How Executives Need to Rethink Brand Strategy

By John Connors

We need to rethink how we do brand strategy and brand management.

The traditional brand strategy model can rarely keep pace in today's always-volatile business environment that is being driven simultaneously by financial markets, news media, special interests, elected officials, regulators, employees, celebrities, and consumers.

By dogmatically relying on classic brand strategy and management, too many executives look like aging athletes who are not able to keep up. We too often lean on the classic brand management model that was created in 1931 for the purpose of differentiating Ivory Soap from Camay.

The hard truth is that we are too blindly loyal to a 91-year-old model. Our adherence to this dated framework results in CMOs having the highest turnover in the C-Suite, not being invited to board meetings, having roles re-titled and to marketing and communications departments being reorganized.

It is time to revisit our beliefs and to find new brand strategy and management models that will change the trajectory of marketing. We need to uncover new ideas that embrace the complexity our companies face to help marketers regain their credibility in the marketplace.

Practical Advice on How to Rethink and Apply In Your Organization

Analyze your marketing belief system. Which brand strategy model do you use? Which marketing guru do you follow? Is it Kotler, Trout & Ries, Aaker, or maybe you use the brand management model? There is too little discussion on branding schools of thought. It is critical to make sure you have examined your philosophy and evaluated if your model is still relevant today. For example, if you use a model created for soap in the 1930s and you work in a global asset management, healthcare, or technology firm, you may want to reconsider, or at least ask yourself why you believe what you do.

Know your company's marketing situation. Be clear minded about finding the right model for your company and your industry. Different industries, competitive situations and budget levels demand different models. If you are a Top 30 advertiser and you have more than a billion to spend then you can likely win through brute force (e.g., P&G spent $8.1 billion in 2021, according to Statista). Unfortunately, too many marketers follow the big budget philosophy without having the dollars to match. If you do not have enough money to reach much of the market through paid advertising, then you should evaluate new models.

Study your CEO and your company's strategy. To effectively rethink marketing strategy, CMOs must first commit to studying their company and their CEO. We need to embrace their complexity and not think marketing first. Today, only 49 percent of CMOs have the personal trust of their CEO, according to Boathouse Quant Study). Trust is a requirement for operating success. We have found two shortcuts to building this trust.

The first is to study the CEO's calendar. It is the single biggest indicator of what they care about. Study how they spend their time, build pie charts of the audiences and issues that take up their time. If they meet with investors, news media, special interests, elected officials, regulators, employees, and consumers then you need a broader model. If they spend most of their time studying the market data, store traffic and the consumer then a consumer-centric approach may be right.

Second, visualize your company's strategy. Get your company's strategy on a single page. We use Michael Porter's Activity Map framework as a tool to bring strategy to life. Armed with the CEO's priorities and the company's strategy, marketers can then consider the appropriate model. The challenge for many marketers is that they bring the same model to each company and spend too little time studying the new battlefield. This quickly erodes trust.

Identify a model to succeed with the CEO/board and the market. The challenge with finding new marketing models is that there simply are not many out there. As marketers, we like to experiment with new channels and new technology more than we like to evaluate new strategic models. There are very few academics creating new models. Consider for a moment who you consider to be the greatest marketing thinkers of our time, or better yet do a search on the topic.

There are no longer any marketing academics of any stature. Your search results will likely be filled with entrepreneurs rather than academics. You are going to have to look outside the marketing departments of major universities and business schools. In our work, we have focused on a model that emanates from the thinking of Nobel prize economist Robert Shiller who introduced the concept of "Narrative Economics" in 2018. We believe narratives are the new vectors for change in our economy, our politics, our social movements, and our companies.

Test narrative versus brand. Try a simple experiment. Walk or Zoom into your next meeting with the CEO or board and replace the word "brand" with the word "narrative". Narrative will give you the power to think and execute across investors, news media, special interests, elected officials, regulators, employees, and consumers. The narrative model will give you far greater flexibility across your paid, owned, and earned media. You will find that narrative is a much more dynamic model that enables you to leverage today's media and consumer social behaviors versus brand management which is more static in nature and built for the slower moving media and the blunt force of traditional media.

The best entrepreneurs manage narratives intuitively. Jeff Bezos can talk about rockets, the cloud, e-commerce, distribution centers, climate pledges, digital advertising, streaming and himself...all as a part of their umbrella narrative: Be the earth's most customer centric company.

That narrative is not some trendy new framework. This is how countries and religions have been built. Countries and religions, the original brands, are in fact a collection of narratives that add up to a whole story and belief system. Consider the narratives of the United States. We have narratives around the constitution, the branches of government, the states, the founding fathers, the people, the democratic political model, elections, the economic model, and the military model. Narratives guided us long before we needed to differentiate Ivory from Camay.

The views and opinions expressed are solely those of the contributor and do not necessarily reflect the official position of the ANA or imply endorsement from the ANA.

John Connors is the CEO and co-founder at Boathouse.