Brand strategy: Your ultimate guide

15 min read
What is a brand strategy, how do you create one and why do you need one? Find out in our ultimate guide to brand strategy.


Having a well-researched brand strategy is integral to sustainable business success. Whether it’s to grow, own the category or disrupt the market, a strategy to do this will help you to reach those business goals, and keep you on the right path. But before we outline how you create a brand strategy and the benefits that come with it, let’s discuss exactly what brand strategy is.

What is a brand strategy?

Think of your brand strategy as your north star. It guides your decisions about what you do, and just as importantly, what you don’t do. Strategy is informed once you decide where you sit in the market, who you want to go after, and how you’re going to target them. Grounded in market research, your strategy gives you a direction of travel and then you can set goals to judge and track how well you’re heading in that direction.

Then, make choices to bring your strategy to life. Ask: What are we going to do, and why are we going to it? Research will then help you to inform that choice. These choices (the decisions that you take) should be in line with your strategy; choices such as How much money you’re going to spend, how you’re going to split the budget, and what tactics you’re going to use.

As your north star, or compass point, your strategy is your why and how you’re going in that direction. To make a distinction, tactics are what you’re going to do to get there.

A successful strategy takes time to implement. A strategy isn’t for a day, a week or a month. At the very least it should run for a year so you can set goals and evaluate where you are at the end of that year – and adjust and adapt as needed.

“Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory. Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat.”

Sun Tzu

Why you need a brand strategy

Derived from Chinese war, strategy has a particular purpose. So you don’t lose. And in that sense, strategy is seen as a form of art. Now thinking about brand strategy as part of modern day business, the same principles apply. Having a brand strategy will prevent you from losing customers – against competitors and against yourself.

Your brand strategy will help you to play to win, and it will guide what you do. But importantly, it will also guide what you decide not to do as you follow your north star.

Of course, business isn’t always plain sailing, but a well researched brand strategy can help to mitigate the risks. So, if and when your business is affected, you will know how to react and you can adjust and adapt as needed to keep moving forward.

Core components of a brand strategy

Your brand strategy will vary depending on your industry, brand size and where you want to sit in the market. But what will not vary is the components on which your strategy is built.

These include (in order of implementation):

After deciding to whom you want to market (target) your product, design your positioning to capture that targeting. These components are fundamental because they determine how and why your brand strategy exists.

Strategy requires a specific focus so keep in mind who you’re targeting and how you’re going to target them.

Brand purpose at the heart of strategy

Brand purpose, and the role it plays as part of brand strategy, divides opinions. 50 years ago, it was rare to see a brand with a purpose-driven mission. But today, taking a stance and leading the charge on important societal issues is a role many brands look to assume.

But should it be central to your brand strategy?

Your purpose should align to, and complement, your strategy. Having a purpose alone isn’t enough because it’s often broadly defined (rather than having a defined target), so it’s important to have goals that can help you track your progress.

The rise of “fake purpose” has muddied the water in recent times i.e. brands not backing up their messaging with real purpose-driven action (e.g. green washing), because brands have lost sight of what purpose is, treating it as a standalone marketing campaign. This approach undermines the impact that purpose can have on your business when approached correctly.

As more brands seek to define their roles more broadly, it’s important to align that messaging with the underlying brand positioning and an analysis of the competition, or the segment that one wishes to serve, in order to reinforce it. If you’re not careful, the brand could end up standing for nothing.

For others, aligning on purpose would appear to bring positive business outcomes, e.g. on June 11th 2019, Unilever announced that its purpose-led Brands are growing 69% faster than the rest of the business and delivering 75% of the company’s growth. As a result, Unilever’s CEO announced that the firm will dispose of brands that are not able to stand for something more important than “making your hair shinier, your skin softer, your clothes whiter or your food tastier”. In July 2020, Jope reiterated this stance, outlining their intention to double down on marketing that is “explicitly purposeful” – which coincided with 2020 Q2 financial results that showcased the “true strength” of Unilever. It’s clear their approach is working.

An alternative view is that purpose is something much simpler. This view focuses on that simple truth that every business was created to solve a particular need or problem – that is purpose, the reason for existence. And as brands go in search of a higher state and try to solve society’s ills they often forget why they began in the first place. They might be better suited going back to basics – as Jenni Romaniuk once stated, the only purpose for brands is to sell.

How to position your brand

At the heart of brand strategy, is a brand’s positioning. How your brand is positioned in the market ultimately determines how consumers view you and your ability to meet their needs. It determines who you compete with in your category, and if positioned right, it determines how much people or businesses will pay for your products or services. All of the above inform a brand’s strategy.

Creating your own brand positioning begins internally

You need to ask yourself:

Who – you are targeting

What – is the need you are serving

Why – your audience should believe you

Next steps:

  • Communicate it internally – Send it to your product, marketing and communications, customers and HR teams. It needs to be reflected in every business decision you make, in every department.
  • Communicate it externally – You have created a product or service for a particular need, now how are you going to market it?

 

Read our Ultimate Guide to Brand Positioning to find out what brand positioning is, why it matters, and how to position your brand effectively.

Audience-focused strategy

A successful strategy is one that puts the audience at the heart of it. It will use market research to make audience-led decisions that will also benefit the business. But how do you create an “audience-focused” strategy?

Through segmentation and targeting.

Market segmentation is where you determine which of your audiences is most likely to buy from you, and the most in need of your product/services. Once you have determined this, they become your target audience – this is where your priorities and actions will primarily focus, and is called targeting. There may be times where you look to expand this target audience and appeal to a wider demographic of people.

Read more about segmentation and targeting in our Ultimate Guide to Brand Positioning

How long should your strategy last for?

This is entirely dependent on what you want to achieve from your strategy. There is no single, correct approach, and in fact as you check in with your goals to judge your process it may be that you have to adjust and shift your strategy to reflect changing conditions in the market or your organisation.

Typically a brand strategy should last for 12 months as a minimum (short term). That way you can set your goals, implement your strategy to reach these goals, and then review your success towards the end of that 12 months. It’s important with your strategy that you’re working towards something, and that may take longer than 12 months. A long term brand strategy might be in place for 3 years (reviewing every 12 months).

You need to be able to measure the success of your strategy through goals and objectives, because that way you can see if you’re moving the needle as intended. Just like a rudder of a ship, shifting your strategy will take time, it shouldn’t be governed by the latest trend or news story, but instead your research-led targeting and positioning.

When evaluating the success of your strategy ask yourself:

  • Is the audience receiving the message we intend?
  • Is the audience responding to the message as we intend?
  • Are the right metrics moving in the direction we would expect?

Tips on how to display your brand

Be distinctive. Be different. Or both. Historically this has been key to a brand’s success. The decision to be distinctive or different guides your tactics and your decisions as you strive to bring this positioning to life.

Your tactics, brand identity, brand promise should all support and connect to your strategy and be reflected in your day to day actions as a brand.

How you show up as a brand is equally important. How you look, what you say, and what you do all need to be aligned. Which is why you should pay particular focus to your brand identity.

Elements of a brand’s visual identity that you should focus on:

  • Logo
  • Fonts
  • Colors
  • Composition
  • Imagery
  • Language (tone of voice)

 

Your identity should reflect your messaging and visualise how you stand out from your competitors and in the market.

Getting these elements right will help to portray the image you want for your brand, across any channel or medium, including:

  • Advertising (TV, OOH, Print)
  • Collateral
  • Website
  • Social media

 

For example, Innocent Drinks want to appeal to a wide audience, and parents in particular, who value a healthy lifestyle – so the language they use is human and relaxed, their images are often drawings or animations and their front is comic sans. That way they can appeal to the right audience.

Which leads us onto a really important point. Not everyone is going to like the positioning of your new marketing campaign or brand identity. And that’s fine. As long as the people you set out to target are happy.

Nike’s “dream crazy” campaign, featuring Colin Kaepernick is the perfect illustration of how good positioning won’t appeal to everyone.

While many considered the ad as risky given the criticism that it drew (including those who set Nike apparel on fire in protest), the campaign was credited with a 31% sales increase. Its success stems from aligning the message (believe in something even if it means sacrificing everything) and purpose (protesting police violence) with the brand’s DNA and positioning: “Just do it.”

It might have infuriated many viewers, but Nike knew it would strike a chord with its target customers. And that’s what matters.

Is brand identity a strategy or a tactic?

Well the short answer is, it depends. Over time, brand identities become synonymous with a brand. The Nike tick, the famous apple logo, the golden arches… The famous McDonald’s golden arches where, in France, the arches are green so that it could be positioned in a way that appeals to french people. This is a tactic to better position the brand in France, their second-largest market, behind the United States.

One of the most recent successful marketing campaigns in the UK was the “Missing Type” campaign for the NHS to increase blood donations in England. This is where brands and organisations removed letters from their logos or name in order to raise awareness of a lack of certain types of blood. For example, the famous Downing Street sign had the “O” removed.

In fact, to begin with many brands declined to get involved – a strategic decision not to change their brand identity, until momentum shifted and more brands got involved, so a “no” from brands soon became a “yes”, a tactical decision to help out as enthusiasm from other brands grew. Goodwill or a PR win? Either way, the campaign was one of the most inventive and successful the NHS have ever done, attracting 30,000 new blood donating registrants during its first week, around eight times the normal number for a typical week.

In comparison, Mastercard removed the name of the brand from their logo. The reason? To remove the prominence of the word and image that comes with the word “card” because the future of payment is digital. Therefore this is a specific branding strategy to better position Mastercard in the years ahead (as opposed to a tactic).

One thing is certain, whether a strategy or a tactic, the decision to tinker with your brand’s image shouldn’t be taken lightly, backed up with research and the pros and cons weighed up.

Turn your brand into an icon with Qualtrics Brand XM