Got Brand Strategy FOMO?
If you’re a designer, it might feel like it’s the job title on just about every person’s Linkedin or Instagram bio — but are you actually missing out on being a brand strategist too?
If you also engage on Instagram and Linkedin, as well as the broader design community, you might have seen/heard a fair bit of talk about brand strategy in the recent month/months.
If you’ve got no idea what I’m talking about, that’s ok, or if branding and brand strategy is of no interest, not a problem at all. This story is probably not for you. But if it is, buckle up.
Now I want to take you back a few years to 2018. I heard this term brand strategy just before I started my own business. Since then I’ve come to learn more and formed my own opinions of it that may contrast to your own. So bare with me if that’s the case.
Initially, I was guided by some knowledge on brand strategy, when it was presented by The Futur and by the tremendous outcomes fellow branding designer, Melinda Livsey, who as a result of similar knowledge but further education in her experiences with the Futur’s ecosystem, went on to become a brand strategist and subsequently a few years on has now become an educator in the space.
But back at that moment in 2018, I thought, this amazing! As a designer, a new benchmark had been set in my mind that a designer is capable of charging as Melinda charged for a brand strategy that didn’t even include design deliverables. It was a tremendous mindset shift to realise what is possible and for me, like many others who engaged in Melinda’s journey, I could potentially also achieve this relative new height. Especially if you were anything like me, on the verge of starting a branding business and charging maybe $1500 for branding.
Personally, I think it should be seen as a championing story for anyone who now calls themselves a brand strategist if they were invested in this experience of Melinda’s that was brought to us by The Futur and it became the catalyst for becoming a brand strategist too.
That aside, as I engaged further into understanding more about brand, branding, brand identity and a brand strategy, the more the latter two became separated. Like an ice-cube cracking and separating in a glass of room temperature whiskey. They both chill the whiskey and the glass to achieve the same goal, but brand identity design and brand strategy became distinctively different in my mind.
My way of seeing the difference is that the purpose of brand strategy and by extension, a brand strategist, is not to produce a brand identity as an end goal. That is branding — to design and/or implement a brand identity (distinctive assets like logo, tagline, colours, fonts, tone of voice, etc).
The purpose of brand strategy to me is to understand the brand in both the business and its customer’s mind. To then identify the goal the brand has (either short or long term) and either the problem that influences what the goal becomes or if the problem is getting in the way of achieving it their goal.
The deliverable is to outline a prioritised plan of steps (a ‘strategy’) that the business will need to take to achieve that goal with an obvious degree of risk given there are no guarantees. And to do so, requires research, analysis, testing and executing — something a brand strategist may not do themselves, but a strategy is just an idea until it’s implemented to know if it was a good or bad strategy.
Where this implementation comes into effect is a lot of the time centred around the use of marketing, advertising or branding.
When Colin Kaepernick took a knee during the United States’ national anthem at an NFL game, he was a star quarterback player for his team. The major sponsor of the NFL, the San Francisco 49ers and Colin, was Nike. A brand goal or problem, whichever way you want to see it, was to decide whether to side with Colin or not if his stance was aligned with the brand values, mission and perception the world has of Nike. Nike stood with him and the execution that played out was an advertising campaign with a black and white photo of Colin’s face and a tagline that read “Believe in something. Even if that means sacrificing everything”.
When Telsa enters the market as a disruptor brand that has now become the influential beacon for change to the car manufacturing industry. They would no doubt want their cars in the hands of every person possible, however, but in 2012 when their Model S was released, they were still a relatively small company compared to it’s competition. So at that level to achieve a shift to what it is you’re selling, your initial sales need to be from early adopters who are willing to invest in something new. But not just any person. A person with money, so the strategy Tesla needed to take was a marketing mix of price, position, people and of course, product, to market their vehicle at a high price point to compete with the luxury car category and appeal to that kind of buyer to grow their business and grow their brand. The long play will no doubt shift to allow them to expand over time, improve their technology and subsequently bring down the price point to then be a car brand for the masses. Case in point, the newer Model 3 coming in at around $65k compared to the Model S at $130k (AUD).
ONE MORE EXAMPLE:
When BP had a massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010. There was a significant dent in the trust and perception of BP as a result. Even once they fixed the issue, that perception they had built over 60+ years was tarnished by the very thing they sell and with that, their logo became a symbol of that event. The brand strategy to overcome this was to re-brand the company. Just as Volkswagen has more recently done as a result of its diesel emissions scandal.
Where I fit myself into all of this now, is that in terms of a process, I develop a businesses core brand attributes (be it the purpose, values, vision, mission, target market, their why, etc), their brand message (taglines, brand story, customer avatar story, USP/UVP, etc) and their visual identity (logo, fonts, colours, imagery, etc). I call this developing a brand identity. It does include what I call a ‘brand direction’ or what most call a brand strategy, to outline what the specific goalposts are they need to work towards, along with an outline of their future plan to succeed as a brand, simply to position their brand in their market.
You may see this differently and that’s ok and you may be just yelling at me saying I’m a brand strategist. But what I call myself doesn’t really matter. What it comes down to is setting expectations with our client to ensure they know what they are getting and how it will help them. By doing so, we let our clients make their own best judgement, based on our advice, to decide whether or not to proceed.
Now if you happen to do the same as me, it’s most likely done with a strategic approach if frontloaded with a discovery session to make sure that a brand identity is actually needed to be made (or re-branded) and that we have a good grasp on our clients and their needs.
But if you’re doing more than this and you’re doing what I described before as brand strategy. What you might be aware of is that there are components of marketing, business, communications & PR, psychology, buyer behaviour, data analysis and tracking. It’s the knowledge that is needed to deliver a broader or higher level of brand strategy or brand management services.
Because in order to position a brand effectively in its market and a buyers mind or ‘gut feeling’ as Marty Neumeier describes it, based on market and business conditions. You’re going to need to know the lay of the land pretty well to determine the best course of action in a potentially high-risk situation.
And this stuff is still hard work! It’s not just walking into a room, asking a bunch of questions and letting your clients discover their own “ah-hah!” moment to move forward with.
So between brand identity design (branding) and brand strategy, they are two different disciplines. Sure they can be done by one person, but I believe it requires a tremendous breadth of knowledge and skill to execute both. It might also require a whole different mindset or way of thinking that is less creative (especially visually) like most of us as designers are. This is why many brand strategists I’ve come across do not profess to be designers.
However, this is where the FOMO comes in (Fear Of Missing Out).
If you are anything like I once felt — feeling the ‘need’ to become a brand strategist to be taken more seriously, have a seat at the table with an executive team or do so to charge more because it’s adding more services to the list of value you can deliver. If that’s what you believe you need to do, bravo! You need to do what you gotta do. Personally, I thought this was the unlock at the time I discovered it. That was until I realised it wasn’t something that interested me.
It wasn’t how I could best help my clients and I realised that my understanding of high-level brand strategy is typically overkill for many small to medium businesses. So I’ve not pursued further education about how to effectively carry out brand strategy at a higher level. So instead, I implement more of a non-negotiable ‘strategic’ process to develop a brand identity for a client’s business. Which for most businesses is a decent logo that actually has meaning and purpose attributed to it when aligned with the rest of the identity I create with it. By doing so it becomes a great bonus for our clients and I would like to hope it will help them develop greater brand equity over time. Because once they see the benefits over time of already having a brand identity in place and guidelines to refer back to when necessary as they grow, that’s when the pay off will happen.
As a result, I don’t believe we are missing out as designers by not changing our practice to incorporate other skills like brand strategy. Because in my mind, by doing more things you are quite rightly adding more value, but you are not necessarily more valuable. Being valuable can be as simple as doing something someone else can’t. Which for us as designers is in most cases true when many of our clients can’t draw, photoshop, take a photo or develop a website. And it’s why I’m more inclined to bring on a copywriter, web developer, UX designer or brand strategist who does what they do best and collaborate to offer a client more value.
So what do I think makes us more valuable?
Being able to solve a client’s pain point with a service that is reputable, engages them in a memorable experience and delivers a great result that meets their expectations so that the value delivered exceeds the monetary value of what they paid for our services.
Brand strategy isn’t for everyone. So be proud to call yourself a designer if that’s what you do best to help others, “because you’re worth it” 😉 …thank you L’Oréal #notsponsored — ha!