One of the questions I’ve been asked most by teams throughout my career is: ‘How do we get better at strategy?’ There is a simple way to answer this question – get to know your consumer as well as your best friend and direct your brand’s resources to the 2–3 things that will serve their needs best.
And yet, building brand strategy still feels very much like a ‘dark art’ for many brands. Here, I’ll try to demystify it and explain why working with a brand strategy consultancy may bring some unexpected but welcome benefits.
Let’s start with the basics, what is brand strategy?
A quick Google search will reveal lots of different definitions of strategy, but probably the most simple one is ‘a plan that is intended to achieve a particular purpose’.
You will notice there are two parts to this short sentence:
- purpose – good strategy has to be in service of a brand mission or purpose
- a plan – the things a brand will do to deliver against that purpose
Brands need to have both of these things to get to a great strategy, and the choices they make to define them are critical to success. Without choices there is no strategy . This is the single most important thing to remember when developing a strategy.
Great strategy brings focus and clarity to the brand choices and enables better decision-making to unlock growth. The choices brands need to make are across a number of different brand strategy disciplines, everything from category and portfolio strategy, through to brand positioning and experience design.
So, what gets in the way of brands building great strategies?
Back to the question of ‘How do we get better at strategy?’ If strategy is simply about setting out a clear purpose or goal and making choices about the plans to achieve it, why can it feel painfully hard? Here are some key reasons why great strategy can be difficult to master for some brands:
- They don’t know their consumer well enough – Having deep understanding of your consumer, whether current or intended, is crucial to great strategy. Brands need to understand not just what consumers are doing, but why they’re doing it at both an emotional and a rational level. Only then can you work out how your brand can add value to their lives. This isn’t just a marketing job either: the power of brands is truly unlocked when the whole organisation understands their purpose, relevance and meaning and makes sure it is brought to life every single day.
- Lack of clarity on what a great output looks like – It’s hard to build a strategy when you’re not clear what you’re aiming for at the end of the work. Many brands lack the tools and defined processes they need to get to a great output.
- Insufficient insight and foresight – Good strategy has a solid foundation in both insight and foresight. Many brands mistake their wealth of data as insight, but without understanding what the data is telling you to generate true and meaningful insight, it is next to useless. Great strategy is also future-focused. Insight often gives brands a clear reason why they are where they are; but to set a stretching but realistic brand ambition, brands will need to understand how their consumer’s world is going to evolve to prevent them becoming irrelevant.
- No clearly defined purpose and ambition – Whilst we’re on the subject of brand ambition, let’s remember that this is one of the two critical elements of generating great strategy. To create a focused strategy, brands will need to clearly understand where they are today through the lens of business numbers and key stakeholders and project this out to form a vision of where they need to get to. Without a clear ambition statement (which should always be measurable) it is impossible to make the right choices to achieve it.
- Lack of focus on strategy creation – A great strategy will look simple once it’s complete, but to get to the level of clarity needed takes a cross-functional and focused effort. The benefits of this effort may not always be easy to see for a while, so it can be all too tempting to ‘short cut’ the work, simply fill in a template without the right level of thinking and get back to the day job. This tactic, however tempting, will almost always result in even more effort needed in the end. Many brands who don’t spend enough time on strategy creation get caught in the vicious cycle of working and reworking their plans as their growth stalls.
- Not making enough choices – This is a critical one. Even brands with vast resources at their disposal will struggle to focus on more than 3–4 things and do them well. Many brands find making the choices difficult as brand leaders often have different stakeholders they’re trying to please, but this is why it is critical to focus on what the consumer needs and how you map your brand resources to meet those needs better than the competition.
How can brand strategy consultants help?
So, how can brand strategy consultants support brands in their quest for great strategy? There are some obvious benefits – for example, they will be creating brand strategies many times a year, and that experience will bring both efficiencies and in all likelihood sharper, more focused choices – but there are some other, less obvious benefits to working with brand strategy consultants. Here are a few of them:
- Seeing the world through different lenses – When you’re the guardian of a brand, it becomes very easy to believe everyone is thinking about your brand as much as you are (I know, I’ve been there too). Brand consultants will have the benefit of being detached enough from the brand to truly understand how consumers, shoppers and customers see the brand, and what needs to change to make their perception more favourable.
- Challenging the norms – It’s easy for brand teams to become trapped by established norms in their businesses which may confine their thinking and prevent them from making the changes they really need. Strategy consultants will act as partners to shine a light on unhelpful dogma and support teams to break free of it by drawing on their experience from across many different brands and industries.
- Telling brands what they already know – OK, this one probably sounds strange, but strategy consultants will be able to draw knowledge out of an organisation and distil it to make it more powerful and more insightful. They’ll highlight issues and opportunities that are likely known in pockets of the organisation (often not at more senior levels) and make them widely understood. Laying out the facts in a way that resonates across the organisation creates shared understanding and galvanises action.
- Support alignment – Consultants will often encourage brands to have multi-functional teams working with them to build strategies. This both makes the output stronger as more diverse thinking is naturally included, but also creates internal advocacy for it, smoothing the path to alignment.
- Delivering impact beyond profit – Most brands realise that the single-minded pursuit of profit will no longer be tolerated by consumers who expect brands to behave responsibly towards people and the planet as well. Whilst those brands may have stated their social responsibility goals, many of them fail to create an action plan to deliver them. Brand consultants will work with brands to ensure that their vision reflects more than simply profit, and helps them make the right choices to reach their goals
Building powerful strategies with a triple bottom line
At Oxford we believe that unlocking growth without good strategy is almost impossible, and that good strategies are consumer-focused, simple and choiceful. We also take pride in being a B Corp, demonstrating our commitment to leveraging business as a force for good, and as a B Corp we partner with our clients to build strategies that deliver not only profit, but which also benefit people and the planet – the triple bottom line. We do this through positive challenge, helping them make critical choices on where to focus to deliver real value.
We don’t believe in a one size fits all approach to strategy, and we work with our clients to design an approach that is exactly right for their organisation across all aspects of brand strategy.
If you are interested in learning more about brand strategy, and how your business could become more focused to deliver better results, please get in touch.
About the author
With nearly two decades of marketing experience in both FMCG and Retail, Michelle has shaped global brands like No7 at Walgreens Boots Alliance and transformed marketing approaches in ecommerce at Next.
Talk to Michelle about brand strategy and digital transformation.
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