Actions are not strategies. Great strategies change more than where you are, what you call yourselves, what you offer. That’s Michael Porter’s thought. Great brand strategies re-invent the emotional context within which your brand competes against others in the marketplace. That’s mine. A great brand strategy redefines the relationship that people have with a brand over time. People think about you differently because they feel about you differently. That opportunity often gets missed in the rush to give people internally things to execute.
Great brand strategies focus on shifting the consumer inclination. The myriad of things you intend to do over the next 6, 12, 24 months are the means to arrive at that distinctive emotional goal. Turning Volkswagen into America’s most loved car – strategy. Telling people to stop smoking – action. Lifting traffic with a promotional offer – action.
Actions are prompts, and therefore, like all tactics, they function as switches. Yes. No. In response, people do something or they don’t. Change the logo – action. Like. Or not. Notice. Or not. Consumers may be incentivized by an emotion to take an action or respond to it but that’s often as far as the emotive change extends. The residual emotion about the brand and what it means to someone often remains largely unchanged. The brand is what the brand offers at that moment.
So many “brand strategies” are really action plans. Innovations – actions. CSR – action. Sponsorship – action. Content – action. And every “media strategy” and every “digital strategy” I have seen in recent years was, in reality, an action plan. They have all been about getting people to do things. What they don’t do is lay out a distinctive, competitive, emotional arc for that brand that puts in ‘clear space’ to pursue its commercial goals.
When you apply the concept of provenance to brands, it becomes a concept centered on systematically and competitively ‘localizing’ what you’re about rather than diversifying to try and meet the generalized needs of the wider world.
So it’s about having a narrowcast brand: one focused to the point of obsession on a specific area of passion. Provenance is also about those other valuable ideas that the word in its original meaning conjures: focus; love; purity of thinking; authenticity; deep knowledge. That obsession can then be marbled through every aspect of the brand: language; environment; innovation; strategy …
People may worry that such devotion to a single idea will stifle adaptability, but my experience is that brands that see the world through the lens of an idea they subscribe to passionately are also able to find latitude and opportunity within that idea while growing a strong and devoted following. Far from being restrictive, being obsessive provides a framework for creative approaches.
The way I see it, brands increasingly have three powerful emotive strategies going forward: they can rule the world (scale); they can seek to change the world (activist or cult); or they can kiss the world (obsession).
It’s been said on too many occasions that actions speak louder than words. Said so often in fact, that many brands today seem to have a disregard that borders on disdain for taking the time to really think through what could make them outstandingly competitive.
In today’s manic, results-driven world, fewer and fewer people, it seems, feel they have time to strategize where their company and their brand needs be heading, and how to retain their edge. It’s better instead, they believe, to just get on with the business at hand.
Everything happens now. And as a result, considered is an idea that seems to have passed its use-by date.
Execution is the mot du jour. The best way to solve any problem is to do something. In fact, not just something, lots of things. Kevin Roberts calls this, “ready, fire, aim”. I call it stupid. Looking to reaction and sheer activity to get you out of trouble relies on the fallacy that doing something has got to be better than doing nothing. In fact, they strike me as equally dumb, because chances are that if indeed you are in trouble, you are where you are because of what you have been busy doing up until now. Indulging in more of the same action parallels having another drink to try and cure alcoholism. It’s just as likely to deepen the problem as fix it.
Remember that lovely moment in the TV series Blackadder when the General says they’re going to throw more men over the top at the enemy and take them completely by surprise. Captain Blackadder queries the surprise element of repeating an action that the British undertook “last time … and the time before that … and the time before that .. and so on” Precisely, says the General, and that’s why it’s so clever. Because doing what we’ve always done is the last thing that the enemy will expect us to do again.
As Albert Einstein once said “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”
The flipside of a marketplace where brands encourage people to buy for emotive reasons is that brands also need to counter consumers’ personal reasons not to buy.
Some of these reasons may be legacy. Some may seem to be convenient self-interest. Others may look like they’re based on ignorance, bias, selfishness. They probably don’t make sense to you.
That’s important because…actually, it’s not. It’s not important at all.
The problem that matters is not your opinion of why your buyer won’t buy – it’s the fact that they have this opinion, that it’s rational to them and they have every reason to keep thinking it until they don’t want to anymore.
Chances are you won’t talk people into liking your brand. The most effective way to deal with an “unreasonable” objection is to counter with a riveting motive.
Most people think that means price. But simply dropping your price is no silver bullet. It doesn’t make you a more likeable brand. It may make you a more attractive brand – in the short term. But only until a better offer emerges.
We like brands for a range of reasons beyond what they cost: what they offer; what they stand for; how they recognize us; what others think of them; how familiar they feel; who they support; where they’re seen…Likeable brands build loyalty and affinity by leveraging how people react. They deliver based on what people value (not necessarily what they need).
I have a major problem with the free model. To me, it’s misleading – and the reason why is that it’s based on a false premise: that if you offer goods for free, people will in time upgrade to the paid model.
I see why people are tempted to go down this track. It’s easy to see free as a simple way to open the jaws of the funnel. Free gets you awareness and therefore volume, the thinking goes. And there is an implication given by some that you can then trust the conversion process to secure enough sales off that added volume to make the give-away worth it.
Easy too to believe, as you look around the social media environment, that with so many people giving away so much, you have little choice but to do the same.
The problem with this reasoning as I see it is that free is not a generator. On the contrary, it is a competitor. And the reason is that giving so much away sets up an expectation that more should be free. Free becomes a right, an entitlement. It actively competes with the willingness to pay.
Don’t get me wrong. I think there are things you can and should share without cost. You should share some thinking, for example, because there is a pay-off, if you do it well. Hubspot gives away lots of great content to entice you to trust them to at least trial their inbound marketing software. And as Seth Godin points out in this thought-provoking piece McKinsey’s consulting philosophy is free, it’s the bespoke work that costs money.