Doing Brand Strategy: When Can You Delay, When Must You Act?

January 20, 2020 | by David Lemley

Marketing is a discipline of campaigns and deployment and deadlines, so it’s easy to get caught in the swirl of urgency and lose sight of what’s important. The world moves fast for better-for-you brands, especially emerging ones, so leadership tends to bypass one of the most important tasks: building a strong strategic foundation for the brand.

Brand strategy is essential, but it’s also time- and resource-consuming, so marketers and executives stick it on the back burner while they focus on urgent needs like distribution and promotion.

Understanding Urgent vs. Important Opportunities for Brand Strategy

Perhaps you’ve heard of the Eisenhower Principle: President Dwight Eisenhower said, “I have two kinds of problems: the urgent and the important. The urgent are not important, and the important are never urgent.” Eisenhower organized his time by focusing on tasks that were important, not just urgent.

In business, you’ve probably seen this concept translated into a decision-making matrix, where the X axis goes from urgent to not urgent, and the Y axis moves from important to not important.

It’s our position that brand strategy is the most important initiative a BFY brand can undertake, because it underpins every marketing effort in the Brand Ecosystem.

But in specific situations, it’s less urgent for some brands. So let’s take a look at the instances when leaders can “kick the can down the road” and delay the intensive work of brand strategy. (But take note: You can’t survive indefinitely without defining your brand’s true mission, passion, purpose, persona, and tribe.)

You Can Delay Brand Strategy If …

1) You are a new-ish or startup brand and have a sales goal or financial benchmark that you need to hit in the very near term. If you don’t have a brand strategy in place, you can get by for a time by being scrappy and opportunistic. Your brand’s position in the market may yet be undefined and your sales team may be lean or unstructured, but you can chase any old opportunity that promises revenue. In the future, a strong brand strategy may necessarily close the door to some of those opportunities — those that don’t coalesce with the brand’s ethos. Without strategy, opportunity represents possibility; strategy can narrow your lane and shave off opportunity, but for now, you can reach for all the brass rings.

One caveat: Chasing every opportunity means your brand will be diffuse and distracted, which sows confusion for consumers and creates lack of focus for your team.

2) You’re content to be under another brand’s umbrella. A great example of this is BarkBox (or any of the -Box brands, which aggregate other branded products and auto-ship them to subscribers). This subsidiary positioning does nothing to build your own brand, really, but it generates plenty of revenue so you can sleep at night.

One caveat: If you aspire to a Beloved & Dominant position, you’ll have to define your own brand and bring it out from under the umbrella.

3) You’re a huge company with bottomless funding. Deep-pocketed BFY brands can let the market leaders take the hits — defining new audiences, innovating new products, shaping a category — and you can follow later. You’re big enough to compete on price or placement or promotion, so you can delay the work of deep strategy for a while.

One caveat: Without a brand strategy driving your business strategy, kicking the can will come back to you; whether it’s in a quarter or a year depends on how good a punter you are.

You Cannot Delay Brand Strategy When …

1) Your competitors are eating your lunch. Sales erosion over any meaningful reporting cycle, (back-to-back quarters or back-to-back years) moves brand strategy from important/not urgent to important/urgent. It may be easy for brand leadership to point to an identifiable reason for the drop-off: a lull in production or distribution, for example. Ultimately, though, it’s a strategy problem. When consumers are becoming your non-customers, it will kill your brand.

2) Your sales team and marketing team are misaligned on how to grow. Without a defined brand strategy, you’ll spend more money and continue to invest in marketing tactics and relationships and channels that won’t deliver the results you need or expect. Strategy facilitates business planning, because it identifies the right kinds of opportunities. Everyone understands what the brand stands for.

3) Consumers are flat-out asking for new products or a new direction from your brand. They may be reaching out to you directly via social channels, or cultural trends may be pointing to an obvious direction, or perhaps it’s showing up as softening sales as consumers elect others instead of your products. Regardless, you’re not seeing it. But a brand strategy will make these consumer-driven shifts or pivots totally obvious.

Know that any delay — intentional or not — in developing a brand strategy will catch up to you. The pain you feel from the delay may be chronic and slow to build, but once it becomes acute, the symptoms will be dire and you’ll scramble to apply bandages and duct tape to keep the business from falling apart.

What’s more, lack of brand strategy means that when a big opportunity arises, you can’t press the gas and go. You’ll have to spend six months to a year to figure out what it will do to your business and whether it’s the right path. Strategy dictates whether an opportunity is a good fit or not, and it allows you to pursue it on your own terms. It may not be urgent now, but brand strategy sure is important. So make the time to do it right.