Stop confusing strategy and brand strategy

When I tell people I help companies with their “strategy” the response I invariably get is “what kind of strategy?”.  This is because people are familiar with isolated subsets of strategy (social media strategy, sales strategy, recruitment strategy, etc.), but they aren’t familiar with “company strategy” as a whole.

This “holistic” strategy, which sits at the top of the pyramid so to speak, is unfamiliar to most brands and founders, and so exists in their organisations as something of a vacuum – creating various problems at lower levels of the hierarchy.

This is why I spend such a vast amount of my time and energy on education.  My first job is simply showing people that macro strategy even exists – and only then can we actually discuss it and engage with it.

As you can imagine, this makes my biz dev process very laborious 🙂

Amidst all this confusion however there is one mistake which I see cropping up time and time again which I wanted to tackle head-on today:

Confusing company strategy with “brand strategy”.

You see, because people don’t have a concept of company strategy, they tend to grope for the sub-strategy which is closest to it, and hence generally end up talking about and thinking about brand strategy.  Countless times I’ve been described by people as a “brand strategy guy” in the absence of an alternative, and although I do indeed turn my hand to brand strategy, it is crucial to point out that it is not the same thing as pure company strategy.

The simple way to understand the difference is this:

Strategy = What a business does
Brand strategy = How the business communicates what it does

As you can see the distinction is super simple, but it doesn’t stop people tripping over the definitions time and again.

I think the confusion arises because both of these types of strategy are consumer oriented.  They both pertain to the relationship that a brand has with the world.  They are outward facing.  Strategy (usually) determines the value that the business delivers to the market, and brand strategy determines how that value will be presented.  As a result they are arguably two sides of the same coin – and that’s why pretty much all of my projects progress from company strategy to brand strategy in a sequential manner.

(Another more subtle issue is that “brand” in the proper sense doesn’t only comprise creative comms and design – “branding” –  but also the physical and operational characteristics of a business.  However “brand strategy” only applies to the presentation part of this equation, which is admittedly quite confusing – it should probably really be called “branding strategy”, but I digress…)

Where problems arise is when brands try to use brand strategy to do strategy’s job – an error that occurs all the time.

All brand strategy can do is present the business as it is today in the best possible light.  Because of this, it is fundamentally limited by whatever the business is currently offering.  Amazing brand strategy applied to a flawed offering is the very definition of polishing the proverbial turd.  The endeavour was doomed from the start.

This is why so many expensive rebranding projects ultimately fail to deliver.

Although the agency may do a brilliant job on the brand strategy, they can only apply it to the business you give them.  If that business is somehow misaligned or flawed then the entire project is compromised.

Worst of all, because people are unaware that there is another layer of strategy above brand strategy, they have no idea this is what’s going on.  They think the brand strategy will “fix” everything for them, when it simply doesn’t have the mandate to do so.

A brand strategy can’t tell you what your product should be.

A brand strategy can’t tell you where and how you should sell it.

A brand strategy can’t tell you how you should organise your range.

A brand strategy can’t align all the parts of your business into a singular whole.

Only a strategy can do these things.  And that’s why it’s essential to have the relationship of these two things straight in your mind.

I’m not going to lie, explaining this to people isn’t going to be easy.  You can’t just jaunt around talking about “strategy” or even “company strategy” or “whole business” strategy without creating confusion.  (Believe me, you’ll feel my pain!)

But you’ve got to get used to it, as it’s foundational to everything else.

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