Building a brand strategy – Part 2
By Ian Mumford, Creative Director
The discovery ‘deep dive’ before definition
I hope you found part 1 of our 'building a brand strategy' blog series useful. Fingers crossed it simplified things a little and managed to cancel out some of the ‘noisy narrative’ that surrounds brand strategy. This next instalment goes into how you go about getting the information you need to define your model.
OK, so we have our brand model, but how do I get the information I need to define it? (we hear you cry)
It’s pretty simple really. It all comes down to a solid and in-depth Discovery phase, otherwise known as research.
Here’s a great quote from Michael Johnson that sums up its value quite perfectly…
“If you don’t investigate, immerse yourself and carry out proper research, then you won’t understand the issues. You’ll end up creating fantastic solutions – for the wrong problems.”
You don’t have to look too far to see what the brand world terms as a ‘sheep-like mentality’ - basically where a sector mimics itself and there’s a vanilla look, feel and sound.
The university sector is a good example of this: a comfort zone of red and blue, serifed uppercase lettering and usually a book device placed neatly on a shield-like symbol. Does this make them all wrong to do it? Well, it limits differentiation and you question how they raise themselves from the crowd, but this also begs the question of whether they want to rise above the competition and be seen as different.
Part of the research for a brand is looking hard at what's out there and recognising similarities if they exist, then understanding why they exist if you find them. Sometimes there can be a very good reason why they do; either way, the answer will help frame the decisions that come next.
Identifying difference is a key part of our role as brand strategists, thinkers, creatives...whatever we want to call ourselves. Sometimes finding the difference is hard, but what is consistent is that the truth can only be found by undertaking good research.
So, where do you start?
Here’s our recommended approach for lifting the lid on an organisation...
A visual audit
Particularly for brands already in existence, this helps all parties to ‘see’ where they are and to appreciate and highlight issues. This can be an analysis of the identity (if an existing brand), collateral, social media, the built environment and more.
A verbal audit
The words and phrases a brand/company/organisation uses; these can either be used as a stepping stone to improve the language used or to trigger a complete change of tack.
A behavioural audit
This looks at how employees speak and interact, including the messages and signals they give off about a brand (consciously and unconsciously).
A competition audit
An in-depth review of the competitor landscape, both good and bad, local, national and international. This would take in all the factors – visual, verbal and behavioural to help you understand how they position and differentiate themselves.
A peer audit
Not an audit of direct competition, but a look at the kind of organisation that a company might aspire to or benchmark against, typically across multiple sectors. This is often quite a fun thing to do in a workshop to get an idea of who stakeholders hold in high regard.
The purpose of doing the above phases is to open everyone's eyes to the company’s position in the market - a vital thing to be aware of for both the organisation you are working with and your own internal agency team. Research and audits can become particularly critical if senior management aren’t completely aware of the challenges they face.
Asking the right questions
Research is key. And it’s important to gather the insight of both the internal and external audiences; both perspectives play an important role.
Research offers insurance against the future. Although you might be wary of it, be sure to involve key decision-makers and troublemakers (every business has one lurking…prominently or below the surface!). It’s better to have an argument (or should we call it a passionate debate?) about future direction at step 1 rather than at the end of step 3 when the brand is about to be signed off.
Research helps identify whether the problems really are what everyone thought they were and whether the point of difference truly is what the company thinks it is.
So, what are the questions to ask? We break them down into three categories, but every business is different, so getting a feel for what's right for each is recommended. What might work for one does not always work for another.
Questions about the functional: the nuts and bolts
What is it that you do? / How do you do it? / What is it about you that differs from others?
Questions about the emotional aspects: personality and values
Are you clear what this company/brand believes in? / What does it value the most? / What kind of personality does it have? / If you stand for ‘this’ currently, what could you stand for in the future?
Questions about ‘why we’re here’
Purpose – what have you been put on this earth to do? / What problem do you exist to solve? / What's your long-term ambition? / Why will it matter in the future? / What are you going to do about it? / What does success look like?
How do you create an environment for asking those questions? Well, there’s a number of ways and, again, deciding what's right for each organisation will depend on the information you get from them and what your gut tells you might be a good fit.
We’re a great fan of workshop environments. This can be one, two or a lot more, it really depends on a number of factors. The benefit of these sessions is that you not only get to hear the info from the horse's mouth, but you get to read body language, too. This helps get a feel for who’s leading the charge and who may have slightly conflicting views. The fun bit can be pitching those two attendees together and seeing how it plays out. Well managed, these can be the interactions where the true value is extracted, discussed and debated.
Within the workshop environment you can be as creative as you feel is necessary to extract the information you need. From simply asking questions and detailing the answers to interactive post-it sessions and brand personality drawing challenges - it all works. Tools such as a SWOT analysis can be good to bring teams together and let everyone have their say in a safe environment, as can focusing on the functional and the emotional benefits. Both operated on a simple axis, they are a great way of getting a lot of information out on the table in an inclusive way.
Other approaches to research we use are one-to-one interviews, either face-to-face or via telephone, focus groups and online surveys.
One last area to have a good look into is history. And maybe this should come first really, as it often does when we run our sessions. We like to learn from the ground up. History and nostalgia can play a part and be the inspiration for a brand in the future. Whether that is to learn why the business was set up in the first place or to guide future positioning and product innovation, looking into the past can be a good place to find the answers for the future, and often helps audiences fall in love with brands all over again.
Well, trial, error and testing really. Our process of analysis and creative brand strategy building is iterative. We take over a room, get everything up on the walls and start to define. Then we discuss, pull it apart and put it back together until eventually we have a model we feel comfortable with. And sometimes the answers to the six questions and one statement can be numerous, so we test them with our client to judge their reaction and take on board their input.
After all, we need them to be as engaged, on board and excited as we are.
Following our own rules and starting with ‘why’, this question should really have been at the start of this post (naughty, naughty…slap on the wrist).
If you’re a client, there can be a number of reasons why creating a brand or going through a rebrand is the right thing to do. These are some of the factors that will affect the decision:
Rebrand forced by corporate change
Rebrand to reflect structural alignment
Rebrand forced by the competition
Brands created from market insight and/or gaps in the market
Rebrand to force a change of perception
Rebrand forced by performance
Rebrand forced by the product life cycle
Rebrand to seem more relevant and authentic
The need to simplify
The need for clearer intellectual property
The need to align brand with corporate strategy
I was recently asked by a client we did a brand identity for some years ago how often they should think about rebranding; the answer really comes down to whether there is a good and justifiable reason to do it. Does their business challenge fit into any of the above bullet points? After all, it does cost money, it can take some time when done properly and there are practical knock-on effects (collateral, signage, livery etc.).
But done well and for the right reasons, a brand project can and will be powerful for a business or organisation.
Brand can realign organisations, raise millions in funds and billions on the stock market; it can help reassess companies, countries and people, and transform the fate of product and services; it can unite teams and offer direction and purpose. The list goes on.
If the Coca-Cola advertising of the 1930s can essentially rebrand Santa, imagine what it could do for your organisation?
Brand is powerful stuff. Well, it can be when put in the right hands.
There will be many consultants that will tell you they can nail it in one 30-minute meeting and have all the answers. Honestly...they can’t and, although tempting from a financial perspective, don’t believe it. It’s a false economy.
There’s a lot to be said for someone like us coming in and running the process for you. We have the advantage of being impartial, therefore open to opposing views and perspectives without judgement or the benefit of historical shenanigans (if there’ve been any).
We can be the moderator and the thinker, and our sole purpose is to get to the bottom of what's best for the brand and the business - without prejudice.
If you are thinking of starting a brand or rebrand project and you think we can help, then we’d love to hear from you.
We recently covered this topic as one of our Feast Lunch & Learn events, so if you would like to listen to this article in Podcast form, here it is.