness. The rest stays outside of range and that’s where observation is effective.
- Semiotic research – we can analyse cultural changes in general and those regarding given category. Is the category attractive and promising, or is it closing some big cycle just now? Are our communication codes still up to date?
- Digital research – keywords in searches, comments, sentiments, conversion, trends, and contexts in which we show up in social media. Here the possibilities are basically endless, only limited by your own creativity and a hunter’s sense. It’s worth it to consider false results caused by shallow processing of online content and watch out for too far-reaching conclusions of quality.
- NPS – dynamics of brand engagement, is a good sign of incoming changes in the brand. Parameters in NPS say a lot about energy by themselves, but they don’t explain much. They are however a great starting point, combined with additional diagnostics.
- Other, optional, also guerrilla, best if not too expensive…
There is power in contradictions!
Illogicality, contradicting data from different sources, different trends in subsequent analytical periods – everything that comes out wrong in analysis – help track market changes, social cracks and evolving needs. The most interesting findings show in connections of different analysis techniques. To understand something well, it’s better to use a few methods that look at a specific phenomenon from different angles, than invest all resources into one method.
The most interesting part of the process of creating a brand strategy is synthesis, which means looking from above at all the data and answering to yourself honestly: what do we have on the table? What actually comes out from this? What marketing opportunities does this open for us? What changes should we make to use them? What resources are needed to repair the brand? Will it bring us benefits? Maybe it’s better to start something new and make a leap into the future? People from different areas of the organization should be invited to this discussion – thanks to this our conclusion and marketing plan of action will be correctly balanced.
Then all you need to do is accomplish it. But that’s a whole different story.
I have been working in brand strategy for 25 years. I like strategic investigations the most: when you can see that something is happening, but you don’t know why. I’ve worked with big and small brands – they have similar problems, but on a different scale.
My experience includes strategies for: Museum of Modern Art, Lewiatan, Dr Irena Eris, Orlen, Lotos, Anwil, Orange, Plus, Kosciuschko, NC+, Tesco, Auchan, Serenada (Spomlek), Flugger, PZJ, Synapsis, Tatra, Żubr, Warka Strong, Żywiec, Dębowe Mocne, PZU, Allianz, XTB, Ikea, Ambasz, Swigo, Alnonero, ING, mBank, Alior Bank, and others.