Reigning in the ‘big’ and ‘significant’

Decision making in a brand strategy formulation and implementation process is getting increasingly hard and complex.

Brand strategy in itself requires careful planning and forensic analysis of choices along the way. It also requires the courage to ignore the ‘low hanging fruit’ and aim for the ‘challenging peaks’. Over a period of time, decision making has become increasingly complex due to two factors – too many inputs and too many experts.

There is an urgent need to simplify this maze, which in reality works well for the brand owner and also all specialists or experts who are advising the brand owner.

To put it this way, brand strategy needs to be broken down into a set of objectives that need to be addressed. Brand owners will be pleasantly surprised to realise that all the objectives they have classifying as part of brand strategy, are in reality elements of it (or not having to do anything with brand strategy).

There are numerous examples of overzealous and grandiose categorisation that come to mind. Changing your logo is not brand strategy and neither is changing the slogan of your brand. If your brand’s strategy is only determined by the logo and slogan, then you are better off killing your brand.

I have started coming across numerous examples of visual identity overhauls being characterised as brand strategy. Also there are equally poor examples of brand extensions being characterised as strategy. Not to say that majority of short-term brand mix decisions are characterised as strategy.

Wrong understanding (and in many instances deliberate obfuscation) leads to wrong choices. This means that you are inviting a wrong or mismatched set of specialists to advice you on a problem that you have misunderstood (or a problem that actually does not exist).

Take the example of a brand strategy consultancy in a room where a brand’s visual fonts and artwork is being debated. A complete waste of time. Alternately think of a digital branding agency in a room where the brand’s core purpose is being thrashed out. Think about a scenario where advanced analytics scenarios are being discussed with a room full of creatives. You can only stretch the limits of imagination and skill sets to a level, and not beyond that.

Another strategy effectiveness killer is the tendency to add layers or steps of validation. If we go back to basic high school maths, beyond a specific sample size, the advantage of higher confidence levels disappear. The same holds true for validation stages. Beyond a point you are simply churning the ocean.

The above mindset also leads to more and more empanelment of agencies on the roster. To add to the complexity quotient, brand owners start suffering from a ‘justification bias’. It leads to project briefs getting issued that deliberately requires multi-agency pitches or collaborative work between agencies for joint pitches. In reality, the required objectives may actually require one (or a few) agencies to pitch.

The outcome of these pitches is the start of the weaving of the web of complexity. If there are too many agencies in the fray, there are too many decisions to be taken. Additionally there is a need for too many collaborative agendas, seamless outcomes, smooth transitions and the proverbial validation.

Brand owners need to turn this process of buying and implementing external help on its head. A complete transformation is required for such forms of external support models to have any effective impact on the brand. I will not even use the word ‘strategy’ here because the work that an external agency would be doing maybe focused on one element of the total brand mix.

So how should brand owners transform this process. Here are a few ideas:

1) The need for external specialist advice has to go through a sieving process. It is almost like adopting an innovation ‘stage gate’ framework. If the need doesn’t survive the stage gate protocols, external help is really not required or the need was not a real need (but a whim!)

2) If the need survives the innovation stage gate framework, it needs to be structured from something broad to something that can be encapsulated in 5 distinct bullet points (or 6 or 7). Structuring the need is critical to identify the real pain points. Pain points can then point towards the specific area of the brand mix that needs attention and external specialist advice

3) The third stage is identifying the uni- or multidimensional aspect of the need. This is critical to define the specific areas that requires attention. Categorising the need into dimensional aspects allows the identification of specific external agencies who can provide support. This avoids getting into a situation of ‘inviting everyone who has any ideas’ to come and voice their opinion

4) The fourth stage is due diligence. Brand owners should have an effective and knowledge driven due diligence process that can identify external agencies who really have the ability to address the specific objectives. Brand owners should always aim for holistic solution providers, i.e. specialists who have the capability to provide answers to 5 out of the 7 bullet points (or 4 out of 5). There is no need to invite specialists for each and every dimension of the need

5) The fifth and last stage is to be able to take leaps of faith. Internal strategy teams need to have the courage and conviction to take the implementation process over the finishing line (when external advice has already helped in covering three quarters of the journey)

Confused needs, vague objectives, dissonance over formulation and implementation paths and too many voices in the room are the key factors that lead to faulty or ineffective brand strategies (or even addressing specific brand mix questions). The corporate graveyard is littered with expensive multi-million dollar strategies that failed to rise up from their infancy. They are initiated, commissioned, created, diluted and eventually killed due to a sheer lack of understanding of the problem, objectives to address the problem and the end goals of implementation.

The arguments in this article may seem like external specialist agencies are ‘gold diggers’. In fact, majority of them are not. Each agency worth its salt would like to come in and lend expertise on a need that has been clearly defined, has a well articulated set of objectives, has a roadmap of implementation and has well-defined organisational goals (after it has been addressed).

There is an urgent need for brand owners and agencies to look beyond the dazzle of doing or being part of so called big strategic engagements, which in majority of cases are nothing but exercises in euphemism. The biggest and strongest impact is achieved by narrowing your focus, which in many instances may not have the adjectives ‘big’ and ‘significant’ attached to it.

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