It’s time to get brand strategy back on track

Fabio Buresti, group strategy officer, The Monkeys, part of Accenture Interactive
By Fabio Buresti, group strategy officer, The Monkeys, part of Accenture Interactive | 4 November 2019

As an industry, we need to take an honest look at ourselves when it comes to the long-term strategies behind the brands we work on. I’m not talking about campaign platforms and messaging, but the strategic foundation they’re built on. The thing that should never, ever, change.

As marketing professor Mark Ritson pointed out in a previous opinion piece, most Australian brands have no enduring strategy – “they veer all over the map like a ship with no captain”. That’s a damning indictment on our industry, especially when the world’s leading advertising effectiveness data categorically proves that brand-building is a key driver of long-term business growth.

What can we do to get things heading in the right direction? Here’s my two cents.

We need to draw a line between brand and communications strategy

Having worked in a few creative agencies and having judged my fair share of strategy awards, it’s safe to say that “brand strategy” is one of the most misused terms in our industry.

Most agencies don’t distinguish between a brand and a communications strategy. Instead, they talk about shifting a mindset, selling an occasion or owning an attitude. Humanising a brand or making it more aspirational. Zigging while everyone else zags. There’s nothing wrong with doing any of this, but we need to be clear that these are communications tactics, not a brand strategy. They’re not things brands can stand for. And if we’re not careful, these can get in the way of building long-term brand equity.

A great brand strategy anchors a brand in a distinct place, and when done right, is big and flexible enough to endure. Lamb, for example, has a consistent brand strategy: unity – which means it brings people together. A little while ago, The Monkeys and Meat and Livestock Australia (MLA) evolved its expression in communications from “You Never Lamb Alone” to “Share the Lamb.” Both embody the brand strategy but express it in different ways. Unfortunately, not enough Australian brands have the strategic foundation to do this.

If we’re serious about solving the problem of short-term brand thinking, more agencies need to draw a clear line in the sand between brand strategy and communications strategy. Which means they need to clearly articulate the bigger meaning behind the brand, independent of the creative approach. A key part of this is proving how the brand strategy can influence the business, it’s culture and the customer experience, not just the advertising. If more of us do this, we will create brands with strategies that live on well beyond the shelf life of individual campaigns.

We need to ensure our quest for originality doesn’t come at the expense of the brand

Advertising’s unquenchable thirst for original thinking and reinvention makes long-term brand strategy and stewardship pretty unpopular. It tempts agencies to look past the true strategic foundation of a brand in order to do something fresh and innovative.

The truth is that not every brand needs a new strategy – sometimes it just needs to be sharpened and better articulated. When’s the last time you walked into a room and told a client that their original brand strategy was the thing they should (re)embrace and that they just need to find a new way to deliver it?

I remember it happening on NRMA Insurance. Historically, the spiritual heart of the brand was ‘Help’ - and it’s something that’s as true to the business now as it ever has been. Over the years though, NRMA moved on from ‘Help’. But we believed that the best thing the business could do was to embrace their rightful brand strategy of ‘Help’ – and so did the CMO. Critically, we didn’t execute ‘Help’ in the same way, we evolved it creatively and are continuing to find new ways to express it.

More agencies and clients need to have the confidence to do what’s strategically right - which can sometimes mean going back to what made their brand great to begin with. There’s no shame in it. Often, it’s the bravest thing you can recommend, because that original strategy probably wasn’t yours to begin with. You just need to believe there’s always a new and interesting way to reinterpret it.

We need to encourage the industry to reward long-term brand thinking

According to The Institute of Practitioners in Advertising (IPA) and the World Advertising Research Centre (WARC) rankings data, creatively awarded campaigns are now less effective than they have ever been. Advertising effectiveness guru Peter Field attributes this collapse in effectiveness to the shift to short-term focused creativity and the media trends that go along with it (i.e. less spend, shorter bursts of activity in more targeted channels).

The industry is never going to stop placing a lot of stock in awards, and nor should they, but we also need them to help solve the problem of short-term brand thinking. One way is to put greater emphasis on brand strategy and long-term creative thinking when it comes to award shows. Imagine the shift that could be achieved if creativity born from brand strategy became the most coveted award in our industry.

So, let’s encourage creative award shows to celebrate and prioritise long-term brand campaigns that evolve from a robust brand strategy. And let’s encourage the effectiveness and strategy award shows to follow suit by creating a specific category for long-term brand strategy, not just the longest running advertising campaign. If we do this, then there will be a greater incentive for even the most ambitious and creatively driven agency stalwarts to be part of the solution.

We need to overcome the high industry churn rates

Fewer agency folk are able to take responsibility for their clients’ long-term success. And it’s no wonder - with such a high turnover of staff in agency land (usually sitting between ~35-40%) there’s nobody left to fight for, and champion, the brand strategy when the creators of it have long since departed.

On top of this, the relatively short tenure for an Aussie CMO (less than two and a half years), means keeping a brand strategy safe from an ambitious new CMO can be even more challenging. Why? Because making your mark as CMO as quickly as possible raises your stock price, and one of the best ways to do it is by throwing everything in the bin and starting again. To be frank, sometimes, this is exactly what’s required – especially when the brand strategy isn’t good enough. But it will often spell the end of the strategy regardless of its quality and you’re forced to start again. And the cycle of short-termism continues.

But it doesn’t have to be this way.

Agencies must have a sound brand strategy development process and framework that’s respected and understood by all in the business, so the baton of responsibility continues to get passed on long after its creators have departed.

We also need to get more CMOs to recognise the value of long-term brand strategy and stewardship so they’ll be more eager to have one and less likely to walk away from it. Even if it wasn’t theirs to begin with.

And while churn rates in marketing departments might be high, greater stability can often be found higher up within business – at the c-suite and board level. This audience already understands that their brand is the most important value creating asset in their business . We just need to get them to also recognise the value an unwavering brand strategy can bring to their long-term success. And once they get it, they’ll be less likely to let the business walk away from it.

We need to work more closely with brand specialists

Given creative agencies’ focus on communications strategy, brand specialists have positioned themselves as the antidote. And while good on paper, one of the biggest challenges with these specialists is their disconnection from the day-to-day stewardship of a brand.

Even if a brand strategy they develop is strong, it’s often left undefended, having to survive against agencies who are focused on making great ads, not necessarily executing and nurturing a brand strategy. And when the creative agency doesn’t understand what to do with the specialist’s brand strategy, they end up ignoring its critical nuance or reinterpreting it into something else entirely different.

If agencies don’t want to specialise in brand strategy (and not all of them can or should), then they need to foster a collaborative working relationship with the specialist leading the charge so they can still help influence and clearly understand the overall strategic direction. Ideally, they need to get into a position where they can offer honest and constructive feedback that drives the outcome.

The CMO also has a critical role to play here. They have to demand a close working relationship between the lead agency and the brand specialist because it gives everyone shared ownership of the thinking. This will lead to better, more accurate creative work. Finally, the CMO has to take ultimate responsibility for the brand strategy – making sure it’s directional enough but isn’t a straitjacket for the business and for the creative life of the brand.

If we do this - even half of it - then everybody will win. Especially the brands.

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