Opinion: When is a brand strategy not a brand strategy?
There’s a pattern to many branding projects. From global powerhouses to plucky start-ups, there’s a bell curve that most experienced brand agencies will recognise all too well; from optimism and confidence to inevitable rebrand, and it costs clients dearly.
The client takes that first step, acknowledging that they need help with their brand direction. They pitch, you win, the agency pulls them apart and puts them back together again. But it’s more than skin deep – the client gets a strategy. Every inch of design, every pixel of digital, works to the strategic goals set out by their board.
The brand is revealed and, for a glorious six months, the sun will shine. The client gets its refresh, a metric boost in sales or traffic, plus that pat on the back from the board. The agency gets its crafted case study, healthy revenue and hopefully another trophy for the shelf.
In time the emphasis switches from the strategic back to the tactical. The budgets swing back into sales and campaigns. Staring at the same design language every day the interest levels from the client begin to wane and the need for day-to-day flexibility begins to bend those previously unbreakable brand rules established during the launch.
With the emphasis back on the short term, the marketing creeps away from the slick vision presented by the agency. As a result, the metrics begin to slide and questions start to be asked. The agency’s inevitable response: we didn’t stick to the plan.
It’s a pattern that’s all too common. It’s no reflection on the quality of the creative work or the clients, it’s just a natural inertia which businesses and agencies need to manage, together.
Marketing teams do need freedom and flexibility. But a great brand strategy (“be the most premium vodka in the market”, “own the idea of craft in our sector”, “be in every kitchen in the UK”) shouldn’t change for three, or five, or even ten years. Equity and results are only built over time. If you veer from a plan, no matter how great the short-term gain, you get lost and waste a lot of marketing budget in the process.
Most great brand agencies will have their own method of fighting this bell curve. For us, it’s about setting out the difference between tactics and strategy right from the start. Clients can change tactics, allowing them to be responsive, agile and flexible, but they can’t change strategy. That’s their long-term investment; be it positioning, design language or just a simple idea underpinning communications.
Limitations can be useful. A focused brand is neither constrained or boring. Creativity works much better when you know where your boundaries lie. After all, you won’t hear the marketing team at Coca-Cola wonder if red is still the colour for them.
Mark Cullen is a planner for Good