Brand actions are not the same as brand strategy

Brand actions are not the same as brand strategy

Actions are not strategies. Great strategies change more than where you are, what you call yourselves, what you offer. That’s Michael Porter’s thought. Great brand strategies re-invent the emotional context within which your brand competes against others in the marketplace. That’s mine. A great brand strategy redefines the relationship that people have with a brand over time. People think about you differently because they feel about you differently. That opportunity often gets missed in the rush to give people internally things to execute.

Great brand strategies focus on shifting the consumer inclination. The myriad of things you intend to do over the next 6, 12, 24 months are the means to arrive at that distinctive emotional goal. Turning Volkswagen into America’s most loved car – strategy. Telling people to stop smoking – action. Lifting traffic with a promotional offer – action.

Actions are prompts, and therefore, like all tactics, they function as switches. Yes. No.

In response, people do something or they don’t. Change the logo – action. Like. Or not. Notice. Or not. Consumers may be incentivised by an emotion to take an action or respond to it but that’s often as far as the emotive change extends. The residual emotion about the brand and what it means to someone often remains largely unchanged. The brand is what the brand offers at that moment.

Action plans

So many “brand strategies” are really action plans. Innovations – actions. CSR – action. Sponsorship – action. Content – action. And every “media strategy” and every “digital strategy” I have seen in recent years was, in reality, an action plan. They have all been about getting people to do things. What they don’t do is lay out a distinctive, competitive, emotional arc for that brand that puts in ‘clear space’ to pursue its commercial goals.

So why are so many marketers determined to be brand action figures? It seems to me they have muddied the waters between planning and strategy. There are important differences. A great brand strategy is filled out and brought to market through actions that move consumers towards that competitive end-feeling. But the equation doesn’t work in reverse: a collection of actions does not automatically indicate a real strategy in play. It simply shows that people have been busy.

Radically sensible (emotionally)

Red Bull’s brand strategy was to become the most exciting beverage in the world. In itself, that’s a radical idea. It doesn’t make logical sense for a drink to be exciting. It does make emotional sense – if you can imagine it. It was an idea that put them in a different space than everyone else who sold drinks. And every action the brand has taken, from what they say to what they sponsor, has reinforced the shift to that consumer inclination. They remain a brand utterly addicted to excitement. Disney’s brand strategy was to be the happiest place on earth. That sense of magic infects every action they take, and each action has consolidated Disney’s emotional status. On ice, on film, onsite – Disney does everything it can to be fantastical.

That’s why every brand strategy should be underpinned by two clear questions:

  • What’s the most amazing thing could consumers feel about our brand that they don’t feel now?
  • Where’s the competitive advantage for us if they do?

Then and only then should the question be: “How do we do that?”

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