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Why most companies fail at brand strategy

Brand strategy shouldn’t be this hard

If you do a quick Google search for brand strategy, you’ll probably read umpteen different definitions for what it actually is. Some people say it’s a marketing plan, others say it’s your logo and colour palette, and I’ve even seen one absurd website claiming it’s just another name for your affiliate partnership scheme (WTF?).

But, it really isn’t any of these things.

A brand strategy is a plan for brand management that answers the big questions: who, where, why, what and when? Building a strong brand requires an understanding of the unique qualities and differentiators that define the brand, followed by a commitment to showcase these unique qualities in everything you do.

Or in even simpler terms, your brand strategy should boil down to answering three questions:

  1. Who is our brand for?
  2. What problem are we solving?
  3. Why will people care?

If you can concisely answer those three questions, you’ve pretty much nailed the foundations of your brand strategy. The challenge then lies in sticking to this strategy and bringing it to life with tactics across everything you do.

And it’s at this point of bringing the brand strategy to life, that most businesses fail.

Over the years of working with brands at Notepad (my branding agency), we’ve had countless businesses come to us and say they “tried branding” but it didn’t work. But when we looked into it what they actually meant was they had updated their website and logo.

Building a brand takes much more than just updating your website and waiting for the customers to come flying through the door. It’s about leaning into your brand strategy to showcase who you’re for, what problem you solve, and why people should care, over and over again, across all touchpoints of the business.

Look at Nike. They’ve been saying “Just do it” for over 30 years and nowadays most of us understand immediately what Nike stands for and what makes them distinct. But this wouldn’t have been the case from day one. It takes years to build up a strong brand in the market, and most of this comes down to consistency and discipline in your communications and actions.

To dig a little deeper, let’s look at 3 recent rebrands that defined a super clear brand strategy and then did a great job of bringing it to life:

BrewDog

From day one, BrewDog has understood the importance of brand. When they launched, their rebellious post-modern punk positioning helped them to challenge a tired industry and Punk IPA is now the best selling craft beer in the world. But while being punk used to give them quite a distinct edge, it’s not enough anymore.

Last year, BrewDog rolled out their new brand identity and while most people quite liked the new colour palette and slick design system, what really stood out to me was their absolute commitment to their new brand strategy. While BrewDog used to be all about ‘leading the craft beer revolution’ they are now very openly focused on ‘making sure we have a planet left to brew beer on’. They’ve gone from being purely a punk beer brand to an environmentally-focused brand that wants to help save the planet.

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And what’s more impressive is that while this may be seen as just an empty statement by the more cynical, they really have lived up to the challenge. With their Brewdog Tomorrow initiative, they’ve committed to spending over £1million on sustainable initiatives, planted a massive forest of trees in Scotland, and found ways to make their whole production cycle much more sustainable. And they’ve just announced that they are now carbon negative as a business.

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Which other beer brand do you know that’s doing anything like this on the same scale? And given two craft beer options which one would you choose now that you know they’re on a mission to save the planet?

BT

Bit of a curveball here as while some of you might have seen the new purple BT brand identity replace the-weird-bloke-with-a-bugle-logo we all remember, you may not think it’s the most creative or inventive rebrand.

But I was blown away by it.

Historically, BT (or British Telecom) has been seen as something of an institution with a long heritage for providing reliable phone services. They were a fairly trusted but largely dull brand. And as we all now carry a mobile phone, what on earth do we need BT for?

To survive as a brand, BT needed to show the world that they offer much more than just telecoms, and are fit for the modern age.

And so that’s exactly what they did. BT now position themselves as the “UK’s largest tech company” and their tagline is “Beyond Limits”.

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They updated their brand identity to feel futuristic, slick and techy, and then did a huge marketing push to truly bring this new brand positioning to life. This included:

  • Launching their free digital skills programmes for schools and parents
  • Ramping up their cybersecurity offering and shouting about it
  • A massive push on their 4G and 5G fibre offering in their ‘Beyond Limits’ advertising
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It’s clever, simple, and all rooted in a clear and compelling brand strategy.

Oxbridge

Ok, so this is actually a rebrand I was lucky enough to work on with the team at Notepad. But I think it’ll be helpful to talk through how we created Oxbridge’s brand strategy and why it worked.

Oxbridge is a distance learning company, offering over 250 courses to remote learners across the UK, and overseas.

While the company had experienced pretty rapid growth since setting up in 2015, to truly scale up they needed to find a way to show prospective students that they are the best option on the market for anyone looking to complete a course at a distance.

From digging deep into the business, speaking to their customers and staff, and analysing their closest competitors, it became clear that what truly sets Oxbridge apart is how effortless they make the whole learning experience. Their technology is unrivalled, their customer service was highly praised, and their team genuinely have a passion to help their students learn and progress in life. This sets them apart from stuffy, traditional education providers, but also sets them apart in the distance learning space as no one can match the care and attention you feel as an Oxbridge student.

Oxbridge is all about ‘Learning without limits’.

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As a brand, they stand for breaking down all the barriers that stop people from learning and focus on helping us all to continually better ourselves.

Since rebranding in 2019, the business has grown at a phenomenal rate, but what’s been most satisfying to watch is how their team truly make efforts to live and breathe their brand strategy.

For example, their first brand campaign focused on showcasing that everyone has the power to learn, and showcased the true diversity of their courses and their students. They could have focused on showcasing the courses they offer but that wouldn’t have set them apart.

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And more recently, to help people during the Covid-19 pandemic, Oxbridge launched their own £60,000 fund to support people that wanted to use their newly found spare time to learn a new skill. They didn’t have to do this but it’s another way of showcasing their commitment to truly providing Learning without limits. More on the Oxbridge rebrand here.

So, to recap…

Brand strategy is all about choosing your position in the market and bringing it to life through tangible ways. It’s not enough to simply rebrand and expect the business to explode. You’ve got to stick to your strategy and make it real for people. Do that, and you’ll have a brand of massive value which people will always choose first.

Other useful stuff:

  • If you’d like one of our strategists to have a quick no-pressure look at your brand, take a free brand health check here
  • If you’d like to give your inbox some love, every fortnight we email out a bunch of links which we think are inspiring and genuinely useful. Sign up here.
  • And if you haven’t had quite enough of my words, you can read my previous blog here: ‘What is branding and why does it drive growth?’

Thanks for reading!

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