Brand Strategy And Future Outcomes

Jerome ConlonApril 15, 20205 min

Brand strategists think about the future because it’s their job to figure out what their organization ought to be doing today that will most likely result in achieving desired business goals (sales, margin and profit) and brand positioning goals tomorrow. Thus, the core challenge facing the brand strategist is the problem of anticipating the future, the challenge of prediction. And, we all know prediction is very hard to do accurately. This is one of the reasons that great brand strategists are so rare, and in a time of rapid change such as today, they are rarer still.

The overwhelming evidence in business shows that the way to predict poorly is to anticipate specific events at the level of tactics. It’s much better to focus on understanding and identifying specific forces and patterns of change, competitive weaknesses, hidden human needs unmet by the marketplace, latent opportunities, and other pregnant possibilities for growth and development. Wayne Gretzky’s insight about what made him great as a hockey player was that he skated to where the puck would be rather than where it already was, and successful brand strategists do the same.

Advantage Lies In The Truth

For example, when Nike was formed in the early 1970s it was a tiny player in a global industry consisting of multiple corporations that each had sales in excess of a billion dollars. So how is it that a tiny group of running geeks from Beaverton, Oregon were able to upend the entire sports industry? Critical qualities of thinking and of values inside the culture and mindset of Nike set it apart, a unique mindset that created unique opportunities for growth by seeing the world of sports in a new light.

From the earliest days of the formation of the brand, a difference in perspective was there, an intense commitment to seeking the truth of what sports performance was all about rather than what business managers assumed or wished it would be.

Innovation happens when we face the truth, recognize it, and act upon it. Sound business and brand strategy decisions occur along this very same path. It may be the truth that a biomechanics scientist learns in the research lab about the shock dispersion characteristics of cushioning materials; it may be the truth about midsole materials that reduce injuries and increase protection; it may be the truth surrounding how to increase performance by reducing weight; it may be the truth of how it feels on the foot using one lacing design versus another; it may be that an entire market segment is looking for entirely different performance characteristics than the ones we’ve been focused on.

Nike then took its intense truth-seeking values regarding footwear performance enhancement and applied them to sports apparel, field testing, and then to athlete promotions, advertising, retail displays, retail store designs, internet products and services, and online branded content, becoming the leading cultural protagonist of all that is good, cool and true about the joy of participating in sports and fitness experiences.

With hindsight, it’s possible to go back year-by-year and consider why Nike’s major product launches, marketing campaigns, and business performance led to its remarkable rise, but perhaps a more interesting question is to ask why all the other major sports brands at the time of Nike’s birth stood by and watched this small, idiosyncratic company build the foundations of its immense brand castle well within the range of their view, while each possessed a much larger marketing war chest?

Foresight, however, is a much more difficult thing. No one can tell us where the stock market will close at the end of the day next Monday, or which team will win the next NFL, NBA or World Cup titles. And while there were certainly individuals and groups of people inside Nike who were trying to predict which athletes and teams to sign, this was only one facet of how Nike leaders were thinking about the future.

Even more fundamental than athlete endorsement were the truth-seeking qualities around product performance and the emerging truth-seeking qualities to uncover our understanding of the role that sports and fitness actually plays in society and where the culture of sports was going. And the insights that developed in the world of social truth-seeking led Nike to the realization that in the Just Do It brief it had the opportunity to uniquely step into the role of a cultural protagonist for sports and fitness. No other brand in the category was even close to thinking this way in 1987.

Be The Cultural Protagonist

What is a cultural protagonist? It’s leadership in defining, promoting, and supporting key ideas and ideals that shape a culture.

At its core, Nike is a cultural protagonist, passionate about the experience of sports and fitness, and equally passionate about promoting and encouraging greater participation and enjoyment in sport. This requires business planning and imagining that goes beyond spreadsheets and financial metrics, although those metrics will indeed be used to evaluate results.

Some companies rely heavily on sales promotions to generate financial results using push marketing to move products off retail shelves, often by lowering price. This tactic tears down a brand’s image, just as managing goals by looking at spreadsheets will never give you insight into how intangible value is created with consumers and society at large.

Better marketers conduct annual marketing audits as the basis of new marketing plans for the coming year by looking at consumer profiles and market segments, to define easily perceived and highly differentiated values and benefits for target groups, based upon what those groups see as most important. Marketing strives to create products the market wants, and generate demand for those products through advertising, promotion, and events, thereby reducing the need to lower prices to relieve the pressure of inventory overstock.

Strategic brand planning however, is the next level, using foresight to predict how new brand initiatives and innovation can dramatically shift the user experience in the entire category, not just for one product, product line or division. Strategic brand planners look outside their industries for innovative ideas, and they use exploratory research to uncover latent and tacit consumer needs ahead of anyone else. They read widely, think imaginatively, and are concerned with cultural protagonism. They use concept generation workshops to expose new brand initiatives to take the emotional high ground in a category.

This is how some have learned to step into the role of a cultural protagonist, and in the process, to distance themselves from incrementally minded competitors. Strategic brand planning goes beyond product marketing, using far-sighted tools and employing thinking styles outside of established norms to achieve breakthroughs and build enduring brand and culture bridges.

These core ideas and others can be found in my latest book The Brand Bridge – How to Build a Profound Connection Between Your Company, Your Brand, and Your Customers.

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Jerome Conlon

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