Building a brand strategy – Part 1

By Ian Mumford, Creative Director

Cancelling out the noise and defining the model


I’ve not tried to trademark the term, but in hindsight (while writing this), I might. Why? Because I know there are many other creative types like myself out there who are passionate about brand and are endeavouring to make inroads into delivering brand strategy rather than just corporate identity for their clients. 

Any other reasons? 

Yep. If you take a look out there, read a few books, watch some YouTube videos or digest the masses of online articles written on the topic, it's a tangled mass of terms, approaches, models and methods. Basically it's Stratghetti…hence my lovingly created but yet to be ‘branded’ and ‘owned’ phrase for it. This series of blogs looks at how to get to grips with the world of Stratghetti in order to understand how to build and implement an effective brand strategy. 

My approach to brand strategy – a potted history

I wouldn’t say anything has ever been ‘wrong’ with the way I have delivered brand strategy for clients (OK, maybe the first one was debatable but I learned a lot and it was done as a favour, so it was still a win-win in the end), but each time I’ve come away, slightly scratched my head and questioned if there’s a better or simpler way. Guess that's what every passionate creative should do, really - make sure the next is better than the last, no matter what you do.

I’ve worked with numerous models (brand, not human…unfortunately - yet anyway), writing mission and vision statements, defining customer promises and identifying and creating descriptions for many a value and personality trait. And, frankly, there’s been nothing wrong with that. I’ve been very proud of my brand work and I’ve always given clients a direction they were happy with and which was actionable. But it always left me slightly questioning ‘what next?’ and ‘where next?’. Have I missed anything they need? Are there parts of other models I should include to give said business the brand tools required to succeed?

Over time, I’ve figured out that models are exactly that. They exist to give a business a foundation for its brand, but a brand is made up of so many things…the tangible and the intangible, customer perceptions, a sense of social grouping as well as the visual identity, vision, values and actions.

A little while back, my colleague Guy and I went in search of some clarity and signed up for a D&AD course with Michael Johnson, founder and genius at Johnson Banks. We’re not afraid to admit that he’s always been a bit of a hero of ours. In fact, I first saw him speak when I was a student at University. Looks like I should have paid more attention as I could have saved myself 20 years of questioning and dilemma!

The course was specifically put together for creatives who wanted to know more about brand strategy. It was refreshing to find that the course was mainly attended by people like us in the same boat, looking for the same clarity. What was also reassuring was that our approach to research and discovering the truth that lies beneath every business or brand was no different to Michael’s. But what was different was the model, or models, we were using to get to the final brand strategy definition.

Michael’s model seemed clearer, simpler, kind of obvious and boasted lots of common sense. It was something I knew I could work with. You could say “I saw the light”.

Since the course I have used the model numerous times to great effect. Happy clients, happy brand strategist, and brands that are able to be applied and understood in the real world.

I’m going to use the rest of this piece to explain the model and the approaches we use to define the answers, hopefully giving you a good idea of how to build a brand strategy.


The move from corporate signatures to this thing we call ‘brand’

OK, a little bit more history for you, but kept to a few sentences…

The journey to brand started back in the industrial era. Bass and Co’s Pale Ale became the first company to register a trademark for its now famous red triangle. This led the way for many other businesses to do the same, which saw the rise of the Corporate Signature - an effort to formalise the way brands presented themselves through symbols, corporate signatures and names. In the mid 20th century this evolved into ‘corporate identity’ and the rise of people like me, ‘the Graphic Designer’, and although some consultancies were dipping their toe into the narrative of a brand, it was still essentially a time for the visual brand and how it was applied. But not long after, there was another evolution. Organisations started to ask more questions about what they stood for, what they valued and also wanted to better understand what customers thought of them. Corporate identity started to be too close to the visual and not related enough to the verbal. There was no way to describe the ‘why’ or the ‘how’, the functional and the emotional. 

And so, we saw the rise of ‘brand’.


The brand strategy model

I mentioned the use of mission and vision before and these old management principles are sound and, in many ways, still relevant, just a bit grounded in a militarian undertone and often written by a board of directors who don’t really know or care too much about what a brand is. Are they useful and actionable at a Monday morning team huddle? Maybe not.

So seeing these principles as ‘ambitions’ is a good way to frame them. It helps a business stay aspirational without getting in the way of the day-to-day.

This has become one of the foundations of our model. A simple statement that underpins both mission and vision, neatly wrapped up as ambition.

Here’s the rest of the model. I have learned that by removing as much ‘stratghetti-style’ jargon as possible, you can simplify a strategy down to 6 questions and one statement of ambition:

There are different ways you can approach this model depending on whether you are a new or existing brand, but we use a model that puts the ‘why’ at the centre of the brand rather than at the beginning, the end, or anywhere else.


Why put the ‘why’ at the centre?

Because it's the core purpose of a company brand or organisation – its central ‘idea’.

It’s why it exists and what it’s been put on this earth to do. It’s what the brand believes in above anything else.

We’re great fans of Simon Sinek, a motivational speaker, organisational consultant and author of the book ‘Start with Why’. He has developed a model called The Golden Circle. The model puts ‘why’ at the centre, followed by ‘how’ on the middle ring, then ‘what’ on the outside. Simon’s theory is as follows:


Every business knows what they do


Some know how they do it


Very few know why they do it (purpose!)

His theory is that ‘people don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it’. They buy into your reason for being rather than what you are doing for them. Think of Apple - do you buy their products over Dell because they are cheaper? Unfortunately no. You buy them because you believe in why they create beautiful and more expensive technology products.

If you haven’t read Simon’s book, take 12 minutes to watch his TED talk on Start with Why. You won’t regret it and it will help you better understand why we put ‘why’ at the heart of our brand model.


What do we do and how do we do it?

The value of working this out is so that the brand can summarise all the functional ‘doing’ stuff. It’s the nuts and bolts of the everyday. The doing and process statements.

But this does not mean that it can’t have an emotional connection or is a less purposeful part of your brand. 

Think Audi. Its strapline ‘Vorsprung durch Technik’ can be translated to ‘Advancement through Technology’, essentially putting the ‘what’ at the forefront of the brand. It’s quite clever really as it still builds an emotional bond with the intended audience.

Honesty around what you do can also build an emotional connection and win the hearts and minds of audiences. Cancer Research UK took the bold step of simply stating the truth – Research kills Cancer. It became a key point of difference for them and positioned them as truth-tellers in a competitive market. The ‘what they do’ and ‘how they do it’ became a front and centre pillar of their brand narrative. 


Who are we here for?

Understanding your target market is essential to succeed in your intended marketplace, yet it is surprising how many brands lose sight of this.

We use a technique called Audience Mapping, which helps define and prioritise who the audience types are, what role they play, what objectives they have from you (as a brand/business), what objective(s) you have for them and then how your brand will interact. It never fails to surprise us how enlightening clients find this process. We’ve taken a full day’s workshop simply focusing on this on more than one occasion. It’s a bit like therapy - once you lift the lid, it's surprising what comes out and how much better you feel for talking about it!

A good example of a brand that orientates around its intended audience is Dove. Their purpose of achieving real beauty and building self-esteem is based on their target market. They are less interested in the size 6 models; they know their market to be ‘real women’ of all shapes and sizes. Their purpose is to improve the confidence of women around the world and for the next generation to grow up enjoying a positive relationship with the way they look.

Knowing their target market has helped define their purpose and created loyalty and engagement through their campaigns.


What makes us different?

In generic markets, working hard to identify a true point of difference, or creating one if you can’t, can be the key to unlocking a brand's potential. Looking back at the Dove example, knowing their audience and developing their Real Beauty campaign has created a genuine point of difference.

Clever how purpose, audience and differentiation all start to join up and make sense together, isn’t it?

Differentiation is often what helps define positioning – what makes you different and stand out from the competition. When developing a brand, this ‘question’ really helps organisations focus hard on the true differentials. It must also be said at this point that sometimes the definition of a brand can occur or adapt in the creative stage, so just be mindful that, on occasion, a revert and rethink can sometimes be required, or a simple shift in focus and purpose is needed for the greater good.

Identifying a point of difference can also help from an employee and HR perspective. Retaining and recruiting talent to a brand that knows how it's different and exciting is far easier than a brand that doesn’t. ‘Me too’ as a brand just doesn't cut it anymore. Millennials and Gen Z are given choice and speak with their feet; if you’re not giving people a reason to join you and remain loyal, they will find a business (brand) that will.


What do we value the most?

This is often referred to as brand values and, historically, could essentially be any selection of about ten ‘usual suspect’ words that any organisation around the world could and would adopt. This doesn't make them wrong, but like mission and vision, do they mean as much as they should and how do they really reflect what an organisation believes in and values the most?

They historically become a stick to beat people with too - “you can do this, you can’t do that” or “that only satisfies four of our five values”. Not much fun.

From an internal perspective, however, it is incredibly helpful to have a clear map of what the company somebody works for values and believes in. And this should be a mix of what is currently true and what is aspired to.

As suggested, this used to be four or five words that many other organisations would likely have adopted, too. Now, they are often presented as crafted statements. This example from Google is quite insightful - they have ten ‘things’ that essentially symbolise their core brand values:

Cards on the table - there’s no hard and fast rule for defining these, you just have to put it all out there and see what fits. It might be four statements, it might be six; you’ll know what feels right as you start to consume the insight.

What’s our personality?

Personality definition is always a part of the model I particularly enjoy working on. I think this is because, as a creative person, I can start to see, feel and hear the brand in my head, which then starts to shape how it could be expressed.

Also, as a creative, I have always started with words before pictures, which suggests that, deep down, a brand’s narrative has always been at the forefront of my creative conscience. It’s probably why I felt so compelled to get more involved with brand strategy rather than accepting my place as a creator of visual identity.

A brand's personality is how it expresses itself to the outside world. It’s the brand’s character, the tone of voice to be used and how the brand will communicate.

To define this we use clusters. Again, there is no magic formula to defining these. We take our insight and we start to create keyword clusters and then identify the most prominent and influential within the group and rationalise it. This can be three, four or more words; it really all depends what’s right for the brand you are working with, without giving them so many that they appear like a split-personality car crash waiting to happen.

There are some good examples of personality in the market. One such example also highlights the rise of possessive branding - the use of ‘we’ and ‘I’ to express its connection with people and allow its brand to shine.

MacMillan Cancer Support’s rebrand of a (good) few years ago keeps the visual system pretty straightforward but puts the brand’s personality - and therefore its narrative - at the heart of its brand and communication.

Even the corporate identity puts its personality first. They are not simply MacMillan, they boldly state ‘We are MacMillan’, putting people and personality and the forefront.


Expanding the model

So, there you have it. That's the model we work with, what each component is all about and - to some helpful extent (we hope) - the reasons why each is important and how they play their part.

The next challenge is how you apply the model and what it actually means in practice - one for another article I think! However, to whet your appetite for more, this diagram expands on what each aspect of the model affects:

Ready for more already? Move on to part 2!

And that's it for part 1 of this article. Hopefully you’re still with me and I’ve managed to keep you engaged enough to want to find out more. Part 2 goes into how to gather the information required to define your strategy. It suggests techniques available to you as well as addressing some of the reasons to brand or re-brand in the first place.

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