Rebooting brand strategy for a digital age

'In the rush to engage today's connected consumers, the fundamentals of brand strategy are being neglected. That's why a clear brand positioning is more important than ever.' This is the thrust of a Campaign magazine article  published online today that fellow brandgym parter Jon Goldstone and I penned, based on findings from our our 9th brandgym survey. Below I share some key headlines from the article.

The digital obsession

There is no doubt that digital marketing is the main topic of conversation for marketing directors and their teams today; in some cases, it is the only thing they seem to talk about! Every week, a sexy new social media channel seems to pop up, promoting itself as the next big thing. And scaremongering  headlines from digital experts warn you how marketing is undergoing seismic change and that you had better keep up or risk being a dinosaur. 

So, it is not surprising that "keeping up with the latest trends" is the main driver of social media use, according to our research with over 100 marketing directors, across multiple categories and markets. Less than a quarter  said their social media use was based on tangible evidence of business benefits. Of even more concern is that the number of companies following the money, not the hype, has hardly shifted since we questioned marketing directors four years ago.

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Neglecting brand stra

New digital channels have, of course, opened up exciting and potentially profitable ways for companies to engage with ever more connected consumers. However, the risk of so much time, effort and energy being spent on digital channel selection and execution is that the fundamentals of brand strategy are being neglected.  

On one hand, 91% of the marketing directors surveyed agreed that "the key to effective digital marketing is clear brand positioning" (see graph below from the Campaign piece). Face-to-face interviews with confirmed that a clear brand idea is more important than ever, to help orchestrate the growing number of agencies delivering a brand over multiple channels. 

And yet most of the same marketing directors also agreed that, "with the focus on digital/social marketing, brand strategy gets overlooked". The implication? There are lots of brands out there without a compelling, coherent big brand idea to inspire and guide effective marketing. And this neglect of brand strategy raises the risk of brand equity being diluted over time as the brand message and experience get fragmented across an ever-increasing number of channels.

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Rebooting brand strategy

So, how to inspire marketing and agency teams to rediscover the power of brand strategy? Our research suggests brand strategy isn’t broken; most marketing directors recommend fine-tuning it. The challenge is not to totally reinvent brand strategy but to "reboot" it for the digital age, with three main ways we recommend to achieve success:

  • Inject a greater sense of purpose into brand positioning
  • Gain even deeper insight into consumers’ lives, hopes and concerns
  • Make brand positioning simpler and more visual for more inspiring creative briefs

Search for truth, like Pot Noodle

The most important success factor for brand positioning in the digital age remains deep consumer insight. This insight needs to be holistic and to explore the role of brands in consumers’ lives and popular culture, not just in their product categories. And as with branding in general, the challenge is to reboot the insight process by blending the best of new, digitally enabled techniques with tried-and-tested approaches.

Pot Noodle used this strategy to revitalise its brand, as Jon posted on recently here.  Social listening revealed that the brand was stuck in the past, seen as a quick solution for people too lazy to cook a proper meal. The previous major campaign in 2011, "Why try harder?", reinforced this image, featuring a footballer’s wife character played by a man living a Wag’s life of leisure. This approach was cutting-edge at the time but less suited to today’s era of start-ups and student debt. Culture had moved on. Pot Noodle had not.

When the team spent time talking to students, initial feedback confirmed the negative brand image – most students denied buying it at all!. However, poking around in the same students’ cupboards revealed they did use the product, albeit reluctantly. Pot Noodle was a convenient, tasty time-saver but its image was offputting.

The new "You can make it" positioning makes the brand more aspirational for today’s ambitious and go-getting millennial consumers. The campaign, by Lucky Generals, has delivered double-digit growth and dramatically improved levels of awareness, brand equity and social engagement. 

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Position with purpose, like Lynx

Our research suggested that a clear sense of the broader role a brand plays in people’s lives and society is increasingly important. This reflects the growing desire among consumers to learn more about the companies behind the brands they buy. 

Lynx recently refreshed its brand purpose, moving away from the babes-in-bikinis image to remain progressive and provocative for today’s young men. Research carried out among 3,500 men across ten countries showed that they felt pressured by masculine stereotypes and only 15% thought themselves attractive. On the other hand, nine out of ten women said they found men most attractive when they were being themselves. This led to the formation of a new brand purpose – "helping guys to celebrate their individuality and be as attractive as they can" – and a new advertising campaign, "Find your magic".

Brand purpose should be authentic and integrated into the brand experience, rather than bolted on as an afterthought. In the case of Lynx, the brand has not only launched a grooming range and a distinctive new advertising campaign by 72andSunny Amsterdam, it also became the official partner of the Campaign Against Living Miserably, a charity dedicated to reducing the rate of suicides among men.

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Bring the brand to life, like Purdey's

Brand positioning needs to be simpler and easier to understand. "We are constructing long stories for a hashtag generation," commented one marketing director. A final crafting process by a small team, not a committee, can sharpen and simplify the positioning. Visuals can then provide extra inspiration. Alternatives to complex brand pyramids include brand magazines, brand story videos and even turning the positioning into a movie poster. 

These simpler, clearer and more visual positioning outputs can then form the basis of an inspiring creative brief. Here, our research highlighted the balancing act required in today’s digital age. There remains a need for a unifying big brand idea to orchestrate the larger number of agencies delivering the brand. However, clear guidance is needed on how to adapt the message and tone for different connection points, including social media.

A good example of a brand pulling off this balancing act is the recent relaunch of Purdey’s, the Britvic-owned soft drink for adults, featuring new brand ambassador, Idris Elba. As Kevin McNair, GB marketing director at Britvic, commented in the article: "An old-fashioned positioning document wouldn’t have done the job. We used a powerful combination of video, impactful visuals and personal briefings."
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In conclusion, brand strategy is not broken. But it does need rebooting in order to regain relevance, especially amongst the younger generation of "digital native" marketers who move so fast that they risk neglecting brand strategy in favour of digital channel strategy.