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Strategy is complex, but winning brands keep it simple

Ben Bush

What is a brand?

For some, it’s an expression firmly rooted in a business’s visual identity, perhaps married with a memorable strapline. These practical manifestations are essential, but reality goes much further. 

More people – one hopes – will recognise this and think of branding in terms of communication, culture, behaviour, tone and service. Each and every touchpoint between a business and its audience contributes to a holistic experience that shapes its reputation and perceived value.

A brand is far more akin to a relationship than a logo. And, like most relationships, it’s complicated.

The unspoken promise

Partly thanks to this complexity, I prefer to think of a brand not in terms of discrete activities or assets, but by considering the audience’s perspective. Jeff Bezos summed it up nicely: "Your brand is what people say about you when you’re not in the room.” 

From this perspective, it’s easier to understand how and why brands win and lose. It’s less about knocking it out of the park with great content and slick websites; more about deciding what kind of relationship you want to have with your audience and anticipating and meeting expectations to support that goal. Once more, as with other relationships, this needs to be worked at.

Get it right by delivering consistently on the unspoken promise you want your brand to represent and, over time, expectations will evolve to match.

The best brands recognise that this is a long game and that such relationships and expectations are built over years. But even for well-respected brands, it can be the short-term deviation from those expectations that stick in the mind when it comes to brand reputation.

Those deviations can be positive, of course: people will appreciate and share moments when a brand goes above and beyond. But psychologists will tell you that a negative deviation from the status quo will be remembered significantly longer than the positive. The joy of finding a £20 note is less enduring than the dismay you feel if you subsequently lose it.

Successful brands recognise this and build expectations accordingly. Often, this means identifying and doubling down on a few things they know they can do better than anyone – and lowering expectations elsewhere.

Keep it simple, stupid

Consider the contrasting fortunes of Yahoo! and Google, both early internet heavyweights who recognised that curious humans would need help navigating a new, exciting – and dramatically growing – volume of available content. Both were also hungry to capitalise on the wave of innovation that followed.

While Yahoo! extended and diversified to such an extent that people no longer understood what it represented, Google remains steadfastly synonymous with search – and sits consistently near the top of the list of the world’s strongest brands. Yahoo!, not so much.

Google hasn’t lost its hunger for innovation and progress as a business. But it’s been smart enough to keep acquired brands separate and bundle up its home-grown projects under Alphabet.

Anything that sits under the Google brand today is, by and large, there because it helps consumers search for things or helps advertisers capitalise on search behaviour. It’s a simple, direct proposition that even my mum understands – although every time she says, “I googled it up”, I picture someone in California dying a little inside.

Businesses not blessed (or cursed) with Google’s scale and sprawl also have the option to build clear, purposeful and simple brand propositions. Arguably, it’s an easier choice, in fact. But it can also mean walking away from previous initiatives and decisions that made perfect sense when they first arose. And that might even mean shutting down or selling off entire parts of a business. Simplicity can be a hard choice.

But it is a choice. Identifying a clear, consistent purpose and shaping your entire business around it may sound daunting, especially when your own complex legacy is stacked up against the crazy world of transformational challenges and opportunities that surround all businesses today. But with the proper framework – and a little imagination – it’s a choice any business can take.

Reinvent from within

We decided to call our own framework for this kind of decision B2B Reinvention, a name that we feel captures the spirit of those determined to forge a meaningful new path at an exciting time for the business world.

It goes a bit deeper, though. Reinvention also emphasises that successful change comes from within. It’s about getting the right people in the room, forcing them to face their most pressing challenges and opportunities by recasting them as a question, working together to imagine the different ways that question might be answered and then devising tests to help inform which possibility is the best fit.

One of those possibilities may be to strip away a few bells and whistles in the service of simplicity: to identify the one or two things you believe you can do better than anyone else and build your brand promise around them. And it may turn out to be the right choice.

Whether it is or not, it’s a choice made by the people who matter most. It’s our job to help them get there.