About a year ago this week, I flew from DFW to Toronto for a work thing. There was a 1-hour line at customs in Toronto and while there, I read an article about branding strategies and the whole notion of the term “re-brand.” That led me to write this blog post a couple of days later.
A lot has happened to me in the past year. I lost that job and now I work freelance doing writing and editing work for a bunch of different people. As such, I work with different agencies and organizations and thought leaders — and I run into a lot about branding and branding strategies and power branding and so on and so forth.
I think most people have the idea of what ‘branding strategies’ are incorrect. Let’s dive deep.
Branding strategies: How important are they?
Most marketers would shriek “Tremendously!” at this stage. But let’s take a look at some visuals, shall we? Via here:
This is based on data from 6,000 mergers and acquisitions, and basically shows that the value of customer relationships (i.e. customer experience) is going up, while the value of brand-linked items is going down.
This actually makes a lot of sense, because one of the cornerstone elements of digital disruption is that consumers have more choice. Someone can see a problem, start up a company in a few weeks, connect it to an app, and take a bite out of an enterprise company’s earnings in maybe six months total. Disruption can come for virtually anyone, which is why change management is pretty crucial to organizations right now — even if most executives are lip-servicing it.
Alright, so here’s the deal: with so many options in most industries these days, consumers and clients will gravitate towards the best relationship, not necessarily the best product or service. That’s a really big change in how most people have to conceptualize business, and it has a ton of implications on branding strategies.
At this point, here’s where we net out: brand is still important, but probably less so than it was in the 1990s, for example. Branding strategies are still an essential part of a marketing department, but thinking about reliable customer experience should probably be paramount to that.
Branding strategies: What does the term even mean?
This is where you start hitting a few walls. A lot of terms in marketing should mean one thing, but they’re often construed to mean something else. Here are two quick examples.
“Content” should be about telling the story of the brand and the value proposition; instead, marketers often misrepresent it as “sales documents.” Creating sales document is a part of marketing, yes, but it’s not everything.
“Campaigns” should be well-organized ways to present information to consumers and clients, and a part of your overall marketing plan; instead they’re often task-driven, process-laden, time-consuming messes of humanity that detract from any real strategy.
This is kinda what happens with the idea of ‘branding strategies.’ When CMOs breathlessly mention that in a meeting, they should be discussing value proposition, quality of the service, how it will impact a customer’s life, customer experience, etc. They should be thinking along these lines:
Instead, most CMOs really are talking about moving logos around on a PDF, using “tighter” language, or changing color schemes.
Those aren’t necessarily bad things to talk about. They are important. But a lot of companies tend to have this problem — they focus so much on process that the process side buries the results side, and often the process side is rooted in a lot of concepts and processes that don’t even need to exist. It’s logical why this happens: work for a lot of people is about having control over something, and process is a lot easier to control than big ideas and strategy.
So this is what a lot of marketing people do: they over-focus on the process and tasks and under-focus on the strategy and value of what’s being done. They become Deliverables Monkeys. This is the type of marketing culture where a good idea arises and instead of anyone listening to it, it’s all a series of “Sounds great, but running to my 12:15 on power re-brands of our soap vertical!” You have absolutely no chance of getting that idea up the chain — and your CMO is about to leave his/her post anyway.
If you’re using the term ‘branding strategies’ to mean ‘the long-term value of the customer experience and how we convey that,’ good on you. If you’re using the term ‘branding strategies’ to mean ‘Here is a thick book of rules you must follow or we’ll bombard you with e-mails about how you didn’t follow one thing from that thick book,’ you might be missing the point.
My quick branding strategies story
I once went to a series of meetings slugged ‘branding strategies’ at a recent gig I had. I probably went to 3-4 of the meetings; in totality there were about 12-15. (I wasn’t a key cog in the whole deal, clearly.) Each meeting I went to was about 1-2 hours, so I essentially spent a full workday in these meetings across time.
Literally every one I was part of, no one — not a soul — talked about value. The word never came up. No one brought up the word ‘customer’ either. For 6 of the 8 hours I sat in these things, we were debating the placement, size, and color of a small logo on the top right of a potential flyer. The CMO was in these meetings, and she was debating the same stuff. “Make it blue. No, less blue. No, no, more blue.” At some point in these eight hours, if the logo became too light blue, someone would shriek “That’s off-brand!”
More Articles On Branding
You might like some of the other things I’ve written on this topic:
Listen, I don’t know very much about a lot of things, and I readily admit that all the time on this blog. But … if you think dropping a blue one gradient lighter suddenly makes a tiny logo indicate that your entire concept is “off-brand,” well, you might be a little too far down in the detail weeds.
This is my one recent experience with branding strategies as a concept, and I bet others have had similar ones.
What should we be doing with branding strategies?
We should be realizing that branding is really just a synonym for storytelling. Stories resonate with the human brain more than almost anything, and humans process visual content about 60,000x faster than text — so maybe consider making an intro YouTube video (or Snapchat video!) explaining your brand’s value proposition and origin. That, to me, would be an example of ‘branding strategies.’ Telling me that a paragraph of text is ‘too conversational and off-brand’ doesn’t feel like an example of branding strategies to me.
Maybe I’m wrong.
The overall deal seems to me to be like this:
- You have a company or brand or idea or you’re a solopreneur
- You need to make money
- You gotta sell some product or service
- There are likely dozens of competitors
- Your potential customers need to feel great about it (the product) but also about the experience they’re getting from you, because if the experience sucks, they’ll find another product — and if the product sucks, well, you’re not in great shape anyway
- All companies, even super-boring B2B ones, have a story about why they came about, how they came about, etc.
When you talk about branding strategies, you need to start with that series of bullets. You’ve got something and it has background and context and value. You need to make money off it. So, how are you going to link the background and value to the revenue stream? You’re ultimately going to do that through relationships.
Your branding strategies, then, are about building those relationships. They’re not about colors, copy, logos, locations, etc. That’s part of the branding process. It’s not branding strategies.
Then again, most businesses confuse the terms ‘strategy’ and ‘operations’ — and even fewer businesses can align those two elements properly.
But look, even though it’s uncomfortable sometimes to discuss the bigger-picture stuff at work and in meetings — and you hesitantly want to reserve that for the top dogs, then take your marching orders — the only way any branding strategies will work is if you root them in what actually matters, not how many pixels wide a photo on a brochure might be.
Any other thoughts?