The Fundamentals Of Breakthrough Brand Strategy

Jeff RosenblumMarch 31, 20213097 min

The day he walked into the San Francisco 49ers headquarters in 1979, Bill Walsh sported pressed khaki pants, neatly combed white hair and a professorial disposition. The only items missing from his ensemble were an elbow-patch jacket and a bent billiard pipe. He certainly didn’t look like a football coach. He didn’t act like one, either. He didn’t yell. He didn’t scream. He didn’t give rah-rah speeches.

Yet, over the next ten years, Bill Walsh would revolutionize football and build an NFL dynasty. In doing so, he would also create the strategic underpinnings for brands competing almost four decades later. Bill’s idea was straightforward: Put the ball where the other team isn’t.

For the half century prior to Bill’s arrival, pro football was played the same way. Big, strong linemen blocked for big, strong running backs. Occasionally, the quarterback would throw the ball down the field to ensure that the trenches didn’t get overly crowded with linemen trying to stop the run. Teams won based on might and willpower. The differences in team strategies were indiscernible.

Brute Strength And Large Budgets Are Not Enough

This is analogous to how most brands have been built in recent decades. Brute strength, in the form of huge budgets and massive media buys, has been core to the playbook. But thanks to search, social media and mobile, great brands are now built, not bought. You can’t create a distinct competitive advantage simply by outspending the competition. It can work to create a good brand, but it doesn’t create a passion brand. That requires fundamentally different thinking.

Walsh’s thinking was based on the fact that the professional football field is 53.3 yards wide. He recognized that this is an incredibly large canvas and that most teams largely ignored the “flats” area of the field, which is less than 12 yards deep, but close to the sidelines. Bill decided to leverage width over might. When the two teams smashed into each other at the line of scrimmage, famed quarterback Joe Montana threw the ball to Jerry Rice about six yards from the line of scrimmage. 60 percent of the yardage on pass plays came from yards after the catch. This was a revolutionary shift in tactics. A 12-yard pass was designed to generate seven of its yards on the ground. Jerry scored more touchdowns than any player before him. This seismic shift in strategy came to be called the West Coast offense.

Yet, the West Coast offense was actually a misnomer. It was started by Bill in the decidedly non-West Coast town of Cincinnati. The Bengals were not a particularly strong team and were getting pushed around the field. Their quarterback, a bright and highly mobile player barely anyone has ever heard of named Virgil Carter, had a weak arm. Bill knew he had to leverage Virgil’s assets while covering his shortcomings. That’s how he learned to put the ball where the other team isn’t. He had to rely upon short passes. He had to leverage Virgil’s intelligence. He created plays that lasted less than 3.5 seconds and exploited the defense’s confusion from offensive shifts.

Most brands have a challenge analogous to a weak-armed quarterback, such as limited budgets or an undifferentiated product line. But they don’t need a weakarmed quarterback to learn how to put the ball where the other team isn’t. A mathematical formula can be applied. The creative canvas for brands is not limited to 53.3 yards wide. It is virtually unlimited. Thanks to technology, the only limitation is imagination. That’s not always a good thing. There needs to be prioritization so that resources are invested efficiently.

Prioritizing With The Opportunity Index

The formula for prioritization that we use is called the Opportunity Index. It enables brands to identify and mathematically prioritize the areas in which they can activate. The formula integrates the four key components of decision making for specific activations: importance, performance, differentiation and cost. It enables brands to measure the potential upside and divide it by the resources required so that every opportunity has a comparable metric based on potential performance and required investment.

It is not imperative that the Opportunity Index is the exact formula that brands use. Sticking with the football analogy, every quarterback has a different style, but they all have the same goals for ball placement. Brands can use whatever formula they want as long as they adhere to some sort of sustainable, quantifiable approach.

The specific formula for the Opportunity Index is this:

[(Importance – Satisfaction) Å~ Differentiation] / Cost

The numerator in this equation is the opportunity. To gauge the opportunity for every potential touchpoint, we measure how important it is. Then, we subtract how satisfied the audience is with its performance. This approach is typically referred to as a gap analysis, but it’s insufficient by itself. So, we adjust the result by a score for differentiation, which increases the numerator if the opportunity is powerfully unique. From there, we divide the total number by the holistic resources required, including internal hours, vendor fees and other expenses. Based on the score, brands have a chronologically accurate way to prioritize activations. Because big ideas typically cost more, the Opportunity Index prioritizes based on order of investment so that ideas with big upside and relatively low cost get tackled first.

It’s important to recognize that the mathematical formula isn’t as simple as pushing the button on a database interface. There are hundreds of places that brands can activate, and many of the touchpoints simply don’t exist for each brand. So the numbers for importance and satisfaction are based on strategic judgments. That’s why great brands, despite the power of data and technology, are still built by creative strategic thinkers.

Obtaining the measurements for these strategic judgments requires leveraging all possible data points available, including survey data, ethnographic studies, qualitative research, social listening, site analytics, search metrics, media metrics, social metrics and more. Most importantly, it’s about brand immersion—strategic planners plunging themselves in the consumer journey. We call this phase Intelligence Aggregation. It’s about leveraging every data set coupled with hands-on experience to create quantifiable amounts for importance, satisfaction, differentiation and cost.

The most powerful component of the Opportunity Index is that it helps brands divorce themselves from the aforementioned Machine and Shiny Objects. It creates a mathematical foundation for leveraging tools other than traditional advertising. It also helps brands realize that the newest trends often overindex in the amount of time and energy dedicated to them. In recent years, I’ve seen it most effectively help brands understand how to create empowering mobile experiences. While many brands suffered from paralysis by analysis during the mobile revolution, brands leveraging the Opportunity Index were able to determine key features and functionality for maximizing ROI.

The Role Of Long-Term Thinking

Putting the ball where the other team isn’t requires long-term thinking. On the flight home after a crushing eight consecutive defeats, Bill’s demeanor was the polar opposite of what one would expect from an NFL football coach. He broke down in his seat and cried uncontrollably. The coaching staff circled around his seat, casually eating peanuts to shield the team from the emotional breakdown.

Somehow, Bill gathered himself by the end of the flight and continued to lay the groundwork for his revolutionary offense. Like modern brand building, Bill recognized that it was going to be a long-term effort based on internal behavior, not simply a powerful external message. He put in place a Standard of Performance, which dictated every granular aspect for how the organization behaved, right down to how receptionists answered the phone and how players tucked in their shirts. Bill didn’t have a timeline for winning a championship. Instead, he had “an urgent timetable for installing an agenda for specific behavioral norms—actions and attitudes—that applied to every single person.” He described the Standard of Performance as “a leadership philosophy that has as much to do with core values, principles, and ideals as with blocking, tackling, and passing.”

“Winners Act Like Winners Before They Are Winners.”

Bill wasn’t completely opposed to the occasional coach’s cliche. Foremost among them was, “Winners act like winners before they are winners.” It’s why he focused on his Standard of Performance before his win/loss record. Like brands that don’t get distracted by irrelevant marketing metrics, Bill knew the score would take care of itself if he focused on the entire organization’s behavior.

Brands face this same exact issue. The audience can see directly through messaging to understand the culture and behavior of corporations. If brands don’t put the customers’ needs first and foremost, the audience will feel it in the form of poor mobile usability, half-hearted customer service, uninspired merchandising, unfriendly return policies and dozens of other triggers. They won’t only feel the friction. They will share it with others. Every positive and negative brand behavior has an exponential effect because consumers share on digital platforms. This is further exacerbated by the fact that search engines and social media have algorithms that support and punish brands based on digital traffic patterns.

Putting the ball where the other team isn’t created an exponential performance curve for the 49ers. It took a couple of precarious years for the behaviors to become victories. They were on the precipice of disaster for a year or two as they focused inward before their behavior manifested itself as championships. But when it took hold, it was virtually unstoppable. Soon, it led to five Super Bowls and a spot for Bill in Canton, Ohio, at the Pro Football Hall of Fame. It has the same potential for you and your brand.

Contributed to Branding Strategy Insider by: Jeff Rosenblum and Jordan Berg, excerpted from their book Friction: Passion Brands in the Age of Disruption, published by powerHouse Books

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