We all admire the razor-sharp simplicity of famous ideas. Apple is still remembered for ‘Think different’; GE has ‘Imagination at work’; Sony moved from ‘Make Believe’ to ‘Be Moved’; Google’s mission statement is simply ‘to organise the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful’.
Most marketers and brand managers will know intuitively that once you identify the core ‘brand language’ it would give the brand a lucid sense of purpose that has clear strategic imperatives.
But if smart and succinct wording is recognised as best practice for brand strategies, why – more often than not – do we see reams of overcomplicated text instead?
Proliferation of the brand strategy
In many organisations, brand platforms grow and proliferate almost every quarter. Your stakeholders will say they want to be as lucid as Google or Apple, but in the same breath ask you for an ever-expanding list of ingredients: mission, worldview, vision, values, premise, purpose, personality, role, insight, opportunity, story... the list goes on. And as they ask you to come up with yet another element, they will also explain the urgent need for an additional, focused and simple, positioning statement.
Strategic proliferation is bad strategy; it is what author and business consultant Richard Rumelt would place in the category of ‘fluff’: fancy language disguising a lack of content.
Why does it happen?
If you know you need a radically simple idea, why do you often end up with a proliferated strategy? Here are the six most common causes:
1. Your stakeholders think complex means sophisticated: In many boardrooms, there’s a love for rich language and an underlying belief that longer documents are more trustworthy.
2. Box ticking: In many sectors clients judge you and your competitors on similar criteria. As a result, organisations evolve an obsession with ticking all the boxes everyone else is ticking, and they try and push these redundant elements into the brand platform.
3. Ego: Newly arrived stakeholders, especially c-suite level, feel they need to leave their mark. Their additions tend to compound the problem, especially if they add new elements without removing others so that they do not ruffle corporate feathers.
4. A chimera of methodologies: Senior members of the marketing team and the third-parties they work with all bring their own tools and methods, regardless of overlap, as consultancies and agencies create new buzzwords. Corporation’s chop and change methodologies until they have built brand Frankenstein’s monster.
5. Soul searching is easier than action: Searching for the perfect meaning instead of acting on what you believe in is politically safer. It passes the time and makes you look busy. Unfortunately, while you are rewriting your mission statement for the fifth time in six years your competitors may be actually doing something.
If the complicators win, everybody loses
Strategic proliferation can and will kill your brand strategy and, over the long-term, your brand. It will rob your brand of credibility, relevance, and differentiation. Here is a more specific list of its dangers:
1. You lose the potential for action: At best, your brand idea just becomes harder to understand. At worst, it starts sounding phony, and the potential of action drowns in verbosity.
2. You lose control over your briefs: When your brand platform has a double-digit number of themes, metaphors, narratives and value-laden terms, you have created a brief too open to interpretation. Readers connect the dots whichever way they please - and their work is without strategic direction.
3. You lose focus on good strategy: While fluff is bad strategy’s favourite disguise, even good strategy can get lost in it. A proliferated strategy obscures your solution and makes it impossible to identify the critical issues.
4. You lose direction: With proliferation creating obscurity, freedom of interpretation and detachment from the real situation, it is easy for a brand to lose its way. And with people losing faith in its credibility and not bothered about its imperatives, anything can happen – even a complete loss of direction.
How to avoid strategic proliferation
So, what should you do in the face of proliferation? Here are some ideas for an alternative approach:
1. Trust the idea. Stick with the big idea and resist the temptation to explain all the details at once. Explanations and articulations belong in separate documents, not in the core strategy.
2. Connect the idea with clear directives to action. The moment you can’t identify the strategic imperative of an idea is probably the moment when it has stopped being an idea and has become a rambling thought.
3. Be brief. The tighter your core, the stronger it is.
4. Believe in your brand articulation. Once you’ve found it, keep it: don’t rush back to unravel it the moment you encounter a challenge. Focus on action.
5. Let go. It’s almost investable that brand strategies will become proliferated at some stage in their lifetimes. Recognising the problem means you’re ready to take the bold step of rediscovering your core. Be merciless. Cut out the fluff, and – as Einstein said - make things as simple as possible, but not simpler.
Rediscovering the roots of your brand can revitalise your company. To quote a famously simple brand idea: Just Do It!