Brand Strategy Or Brand Paperwork?

Mark Di SommaFebruary 11, 20154033 min

Recently both Jeff Swystun and Mark Ritson took aim at the brand industry with characteristic frankness.

While applauding the advances in turning brand into a recognized commercial activity, Swystun believes that an industry developed to fight commoditization has itself succumbed to that market pressure. It has, he says, become “…highly stylized, shiny, and cool but largely standardized, prescribed and frequently devoid of substantiated benefit.” Everyone is being different in exactly the same way. Brand is today’s shiny metal object.

Too many brands are, in effect, going through the motions. “Branding is now a factory. An assembly line. Consultants make money in repeatable, familiar processes. Methodologies equal margin. What spits off the end of that assembly line is all too similar.” Ubiquity has generated complacency, giving way to methodologies that are more focused on going through process for process’s sake than arriving at anything fresh and startling. In the end, they are producing brands that are, quite literally, shelf fillers.

As a result, what was once brand strategy is now brand paperwork.

That’s the risk with any system of course. As the process becomes embedded, it assumes a life, and a righteousness, of its own. Complete the steps and the process is done, and if the process is done, then the answer has to be right. We’ve lost some things through that process I believe. Human insights have given way to broad and pleasant generalizations. Values have become shopping lists. And the sparseness and discipline of pared back thinking has given way to documents that are long on charts and discourse but short on breath-taking difference.

Mark Ritson holds nothing back. “The great paradox of corporate branding is that the more words you use, the less traction any of it has with behaviors and brand equity. Every Tom, Dick and useless Harry from the world of brand consulting tries to sell companies a ‘brand purpose’, with ‘brand values’ allayed with ‘brand attributes’ and other associated horseshit arranged inside concentric circles because a) they don’t know any better and b) they’re getting paid by the yard.”

I for one don’t have a problem with purpose, values and the “other associated horseshit” per se. I actually find them very useful as tools – but I do think that as an industry we are failing collectively to really push the limits of what they can mean for each brand we work on. And that’s because we’re not holding ourselves accountable to the right things. Marketers too are not pushing for brands that are exceptional.

Brand strategies too often are really identity and/or campaign rationales. Strategists are not demonstrating how the work they do generates value beyond what the market is already prepared to assign. Instead, as an industry, we’re telling ourselves that the brands we work on have things they actually don’t have, and we label the steps with convenient monikers to convince everyone that good work is being done.

Swystun and Ritson will most certainly have raised the hackles with their comments. But unless all of us who are responsible for creating, delivering, managing and evolving brands are prepared to question and re-question and re-question again the value of what we do and the difference that we deliver, we will follow the route of the products and services we work on. We will decline. To avoid that, we must continue to evolve, to shift, to inject instability and danger into how we work and what we aspire to achieve.

Acid test: If you’re “comfortable” with the brand strategy you’re working on right now because it’s followed the process and delivered everything that the client asked for, throw it away. In market terms, as a strategy for that brand going forward, there’s a very good chance it’s useless.

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  • Flavia Engelmann

    February 12, 2015 at 1:36 am

    This so true. I think one of the reasons for that is that corporate branding is designed by committee. More often than not, at least 10 people are involved in completing the “paperwork” in a politically correct, consensual spirit, leaving no room for intuition or guts… and losing sight of how consumers feel.

    • David Soyka

      February 13, 2015 at 8:26 am

      I agree whole-heartedly! vision by committee seldom lands on anything truly compelling, rather, it favours the least offensive solution that everyone can sign on to. Furthermore, a room full of insiders will quickly lose sight of the outsider’s perspective. They start to believe that the underlying comprehension of the nuances of the business are obvious to all. For me, the first sign of this thinking is when a leader says the goal is to “educate” the audience. Implying that if only they could see it our way, they would understand how brilliant we are.

  • Hilton Barbour

    February 12, 2015 at 6:17 am

    Great article and a true railing against machine. Its hard to not see any brand planner/strategist/consultant mirrored in the statements above. You’re quite right to take us to task for “mailing it in”. IMHO the struggle is finding the balance between simplifying the complex into direct actionable steps – and the risk of become slaves to frameworks/models and intersecting venn diagrams. How do you find that balance mate??

  • markdisomma

    February 12, 2015 at 1:27 pm

    Hilton – I think these are challenges we all face, and that if we don’t think we face them, we are deluding ourselves. Simplicity, humanity, distinction, competitiveness … the goals are straight-forward. But the sifting, sorting, knowing, deleting, highlighting – that’s the hard bit I reckon. Technique must never be allowed to overpower or undermine empathy.

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