What the heck is brand strategy?

What is more valuable: the plan or the execution?

The answer to that question depends on the amount of risk involved. If what you’re about to do isn’t that risky, then jump in, make a mess, learn some lessons, and if you have to do it all over again, it’s not that big of a deal. But if you’re about to take a big risk, you want to be sure you’ll succeed. You don’t just make a plan. You invest in a good one.

Branding is no different. If you are actively working to reach the ambitious goals you’ve set for your business, you are taking a big risk. (Also, congratulations. I’m rooting for you.) What you’re doing is too risky to miss connecting with your target audience, too risky to be confused with a competitor, too risky to position your business in a crowded market.

From this point of view, a well-formed plan looks pretty valuable.

The Definition of Brand Strategy

If you have a business, product, or service that anyone knows about then you already have a brand, even if it’s unintentional. A Brand Strategy begins when you start being intentional about your branding.

Brand Strategy is a statement of the ideas that guide the development of a brand.

When we map the discipline of branding onto the communication model, your business is the Sender, branding is the process of crafting the Message, and your brand is the instinctive ideas in the mind of the Receiver.

To grow your brand, your business needs to be aligned with your target audience. Your target audience is filled with real people. You don’t have the control to determine what their lives are like, what they want, or what’s getting in their way. But once you know the answers to those questions, you do have the control to position your business to align yourself to them.

Brand Strategy is a pivot point.

It sits between the Sender and Message. It works with your business strategy and sets a path to your target audience. Then it determines the Message before it gets crafted and expressed.

Branding mapped onto the Communication Model. Adjusting your branding aligns what you want your brand to be with the Receiver of your Message

Simple Questions with Hard Answers

Every brand strategist has their own method for creating brand strategies, using many different questions, exercises, and frameworks. There isn’t one right way to develop a brand strategy, but every good brand strategy should clearly understand three things: the past, present, and future of the business, the target audience, and the competition.

At Middlename, we take a pendulum approach: starting with understanding the business strategy, swinging over to the target audience, and then swinging back to the business with new insights in hand. 

At its simplest, 4 questions need to be answered about the target audience:
Who are they?
What do they want?
Why do they want it?
What’s getting in their way?
(Chris Do from The Futur)

In answering these questions, we are inevitably going to start uncovering details about the business’s competition and market trends. Research on competition and trends get investigated on the swing back to the business.

Armed with insights about the target audience, the competition, and the market, we have the 3 hardest questions to answer:
Who are you?
What do you do?
Why does it matter?
(Marty Neumeier, The Brand Gap)

Answering these three simple questions will only align your business with your target audience if you first understand your audience and what’s getting in their way. This is when Brand Strategy and Business Strategy inform and influence each other. There’s a back-and-forth between the two as you position your business, products, and services to align with your audience.

Effective Branding

Branding has three superpowers:

  1. Branding can differentiate you from your competition
  2. Branding can build trust with your audience
  3. Branding can communicate feelings

Animation showing how branding can differentiate you from your competition, build trust with your audience, and communicate feelings

Effective branding will make your brand distinctive. How will your brand grow if your audience confuses your brand with a competitor’s? Why would your audience pick you if they think your brand offers essentially the same thing as your competitors? (If your answer is price, there will always be someone to undercut your prices. If your answer is better service, there will always be someone to outperform you.) Being understood as meaningfully different from your competitors is essential to growing your brand. (Read Romaniuk and Sharp's "How Brands Grow" to learn more about distinctive brands)

Effective branding will build trust with your audience. We have too little time and too much information. How can we ever know the best way to spend our money? We rely on instinct; snap subconscious decisions. These subconscious instincts aren’t triggered by information about features or benefits. They are triggered by symbolic characteristics. Effective branding will mold these symbolic characteristics into something your audience finds trustworthy. Marty Neumeier said it best, “If I can trust the maker, I can buy it now and worry about it later.” (Read Neumeier's "The Brand Gap" to learn more about brand trust)

The power of branding is that it fuses artistic expressions with intentional messaging. This isn’t an accident or a byproduct. It’s the goal. Leveraging images, words, sounds, and even smells can create feelings that raw data can’t. This lets us communicate more information, to a person’s conscious and subconscious, all at once. And it makes this communication more memorable. (Read Kahneman's "Thinking, Fast and Slow" for more on subconscious thinking)

You are already doing it

If you have a business, product, or service that anyone knows about, you are already branding and you already have a brand.

Whether you are conscious of it or not, whether you are being intentional about it or not, it is happening. You are constantly communicating something that is influencing a person’s instinctive ideas about your business, product, or service. You are even currently spending time and money on it. If you aren’t being intentional, the scary question is “How are you unintentionally influencing your brand?”

As much positive impact as it can have, branding has the same ability to impact your brand negatively. If you don’t craft the Message, your audience will craft it for themselves.

“Fine. I’m convinced by the sound, logical arguments presented here. I’m fully bought into the value branding can have on my business. I will craft the Message. But how do I know what that Message should be?” (Sorry for making you say exactly what I want you to say so I can move on to the next point. I’ll try and do better in the future.)

That’s where Brand Strategy comes into play.

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