No, I don’t want to see your brand dodecahedron

Brand strategy has puffed itself up to be so important it’s put on a pedestal, and it’s high time we knocked it off. Let’s drop the diagrams and faux-strategy once and for all. 

Rob Mitchell
Rob Mitchell

We’ve all been there. Brand presentations that take about three-and-a-half days to go through. The first part often goes over that particular agency’s or client’s take on branding. In this bit, they’ll tell you that it isn’t about slapping a logo on everything. It’s much, much more than that. They’ll probably have a SillyGrandioseLabel® for what they do, which sums up what branding is, just with a ™ on the end. 500 insights, activation plans, and all manner of shapes (triangles, keys, doughnuts, onions) later… you get a ‘proposition’ that’s ‘not for external use’ and is so broad you could recycle it for any other brand. If a good product, service or idea comes off the back of these soupy strategies, it’s a miracle. Or the strategy’s post-rationalised to fit it.

It goes on, and so could I, but I’ll spare you. The question to ask is whether it’s too late to do something about it. Because most companies have built their marketing departments on this brand slop. There are proposition managers, insight specialists and customer loyalty executives a-go-go. So it’s hard to change, even if clients really want to and think they can.

If a strategy’s written really clearly, in ‘normal’ words (and this is rare in itself), things still go wrong. Yes, the client says, you’ve nailed it. Now I get it. Thanks very much. But then it gets lost in the machine. Or emailed to thirty people who all tinker with it. And the less sure a brand is about who they are, the more this happens. Because as you peel back the layers of brand onions, you find that the big ideas everyone bangs on about aren’t as big they make them out to be. People feel more comfortable making branding and strategy fuzzy. It’s become the default.  

I’ve realised that writing strategies in simpler words will only ever get you so far. You see, the problem isn’t really about ‘jargon’ or clearer writing at all. It’s more that strategy has become this strange separate thing, buzzing about in its own little orbit. And we need to bring it back down to earth.

Part of this is about changing how consultancies work, so they follow more of an ad agency model, where designers and writers pair up to do the thinking at the same time as everything else. So instead of starting with ‘brand stories’ or ‘propositions’, skip to the doing bit and ask: how would that work on a phone, what would a shop or event feel like? What would the product or service look like? How would it sound? What else would go on around it? So when it’s presented to clients, there’s a short summary of the overall idea – still in normal words – but with lots more examples of how it works in practice. Things to see. Stuff to read. It means the strategic bit isn’t this abstract thing trapped in a perpetual PowerPoint presentation. And the big ‘ta-dah’ moment isn’t just a logo on a screen either, or three words describing a tone of voice.

Sparky ideas, clear strategies, design magic and word wizardry all in one go. We could even call it brand alchemy, brand wonderment or brand lucidity, but then again, no.  

Rob Mitchell is the co-founder of We All Need Words.

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  • Guy Tierney November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    “where designers and writers pair up to do the thinking at the same time as everything else”

    I think this is exactly what smaller (smarter, more efficient?) design agencies already do. Unfortunately in order to mix it up with the big brands you need a structure that is as convoluted as theirs. Birds of a feather…

  • Phil Smithson November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    Thank you, thank you, a million times thank you. I was beginning to fear we had all lost our individual and collective sanity forever. Reminded me of a Guardian article a month or so ago about the museum of failed product launches. It is unlikely to ever grow short of new exhibits.

  • Toni O'Berry November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    Brand strategy is only half of the equation. By itself it is creatively undefined and left to individual interpretation. A brand strategy is needed to translate and define the image, voice and behaviors in the market.

    A brand + creative strategy methodology is most effective. It provides enough structure to the creative process to consistently deliver ROI.

    The ‘secret sauce’ however will always be the quality of the team. Their critical thinking and creative problem solving skills, how they creatively interpret and translate strategy, how well they rationalize their decisions and how they challenge themselves to avoid mediocrity.

    I agree smaller strategic shops tend to do this best. Larger firms need to streamline processes and generalize results in order to be profitable – striping most brands of their distinction and opportunity in the market.

  • Guto November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    It’s all about visioning, application and ideas always is, it’s the only way to inspire and engage with clients and audiences. Strategies have replaced good briefs, and that’s not a good thing…

  • Avril Broadley November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    The strategy bubble will burst, just like the pensions bubble, the housing bubble, the banking bubble and the rest.

    We are designers and as such our creative thinking brings all kinds of rewards to our clients. Often our insight can help them rethink their business strategy and challenge outmoded ideas.

    But the premise that any of us has the magical formula for brand success up our sleeves is just silly. We are designers – strategists plan wars and council estates!

    Bring back design.

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