Branded vs. Brand-Led
Branded companies have an identity, but consumers truly identify them by their products. When a product supersedes the brand, a company is always at the mercy of the consumer and their needs.
American Apparel and Old Navy are branded companies. They have an identity, but if the market demands lower prices or generic styles, American Apparel and Old Navy are forced to follow.
Brand-led companies, in contrast, play the long game and require more investment. The identity of the brand supersedes the product and allows a company to resist certain market forces.
Nike and Shinola are brand-led companies that can release distinct new product categories and occupy different price levels. The brand vision, not mass consumer pressures, dictate growth.
16 Rules To Guide You
If you’re developing your strategy, use this list to guide you. If you already have one in place, use this list to test it.
1. Don’t play in someone else’s backyard.
Strong brands are unique. They say and do something different than other brands. They take a unique tone, follow a controversial belief or see the future through a different lens.
2. Be specific.
This is truer than ever. In such fragmented and noisy markets, you can either speak loudest (a huge marketing budget) or be the most resonant (the right message for the right audience.) For 99% of companies, being the loudest is not a viable option.
3. Lead with the story, not the product.
Even when it’s about the product there needs to be an emotional narrative. Otherwise you’re just another branded company with a smart product, but no real brand vision.
4. Answer the why.
Simon Sinek pioneered the concept of answering the ‘why’ and it’s worth your time to watch.
5. Look for triggers. Speak to the subtext.
What your consumers say and what they mean are oftentimes two different things. Pay attention to what’s really being said. Margo Aaron captures this idea brilliantly in her discussion of how the best marketers read minds:
She says: “I try to cook 3x a week. I just don’t have time.”
Untrained ear hears: “She’s busy. She really wants to be healthier. We need to emphasize convenience and low-cal in our marketing!”
Trained ears hear: “She wants to cook because she thinks she should, but honestly she doesn’t give AF. It’s not a priority for her. She just feels guilty about how much she orders take out. She’d be happier if she allowed herself to not feel like shit about how much she orders out.”
6. Easing cognitive dissonance is good. Cheating cognitive dissonance is better.
Cognitive dissonance occurs “when your ideas, beliefs, or behaviors contradict each other.” If you think you’re financially responsible but then feel guilty spending $400 on a new pair of shoes, you’re experiencing the weight of cognitive dissonance.
If you can find ways to ease cognitive dissonance with your product, great. But if you can find ways to cheat it through your brand narrative, it can be incredibly powerful. P.S., that’s exactly the mechanism at play in the example for rule #5 above.
7. Spotlight the customer, not the company.
This is an iteration of the age-old best practice, “benefits not features.” When looking at user experience, content, packaging, even homepage menus, you should position language not only to speak to the benefits, but benefits that spotlight the customer.
8. Don’t define against a competitor.
As long as you define yourself against a competitor, your identity is tethered to theirs and will always be limited. People make this mistake in a variety of different ways: creating nearly identical (but perhaps “better”) website experiences, referencing competitors in content or mimicking sales strategies.
If you’re truly a brand-led company, you need to send the signal that those other players don’t even register on your radar.
9. Speak your secret language.
Strong brands have their own secret language.
10. Make your future bet.
Have a hypothesis about where the world will be in 2, 5 or 10 years and place your bets on that vision. Solving a problem that exists today completely ignores the fact that your consumers are dynamic and always changing. Cultures, beliefs and behaviors are evolving faster than ever.
11. Take bold risks.
If you’re placing your bet on a specific future vision, then you’re taking a risk. Placing bets on the future should feel risky.
But risk cuts another way, too. Old brands demand authority among consumers… and they’re quickly losing marketshare because that’s an old model that simply doesn’t work today. Most founders already realize that.
12. Force hard decisions.
A good brand strategy will force you to make difficult decisions. Having a point of view means you won’t please everyone. It also means you’ll be pushing your core consumers to continuously walk into the future before they’re 100% ready.
13. Create tension.
Tension earns attention. Being specific, taking bold risks, speaking your secret language… all of these things create tension. They captivate your core audience and keep secondary audiences on the sidelines.
14. Empathize with your customer.
One of my favorite quotes is, “Everyone is a hero in their own story.” Your customer is trying to be the best version of themselves that they can. You must empathize with them if you expect to uncover the triggers, behaviors and beliefs that will underlie your brand strategy.
15. Relief beats guilt. Reward beats fear.
You will always have the choice to go positive or negative in your strategy. Tell the scary, shame-based story or the positive, goal-oriented story. Neither is inherently wrong, but some do work better than others.
16. The opposite must also be a strategy.
Roger L. Martin’s simple strategy test asks, “Is the opposite of our strategy also a strategy?”
If you’re a wealth management company looking to “target wealthy individuals who want and are willing to pay for comprehensive wealth management services […by] providing great customer service across the breadth of wealth management needs”, you’re not really saying anything.
The opposite would be to target poor individuals who don’t want to pay for your services, with crappy customer service across a narrow set of tools.
No one would go for this opposite strategy… so it’s safe to say you’re basically going after the same thing everyone else is.
That means that you are likely to be indistinguishable from your competitors and the only way you will make a decent return is if the industry currently happens to be highly attractive structurally.
Don’t fall into the trap of being indistinguishable.