Confusing Brand Strategy With Creative Strategy

Mark Di SommaFebruary 9, 20164 min

Branding Strategy Insider helps marketing oriented leaders and professionals like you build strong brands. BSI readers know, we regularly answer questions from marketers everywhere. Today we hear from Lynn, a brand manager in San Francisco, California who asks this about the difference between brand strategy and creative strategy…

The ad agency we work with seem to use the terms brand strategy and creative strategy as if they are interchangeable. How do you see them?

Great question, Lynn, because it’s such a common confusion. Often, when an ad agency talks about brand strategy, what they really mean is the thinking that has led to the work they have been doing on the brand. So while many agencies will tell you that they do brand strategy, what they actually offer is creative strategy.

Both are necessary but the terms are not synonyms. Let me explain:

Brand strategy is the business case for change at a brand level. It envisages the future position of a brand in the marketplace, based on the company’s wider business aspirations and its ability to deliver and market brands that align with that desired position. The purpose of brand strategy, in my mind, is to identify how far the brand must “travel” perceptually in order to be competitive, the benefits of getting there for the business, the purpose and values that the brand culture will need to adhere to in order to make that journey, and the competitive resistance that the brand may encounter getting to that end point. It’s the why and the where.

Once that point is known and quantified as viable, the role of the creative strategy (personally I think it’s more about approach than strategy, but I’ll use the term you used at the outset) is to lay out the storytelling needed to make that journey happen. The creative strategy captures how the brand will tell that story, the personality and behaviors that the brand will need to adopt in order for that to happen successfully and, potentially, the communication themes that will hold the storytelling together. Some brands reset their creative strategy regularly, potentially continuing to move towards the same goal, but using a range of stories to get there. Others expound a much longer story, filled with reveals, introductions, turning points and surprises.

Campaigns are the episodes: they are how the creative strategy gets expressed across a range of channels over time – from advertising to content marketing to social media to direct marketing and so on. The purpose of the campaigns is to animate the creative strategy into tangible storylines for consumers. These may be linked together thematically or they may run independently of one another.

The confusions arise because many of the terms above are used interchangeably as you say, and also because, under time and budget pressure, agencies and consultants consolidate the different parts under collective headings. For example, it is not unusual for an agency to run together the brand strategy and the creative strategy in a presentation that explains this is where the brand needs to get to, as we see it, and here is how we intend to achieve that conceptually.

There’s nothing wrong with doing this of course. Indeed it can be a highly efficient way of working in the right hands. But in the wrong hands it can also separate the ideas driving the brand from the requirements and drivers of the business strategy. The simple question to help prevent this is: “How will what you are suggesting help us achieve our key business goal of _____?”

What concerns me much more than this though, and it happens far too often in my opinion, is when there is no true brand strategy, so the final goal for the brand remains unknown. Instead the brand’s agency or agencies jump from one creative strategy to another (calling it the brand strategy as they go), or even from one campaign idea to another, with no robust reason for doing so. Effectively they rely on presence and media to get the brand noticed – but there is no holistic business goal, and because the end goal remains unstated and unquantified, it is impossible to truly judge progress or to establish metrics much beyond reach and engagement stats that seem impressive but ring hollow.

Lynn we hope you find this helpful.

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