Not everyone is sold on the value of brand strategy.
As the founder of a strategic brand consultancy, I realise leading with this statement is a curious choice. But I get it. I do. I've seen it time and time again over the past 20 years. Investing in a strong brand can easily land in the Nice To Have bucket. (You'll often find the Nice To Have bucket hanging out with its other somewhat misunderstood sibling; the Too Hard basket.)
If you haven’t consciously invested in your brand before, or previous efforts failed to deliver the results you were hoping for, I can see why it might prove difficult to see things differently. When you’re hoping to grow your business through sales, customer acquisition or partnerships, it’s understandable to have a preference for initiatives that directly drive those numbers up. This typically works for a time, especially if you have a genuinely good product. Eventually, things stall, or you hit a plateau in your growth trajectory. The companies I see at this point usually have one thing in common—they lack a strong brand and have failed to create genuine connections with their customers. They have no brand loyalty, so their customers are more likely to move on or find alternatives.
So, how can brand strategy help fuel your business growth?
It's undeniable that humans love a good story. Stories make connections by transporting us to new places, even if for a brief moment in time. They help us understand the lived experience of others, the challenges we face, and how we overcome adversity. And when we identify with characters in a story, we keep reading. Why? It’s pretty simple—we want to know what happens. Humans are curious beings. Do they make it in the end? Do they achieve their dreams? Does something unexpected happen that will change the course of their lives forever? Will they pivot to video? (That last one is a joke.)
Satisfying stories often share the same characteristics. They teach us something or make us feel a feeling, often so intensely we’re driven to take action. Sometimes, we might even cry. When this type of emotional response occurs we’re much more likely to share the story with others.
What comes first, the story or the strategy?
The most satisfying TV show endings are usually pre-determined, well before the first season has even started production. The writers likely had a strategy from the outset, and they built the series through character arcs, strong narratives, and tangents that may have felt complicated or misplaced at the time, but tied together beautifully at the conclusion of the series. (If you're a Game of Thrones fan, I'd like to take this opportunity to apologise for bringing up any big feelings.)
I firmly believe in strategy as the foundation for building a sustainable business. Much like a TV series, telling stories that don't deliver (or creating content that nobody reads) is obviously a big let-down, not to mention a complete waste of time. Strategy aligns your teams around a common goal and your vision for the future, and helps you allocate resources to the things that matter most. And if strategy is the foundation, then the stories you tell are the vehicle for getting to your destination.
How do you know if you need a brand strategy?
When I work with clients, I start by asking these four questions:
1. Do you know why your company exists, and what the future looks like when you succeed?
If you’re not sure how to explain your company's reason for existing—whether it's through a compelling purpose statement, origin story or how you're solving real problems for your audience—you're missing a vital tool in building connections with literally anyone you talk to. We know that humans are naturally curious, and we're especially interested in what motivates us to create and build things. And what’s the best way to communicate what drove you to build your business in the first place? You guessed it—by telling your story. When you map your purpose to your vision for the future, you’re owning the narrative by connecting your motivations to how you're making the world a better place. So ask yourself, are you telling this story yet? And if so, do you think it's resonating?
2. What business are you in?
Is Headspace a meditation company, or a mental health and wellbeing brand? Meditation may be their core offering, but ask any user to describe Headspace and it's clear their brand represents so much more. Their mission statement helps here too:
Headspace was created with one mission: to improve the health and happiness of the world.
Notice how they haven't referenced meditation at all? Based on their recent merger with mental health app Ginger to create ‘the world’s largest mental health and wellbeing company’, it’s clear Headspace always had bigger plans. By positioning themselves as more than a meditation company from the outset, they future-proofed their brand for expansion and growth, without confusing their most loyal customers.
When you define your category positioning and incorporate it into messaging like your mission statement, you unleash another powerful branding weapon. This is especially true if your focus is evolving, or you're launching new products or services that might not fit in the box you’re operating in today. A defined category or industry also paves the way for opportunities like awards, thought leadership and media interviews. Is your current positioning working hard enough to create these opportunities for you? Or are you limiting your scope by being too narrow?
3. What are you selling, exactly?
It might sound simple, but every brand should be super clear on the ‘what’ of your offering, through a simple noun or concise description in just a few words. This not only sharpens your elevator pitch in the short term, it also plants a seed that may bear fruit in the future.
Let’s say you’re a service that provides free online wills. Wills are traditionally expensive, and might easily fall into the Too Hard basket—especially for young people who don’t think they need one yet. Potential customers may come across your brand at any time, through content, press, or social media. Even if they’re not in the market for your service at that exact moment, you want them to remember you for when their needs change in the future. Don’t be too tricky here—if you get too clever about how you describe your product, you make it too hard for potential customers to associate your brand with their actual needs.
4. What makes you different?
The all-important unique value proposition, a statement that clearly communicates your brand value, underpins your entire brand strategy. If you can’t differentiate yourself and the benefits you offer, you’re not giving customers enough of a reason to care or engage with you. Remember, trying new things may seem interesting, but also hard (people want to solve problems, but we can also be pretty lazy sometimes). Does the effort required to understand what you do and how it’s different to what they’re used to, outweigh the potential benefits? Are you making it too hard for customers to come to this conclusion themselves?
Think about the earlier example of free online wills. In terms of utility, the product is digital, which already removes some mental barriers for the audience, such as where to find a solicitor to draft a will in the first place. The best part of the ‘what’ for free online wills is not its digital nature, but the fact the product is free. Wow, a free online will? Aren’t wills crazy expensive? That's neat. Well done, you just made it easier for people to remember you. (Pro-tip: if your product is free to the customer and you make money through things like affiliate relationships, ad revenue or partnerships, it’s a good idea to disclose this as part of your brand story. Transparency builds trust).
How did you do?
If you can’t answer these questions easily, you’re not alone. I see this all the time as a brand strategist who literally reads brand narratives for fun. Most of us colour outside the lines in the beginning. It's all part of figuring out who we are and where we're headed, and we all get better as we grow.
I believe the stories you tell in business help shape your future—they open doors, pique curiosity and find space in the minds of customers. And without a core strategy, your stories are merely tactics. They will get you to a certain point, as will investing in paid media for a product that falls short of product-market fit.
Strategy comes first
If you want to fuel the growth of your business with a strong brand, you need to create a solid foundation first. People are more likely to talk about your brand if you invest in connecting with them, rather than simply retargeting them to every far corner of the internet with the same ad creative they've already seen a bunch of times.
Human beings are curious creatures, and we sure love a good story. The same goes for your brand. Create a brand that people talk about and customers love, and you'll also create a sustainable business. And your business can grow with stories worth telling. Are you ready to tell yours?