But what is brand strategy becoming?
Research company Gartner recently announced that, partially at least, in response to the pandemic and its associated uncertainties, CMOs now rank ‘brand strategy’ as their top priority. As with any survey, we should consider the research skeptically — but since CMOs largely direct how they spend their budgets, it’s worth the industry that serves them considering what they might be looking for assistance with.
The survey was interesting beyond the headlines. Previously the same group considered analytics their most vital marketing capability, which highlights both the increased scrutiny that marketing faces to be accountable and the endless pendulum that swings in the industry, between brand and performance. Keen agency observers will also note that ‘analytics’ was also the largest budget item that year according to the same CMOs.
Even closer consideration of the poll posits an existential quandary that cuts to the heart of the entire industry. While brand strategy is newly enshrined at the top, advertising comes joint bottom with media buying. This disparity might seem odd depending on (of course, always) what is meant by ‘brand strategy’.
The word brand, as Mark Earls has noted, is used in a variety of different cases in everyday industry speech. It can refer to a mark, set of values and guidelines, set of associations in the mind of the consumer, a product from a certain company, or the company itself. We switch between different uses all the time but this has an impact on what we, and clients, and CFOs, understand ‘brand strategy’ to be.
The very blurriness of the word makes it suspect to the analytically driven minds in finance and technology, who tend to prefer abstractions that can more easily be assigned numerical values.
Brand evolved from a mark into a personality metaphor thanks to the groundbreaking work of Stephen King. His insight was that people naturally anthropomorphize products by appending personality attributes to them. This perception can be impacted by advertising and appeared to help people make decisions, which created price inelasticity of demand and made advertising more effective. In essence, by adhering to guidelines that create consistency — with an eye on the holistic impact on people’s perceptions — advertising’s incremental effects accrue over time.
It also facilitated more streamlined coordination and workflow in large marketing organizations. Brands are a strategic tool. So we used the idea to inform creative briefs with more consistency for specific products and companies. In its modern conception, then, brand was a set of associations, an image of a product or a company. Brand strategy was an approach to shaping that image for commercial impact. This consisted of brand identity, to create visual consistency, and brand values, to create tonal consistency in marketing communications.
How then, to make sense of the Gartner research that shows clients now consider it quite separately from advertising? It seems unlikely that CMOs are urgently concerned with logo designs since ‘creative design’ also sits very close to the bottom of the list, which suggests that the term has shifted in meaning. We can see strands of this thinking developing as the brand meme worked its way out of advertising agencies and new marketing opportunities emerged. New types of agencies were spawned to manage customer communications in new spaces and suddenly the brand construct had to shape and inform a raft of different disciplines: PR, media, digital, customers experiences, and so on.
Advertising was previously the most important vector of brand for a simple reason. Most people are not the customers of most brands (or are very occasional customers) — but everyone saw the same mass advertising at the same time. This balance began to shift for lots of digital reasons, such as online reviews allowing individual product experiences to scale and social media helping customer services nightmares make the national news. People began to endlessly mediate their own existences and thoughts and personal branding became a ubiquitous concept, resting on foundations of personal authenticity, an alignment of identity, action and utterance. It became increasingly obvious that the brand, even as originally envisaged, was created by the totality of someone’s interactions: the advertising, the product, what they know and feel about the company, what their friends say, how it’s presented in the media, and so on.
Then, brand became intertwined with some other corporate ideas, like mission statements, ’finding your why’, and, ultimately, purpose. This led to a strange few years where marketing clients would work with their agencies to articulate their employer’s purpose, which is where the fault line clearly emerges. For a brand to reflect a company’s purpose, it must encapsulate what officers and employees believe and how that directs their behavior, not just what people think about them. This is mostly beyond the purview of advertising agencies. Either the brand values are the values of the company or they are cynical liturgies, solemnly intoned but thoroughly ignored.
To have values is to act in accordance with your beliefs. Unfortunately, recent research from MIT Sloan School of Management suggests that isn’t the case for corporations. The researchers compared the stated values of 700 large companies to data from the MIT Culture 500 report, which ranks companies on key values based on employee reviews. The analysis revealed that
“there is no correlation between the cultural values a company emphasizes in its published statements and how well the company lives up to those values in the eyes of employees”.
Corporate trust violations such as the VW emissions scandal show clearly how a brand value of ‘responsibility’ doesn’t guarantee such. After the scandal they changed it to ‘integrity’, the most frequently espoused corporate value in the study. If brand values are just words and companies feel no compunction to not say one thing and do another, then when do advertising agencies become liars for hire?
If the brand is created by the totality of interactions, then it is informed by the behavior of the company and thus brand strategy should always be the top priority for marketers. In this formulation, it becomes a core pillar of ‘capital S strategy’, undertaken with a deep understanding of people across every aspect of the business, internally and externally.
This is the opportunity that two of the most lauded strategists in the UK are looking to capitalize on. Craig Mawdsley and Bridget Angear have been joint CSOs of the biggest advertising agency in the UK for a decade, leading some of its most impactful work.
In 2021 they recognized the dissonance between what agencies call strategy and what clients think it is:
“ I think for many years, we thought we were doing ‘strategy’, but a lot of it was really just creative inspiration.
Turning abstract adjectives into specific behavioral guidelines for employees, aligning incentives and responsibilities, brand becomes a generative idea that helps people make decisions on the ground and makes companies more equitable to boot, since a value is only a value if universally applied. Brand strategy then can look for solutions outside of advertising.
Operating without a creative department to feed, we can address those questions of “how can I grow my brand?”, “how can I find an idea that changes my business, not just my comms?”
Externally, brand strategy directs the interactions between companies, customers and culture to source and harvest future revenue by acquiring and retaining customers. Dare I say it, some people used to call that marketing. Perhaps inside the mirror of Gartner’s survey we may scry its spirit crying out to be born again, or at least some CMOs crying out for a seat at the top table.
Adapted from an article for WARC.
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