I recently landed a new client who had been thinking of hiring a brand strategist for more than four years. This particular entrepreneur is exceptionally mindful about what he buys and who he works with. In fact, he’s particular to a fault, often over-thinking simple decisions and holding up progress in the name of over-analysis.
I first spoke with him three years ago as he began his research into branding and brand strategists. I don’t remember what I told him, but it must have left an impression. As he put it, the more research he did the more intrigued he was with me and my firm.
“You just seem to have a different perspective than everyone else,” he told me. “The way that I thought about getting into business in the past was all product focused, but now I know I can do better than that… There’s a whole ‘nother lens of business development and creation that I had no idea of. I see that now, but I didn’t realize it right away.”
If I look at this client purely from a sales standpoint I think, “why the hell didn’t I follow up more effectively and close this guy years ago.” But if I look at it from a brand strategy perspective it’s all part of my bigger, diabolical plan… a classic case of long-play content marketing that actually pays dividends.
As he dove into the muddled world of online marketing tips, listicles, mis-information, podcasts and video content he kept going back to the Brand Insight Blog. Even though I had never done a piece specifically titled “What brand strategists do” he got the education — and eventually the motivation — he needed by reading a slew of long-format articles:
He also read a ton of stuff from other brand strategists, sat through multiple webinars and watched all sorts of videos that spell out the benefits of brand strategy.
What he came away with is a clear sense of differentiation..
“I read the article you did about relevance, differentiation and credibility,” he said. “Now I can really see how that applies to your business, as well as mine. You’re so much different than all these other guys who are ‘brand strategists.’ And it’s not just your experience. It’s how you talk about it, how you include marketing and operations and even HR issues into your brand strategy work. It’s so much more comprehensive. Most of the strategists I’ve talked with are very design oriented. They never asked me about these bigger business issues that we’ve been talking about.”
As I watch the recordings of our Zoom calls I can relive his Ah-Ha moments and it brings pure joy to my heart. It took years of work on his own, and a few months of coaching with me, but now he gets it. He clearly sees the role of brand strategy and the path forward forward for his business.
What to consider when hiring a brand strategist.
The term “brand strategist” is a relatively new invention. (Leave it to the marketing community to coin a new phrase for something that’s been standard procedure for 30 years.)
In the big-agency world of advertising they’re known as Account Planners, and they have substantial backgrounds in quantitative and qualitative market research. Big consulting firms like McKenzie & Accenture also hire Planners, who commonly have MBAs or PhDs.
But, as in all marketing disciplines, there’s a broad spectrum of ability, understanding, nuance and expertise in brand strategy work. There are real pros, and there are posers.
In the past 10 years many young graphic designers have expanded their roles to include “brand strategist” in their LinkedIn bios. That’s a good thing, because it demonstrates an awareness that branding goes beyond logos and color palates.
Plus, it’s good for the designer’s business… they can procure larger budgets than what they’d get for a typical brand identity project.
But design chops do not equate to expertise in brand strategy development.
Just because you can design a nice looking logo for a company doesn’t mean you can comprehend the client’s business challenges and write an insightful brand strategy. It’s extremely rare to find a talented designer who can stretch that far laterally.
Few can develop a solid strategy one day and a gorgeous identity design the next. It just doesn’t work like that. Brand strategy is another animal altogether.
In my experience it’s always been a team effort that produces meaningful insight and a category-busting brand strategy. Usually it’s a writer, strategist, designer, and open-minded client working closely together. It’s not a designer doing a few extra hours of work to crank out a graphic standards document disguised as brand strategy.
Let me be very clear about the marketing terminology in play here… If you believe “brand” is all about logo design and image then a brand strategist has very limited value and the brand strategy is nothing more than a tidy little brief for the designer who’s doing the logo. Although that’s an important component of brand strategy, that’s not all there is to it.
Wally Olins, the godfather of modern branding said, “I believe that the business of branding is much more complex and more deeply rooted than people believe it is.”
Brand Strategy is the precursor to marketing strategy. Because everything you do in marketing affects your branding effort. And quite frankly, you can’t separate Brand Strategy from Business Strategy.
Therefore, Brand Strategy involves real marketing analysis into consumer behavior, market conditions, competitive environments and cultural trends. It has to include a comprehensive assessment of the entire business model. It’s not just a tidy little brief for the designer who’s doing the logo. (Although that’s an important component.)
Even the best, seasoned marketing executives often mistake marketing tactics for strategy.
It’s easy to get caught up in the long list of things to do and places to advertise, and gloss right over the thinking behind the tactics.
The problem is so pervasive there’s a business that’s been built around that: The Better Brief Project. They’ve done extensive market research that proves there’s a huge gap between the “strategy” that marketing people think they have, and the input that ad agencies get.
Here’s a quick tip: If you see the word “strategies” – plural – you’re on the wrong path. I heard this from a client just the other day; “We’re planning out our strategies for next year and we could use some help.”
Strategy is singular. Focused. Holistic. Unique.
Tactics are plural. Every business should have a long list of marketing tactics. They’re done by everyone, including your competitors. But no one else should have your strategy.
My point is, even if you think you have your marketing strategy nailed, it’s probably not as strategic as you think it is. So you’re right to be thinking about hiring an experienced brand strategist… Someone who can provide an unbiased, expert perspective on everything you’re doing.
The best brand strategists are marketing generalists who have seen a boatload of business scenarios. We’ve worked with companies caught in major shit storms and others who are sailing along in perfectly calm seas. We know how to find blue oceans of opportunity, no matter the circumstances.
If you’re thinking of hiring a brand strategist, you should also be thinking about your business strategy — ie your category, value proposition, relevance, credibility and differentiation.
For that new client of mine, much of the strategic focus is on category design. That is, on which playing field is he choosing to compete.
Every business has options for that. You don’t have to just accept that you’re playing on the same field as all your competitors.
If you’re an accountant you don’t have to compete against all the other ordinary accountants out there.
Zig while everyone else is zagging.
You can choose to niche down and differentiate yourself. You can devise a brand strategy that will separate you from the crowd — if it’s well executed on every front.
There’s nothing formulaic about the brand strategy process.
Every situation is unique. Sure, there are some basic, run of the mill questions that everyone asks, but if that’s as deep as you go you’re only going to get obvious answers that produce an obvious, run of the mill strategy. Just like all your competitors.
If you want truly differentiating, category-busting strategy you have to do deeper to find genuine consumer insight.
It’s not about seeing things as they are, it’s about seeing things as they could be. What’s true today isn’t necessarily going to be true in your market in a few years, so looking forward is the key. That’s where you find game-changing insight.
Insight drives the strategy that dictates the execution. That’s the progression of it. That’s how things should line up. It takes time, patience, and a thorough understanding of all the variable that affect your business.
So a brand strategy is not something that can be cranked out in one “strategy session.” If that’s what a brand strategist is selling, beware. The only way that could work is if the one-day off site session follows at least a month of exploration, research, and back-and-forths with the client.
I sometimes use the analogy of an embedded reporter. A good brand strategist gets in deep with the client before he starts rattling off potential strategy ideas.
And sometimes it works both ways… clients have to get embedded with the strategist before pulling the trigger.