Ideas, meaning, purpose and fluff: when brand strategy goes wrong

(This is an archive find and one of my few longer pieces. I wrote it just before leaving Landor back in 2011 and later edited it with the help of Frances Gordon. It’s seeing the light of day for the first time and I believe it is still relevant. Hell, every project is a Déjà vu…)

Mission, worldview, vision, values, personality, role, insight, opportunity, story… Has your brand strategy proliferated so much that it’s hard to see the wood from the trees? If so, you’re not alone. Read this article to understand how it’s happened, why it’s happened, and what you can do about it.

Smart and succinct brand language is proven successful

Most celebrated brands find their articulation through simple phrases: Apple has “Think different”; GE has “Imagination at work”; Sony has “Make.Believe.   Google’s mission statement is simply “to organise the world‘s information and make it universally accessible and useful’’.

While corporations may have more detailed versions internally, it is these surprisingly short phrases that are most often cited as best practice by marketers and most often admired by everyone else. Because once the fundamental creed of a brand is identified, very little strategic language is necessary. So instead of focusing on endless wording and rewording, corporations can focus on taking action to make their strategies live.

‘’Brand language” plays a greater role than that of a slogan. These words become central to the ethos of the brand. These short statements serve to rally together internal and external communities of a corporation. At its best, this “strategic language” gives communities focused, lucid creeds that have clear strategic imperatives and imply real-world action.

But if smart and succinct wording is recognised as best practice for brand strategies, why – more often than not – do we see reams of overcomplicated text used to articulate what should be a clear concept?

But the language of brand strategy is often verbose and clumsy

In many organisations, brand platforms grow and proliferate almost every quarter. Decision-makers say they want to be as clear as Google or Apple, but in the same breath introduce their staff to long hierarchies of proliferated brand bumf: mission, worldview, vision, values, personality, role, insight, opportunity, story… the list goes on. As one tries to work one’s head around this black hole of words, the corporations’ decision-makers will often explain the urgent need for an additional, focused and simple, positioning statement.

What we as consultants often hear: you know the brand temple… remember, the brand strategy that replaced the brand house. The one that morphed from the pyramid that was paired with the original vision-mission-values platform from the 90s. We now need a positioning statement that brings all those elements together.
(We once came across a client that had a “Brand Key” which was, naturally, lock shaped).

The job of the strategist should be to create shorter, more succinct statements that lead organisations to take meaningful action.

Strategic proliferation is bad strategy; it is what author and business consultant, Richard Rumelt would place in the category of “fluff”: fancy language disguising a lack of content. In Rumelt’s words:

‘[fluff is] a form of gibberish masquerading as strategic concepts or arguments. It uses ‘Sunday’ words (words that are inflated and unnecessarily abstruse) and apparently esoteric concepts to create the illusion of high-level thinking’. 

Creative strategists will find easy to agree with Rumelt. Clearly, the usefulness of articulating the organisation’s creed will only go as far as the core ideas of that creed. But burying a truthful core under heaps of words poses a greater risk than an innocuous slice of “extra fluffy’’ strategy.

Why you should avoid a proliferated brand strategy:

Strategic proliferation can and will kill your brand strategy and, over the long-term, your brand. It will rob your brand of its fundamental equity, ingredients deeply rooted in marketing’s truths – credibility, relevance and differentiation. Here is a more specific list of its dangers:

  1. You lose the potential for action: At best, your brand idea just becomes harder to understand. At worst, it starts sounding phoney and the potential of action drowns in verbosity.
  1. You lose control over your briefs: When your brand platform has a double-digit number of themes, metaphors, narratives and value-laden terms, you have created a brief open to interpretation. Readers connect the dots whichever way they please – and their work is without strategic direction.
  1. You lose focus on good strategy: While fluff is bad strategy’s favourite disguise, even good strategy can get lost in it. A proliferated strategy obscures your solution and makes it impossible to identify the critical issues.
  1. You lose direction: With proliferation creating obscurity, freedom of interpretation and detachment from the real situation, it is easy for a brand to lose its way. And with people losing faith in its credibility and not bothered about its imperatives, anything can happen – even a complete loss of direction.

Causes of a proliferated strategy

Here are the six most common causes of a proliferated strategy:

  1. Confusion between sophistication and complexity: there is a myth that sophisticated ideas need long explanations, and that longer documents are more trustworthy. This tendency opens the door to both fluff and a tendency to include unnecessary, distracting detail.
  1. Box ticking: To become successful, many brands need to stand out from an array of similar competitors, judged on similar criteria. Ironically, the evolution of many corporations is that they become more and more like their competitors. Many industries (for example, professional services) have generic leader-sets. In these situations, companies are obsessed with ticking all requirements even when their reputation means that those requirements go without saying. This will generate a long list of redundant elements and subjects that serve no strategic purpose.
  1. Ego: New stakeholders often feel they need to leave their mark on the brand strategy, whether it needs changing or not. If the strategy is already wordy and unwieldy, their additions tend to compound the problem, especially if, rather than taking the bold step of changing what they want to change, they merely add new elements so that they do not ruffle corporate feathers.
  1. A melting pot of methodologies: The discipline of Marketing is guilty of breeding inconsistency and confusion. Academics and practitioners compete with each other by developing new methods or changing ones that were accepted in the past. Corporations are the victims of this: often they feel compelled to chop and change methodologies until they have built brand Frankensteins.
  1. Entropy, a gradual descent into disorder: As an organisation marches on in its search for meaning, desire to add explanation and detail distracts us from the original intention. It’s a strange phenomenon: when we feel an idea brings us closer to truth, we fall in love with it. But after a while, it no longer satisfies us – even if the situation has remained unchanged.
  1. Fear of action: Searching for the perfect meaning instead of acting on what you believe in is politically safer. It passes the time and makes you look busy without any obvious risks. Unfortunately, this behaviour is indeed risky: while you are rewriting your mission statement for the fifth time in six years your competitors may be actually doing
Take, for example Company X. Company X’s brand platform has been mutating for five years. It now has more than 10 core elements and double that number of implicit values. It’s further inflated with descriptions of the strategic background, audience, category, competition, etc… Closer inspection shows that you can find almost any of the eight themes common with their competitors and hygienic to their industry within this one platform. There’s truly something for everyone.

The impact on the brand is profoundly negative: few employees feel the brand makes sense or is remarkable. Marketing managers in markets veer away from the global strategy. Creative agencies do whatever they want and just pay token tribute to any global guidelines. Almost nobody sees the platform (which hangs on the wall in many offices) as useful or directive; they simply “get on with business” and focus on tactics. Meantime, the brand is increasingly under-performing to the point of posing a risk to Company X’s future.

So who is Company X? Truth is that this situation is so common that it could be about half of the companies who are seeking brand strategy at the moment.

How to avoid strategic proliferation

So what should you do in the face of proliferation? Here are some ideas for an alternative approach:

  1. Trust the idea. Stick with the big idea and resist the temptation to explain it in all possible ways. Explanations and articulations should be in separate documents, not in the main strategy.
  1. Connect creed with clear directives to action. The moment you can’t identify the strategic imperative of an idea is probably the moment when it has stopped being an idea and has become a rambling thought.
  1. Be brief. The more concise your creed, the stronger it is.
  1. Believe in your brand articulation. Take your time finding the right articulation for your brand platform. Once you’ve found it, keep it: don’t rush back to unravel it the moment you encounter a challenge. Be sure you act on your creed.
  1. Let go. It’s almost investable that brand strategies will become proliferated at some stage in their lifetimes. Recognising the problem means you’re ready to take the bold step of rediscovering your creed. Be merciless. Cut the prolix, and – as Einstein said – make things as simple as possible, but not simpler.

 

Rediscovering the roots of your creed will revitalise your brand. . To quote a famously simple brand idea: Just Do It!

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