If I ask 50 strategy experts to define “brand strategy,” I’ll likely get 50 different answers, each distinct from my own. The term is amorphous, and digital creative agencies and the brands who go to them for help all think of brand strategy on a different plane.
When something is vague in this industry, we all seem to think there could be a secret solution somewhere in the mix. Perhaps a formula that helps put a brand strategy in motion, or an algorithmic answer that could be used universally. None of that exists for a reason: We are all moving forward in a time where not only technological change is ubiquitous but so is cultural transformation.
When people ask me how I define brand strategy, I choose not to.
We are all in the middle of a brand strategy power shift with greater control from consumers, based on how culture and technology are shaping their behaviors and expectations. Cultural savviness and bravery are key requirements for entry these days. The unknowns are no longer: How will the algorithm change? What will the new features be? Now it’s: How do brands create relationships based on shared belief systems and values? How can we fight through the noise, take a stand and have a lasting impression on consumers who can speak up and often do, simply by unfollowing, or worse, tagging brands in negative comments or stories.
Realizing Brand Strategy on Social
This power shift continues to cement one thing: social media is the stalwart of brand strategy. It will always be there to spearhead foundational campaigns, new ideas, eccentric initiatives and more.
When I first started working with Facebook as a platform for brands, around 2010, it was a janky experience considering the capabilities of the technology as they stand today. But at the time, it was mind blowing to know we had an incredible branding tool that brands weren’t extensively using yet. Since then, I have had so many conversations with clients about social media. I have made countless decks about why brands should even be on social media.
Brands have shifted, though, and instead of making decks about why brands need to be on social, it’s now about how to show up on social media. Brands know that social is where their consumers are and it’s where the opportunities are ripe—if it’s done thoughtfully and strategically. I think social can go one of two ways right now. It’s a really interesting time, which is scary for some brands, but to me it’s exciting.
There’s the potential to work with consumers and create a lasting effect and relationship with them. Or, on the darker side, there’s the potential to use it the wrong way and alienate a crowd of individuals who yield so much power when it comes to calling the shots for what type of advertising they’re going to be open to, what they want to hear from you. It’s hard to swallow, but social media—and the audiences on each platform—direct, dictate and lead brand strategy.
Navigating in the Unknown
We’re still living in the tech world of growing and not knowing where we’ll be in a year, five years and so on. In 2020, it’s safe to say we don’t know where we’ll be in a week. But for now, moving forward is about forcing brands to rethink how they’re communicating and what advertising and marketing means now, not in years past. What I think consumers are looking for when they look at their social feeds is value. They are being inundated by so much information and it is exhausting people. There is a chance for brands that are smart to survive by way of social if they use it on their consumers’ behalf. It has to start coming from a place of: What will add value to my audience’s life? Brands that want to have staying power need to let go of the promotional messages and focus on understanding the culture piece of the puzzle.
Consumers have moved from interacting with brands as vehicles of self-labeling to vehicles of self-expression.
Value drives a conversion rate far greater than any functional need or convenience or accessibility. Because over time, as a culture, consumers have moved from interacting with brands as vehicles of self-labeling to vehicles of self-expression. But if brands want to have meaningful longevity, they need to understand that it’s shifting again, moving from self-expression to self-discovery. Successful brand strategies will need to follow consumers deeper into themselves in order to resonate, placing a greater emphasis not only on the values that matter to them, but also in how we empower them to recognize those values in their own lives. In my opinion, the most effective strategies these days are those that are deeply personal.
We’re not just running the risk of people shutting down from social because the risk is on our doorstep. People are already signing off and deleting their accounts. It’s up to brands to really figure out and understand what journey consumers are on when they use social in order to make the brand fit not just the journey, but help facilitate the next step for the consumer. It’s important that it’s not just fitting into a consumer’s life, but helping them continue on their path and get them to where they want to be. That’s the big shift brands need to realize.
Staying Relevant and Valuable
It really boils down to emotion. There’s an emotional relationship that consumers have with brands and want to have. Emotions, values, belief systems—that’s what drives decisions. People will choose a brand because their belief systems align, and that’s how deep people are looking at the choices that they make because it feeds into the purposeful expression of who they are and who they want to become.
This is the most strategic way for a brand to stay in business. You may be able to stay in business because you have money in the bank, but you’ll never be able to stay relevant if your social currency runs out.
The definitions of what we do will continue to change, they may even be indefinable, but the creative work never stops.
When people ask me how I define brand strategy, I choose not to. Instead, I ask what their purpose is. The word purpose has more impact, and it’s a really hard question to answer. Sometimes my clients answer in marketing jargon and sometimes they give me their mission statement so then I’ll push them and ask, “What’s your purpose for existing? And for existing on social media.” A lot of times, people can’t articulate it, and it takes a lot of work to push through those thoughts and realize the purpose. Then we mold that into a strategy based on how consumers are showing up and what they need more of along their individual journeys. It’s so critical to get right because otherwise, you have no credibility or authenticity, and at that point you’re just white noise and wasting media dollars.
Consumers will see through it if your social is thin and your strategy is only to get clicks and numbers. This has changed the way we have business conversations. But times have always been changing, that’s truly the industry we are in. We create and strategize and adapt to change and continue to iterate. The definitions of what we do will continue to change, they may even be indefinable, but the creative work never stops, and that’s the fun in it all.