What is a Brand Strategy, Anyway?


Dropping the jargon for an honest look at what it is and how to use it

At the risk of sounding cliché, I have often looked in my closet and thought, “I have nothing to wear.” Nothing fits or it’s just not “me” anymore – even my once-favorite sweater isn’t cutting it. I don’t think I’m alone in this feeling (at least I hope not, since I’ve put myself out there!). But the same can be said for a brand identity. Sometimes it’s just not working like it once did. Maybe it’s dated, or worse, no longer represents your community or organization. You know it’s not right, but you also just don’t know where to begin to fix it.

Starting with your logo might seem like the obvious first step. It’s your main identity marker, right? Redesign that, and everything will be fresh again. But, starting with your logo is a little bit like going shopping without a plan for what you need. You buy five pairs of jeans, but have nothing to wear to work. New stuff, same old problem: it’s just not working for you.

Creating a plan for your brand – otherwise known as a brand strategy – is an important first step in developing a new brand or refreshing an old one. A brand strategy identifies and articulates your organizational values and beliefs, the promises you make to your audiences, and the personality behind it all. Together, these components give your new look and visual identity a clear focus that not only represents you well but also aligns with the meaning and message that you deliver.

“Spending the time upfront to think through your brand strategy is the critical foundational work that allows you to develop everything else. It leads to the consistent on-brand communications that you need to build credibility and trust with your stakeholders. It makes you, YOU.”

Knowing you need a brand strategy is obviously only half the battle. Knowing what it is — and what it can do for you — is something completely different.

Why do I need this?

In basic terms, a brand strategy identifies and articulates the intangible qualities that define your place or organization and turns them into tools for communicating who you are and what you stand for.

A brand strategy should be grounded in reality so that you can build trust with your audience. That said – if reality is a grey scale – your brand strategy should also lean slightly aspirational. It maps out who you are today, but also where you’re headed. This forward-thinking mentality allows you to attract people who want to be on that ride with you — people who are aligned with your goals and values, and may even help you get there. And, speaking of goals, the aspirational components of your strategy can provide direction for making important decisions and also keep your brand relevant as you progress and evolve over time. It’s not an outfit you wear once and hate a week later.

“It maps out who you are today, but also where you’re headed.”

Please excuse the jargon.

To some, the term “brand strategy” sounds like marketing fluff. Yes, brand strategy is conceptual work and taps into perceptions and emotions, but it actually translates directly into decision-making, design, messaging and marketing. It’s not as philosophical as it might seem: think about the brands you admire. Your favorite car company? Athletic brand? When you see their logo, what comes to mind? This “feeling” that backs up the brand is most likely a large part of their brand strategy and intentionally communicated.

The best brands make sure they have control over this idea. You want people to have the same experience with your brand — whether you’re a city, community, organization or something else entirely — and you don’t want to leave that experience up to chance.

So, how do you gain control of your brand experience?

In short, you map out the key elements into one cohesive document and use those elements to inform all levels of decision-making. That way, it’s not just something that you preach, it’s something that you live and breathe. In fact, you may not spell out these brand elements to your audience. Rather, you embody them and demonstrate them, which builds more trust and credibility than the claim alone.

Just like your city, town or organization is different from other brands out there, your brand strategy will include a variety of tools that address your audience and specific needs or objectives. The ultimate goal is to create a succinct document that can be used by anyone and everyone; a document that lives beyond staffing changes or mayoral elections.

What does this process entail?

The first step for any brand strategy is making sure that your consultant knows you. At Guide Studio, we ask a lot of questions, often conducting two or three discovery sessions to uncover the perspectives and perceptions of various key players. For a municipality, this might include local business owners, government officials, employees and residents. Discovery sessions with the people who are living and breathing your brand can shine a new light on what makes you special today and what people hope for the future. It provides a deep dive into what people care about, and allows you to see your place through the lens of your people.

This discovery informs most of the strategy, including but limited to, your audiences, internal and external perceptions, challenges and distinct advantages, and – the mother of all marketing tools – your Purpose Lens. If you’re not familiar with this concept, it comes from a book and subsequent Ted Talk by famed author and speaker, Simon Sinek, who notes that people don’t buy what you do, people buy why you do it. What’s your reason for being? How are you helping others around you? Sometimes brands can get caught navel-gazing: looking at what they want, rather than the ways in which their work connects to the world at large. But your brand should always relate back to how you’re helping others, not how you’re helping yourself. From there you can define what your position is in the marketplace.

The final step should clearly define your brand voice and the high-level messages that you’ll use to drive communications. This covers the substance of what you say, how you say it and who you say it to.

Targeted messaging by audience is a big benefit. Think about the people in your everyday life and how the same message may be received differently from one person to another. You can tell your coworker about the funny thing that happened in the lunchroom and get a big laugh, but your spouse may give you a blank stare. Perception all comes back to experience. It has to do with the personality of the people you’re talking to, the trust you’ve previously established, and the overall relationship. These things are also true for a brand.

“Sometimes brands can get caught navel-gazing: looking at what they want, rather than the ways in which their work connects to the world at large. But your brand should always relate back to how you’re helping others, not how you’re helping yourself.”

How can you use your brand strategy?

With your plan in place, it’s time to turn these ideas into communications – visual, verbal and written. The good news is: a lot of the tactical work is already done. A brand strategy organizes so much information into one place that it’s easy to share and repurpose.

For example, your brand personality and voice can be translated visually into a logo or a photo archive all the way down to your colors and backgrounds, to turn these concepts into visuals that help evoke the right feelings and perceptions around your brand.

Another example is how strategy informs content. We often encourage our clients to use the key messaging to drive an editorial calendar for newsletters, web updates and social media. This ensures that your content is on-brand and delivering the right message repeatedly through different stories, articles and updates to help drive the message home.

There are many ways to approach a brand strategy. Whether you engage a big agency to do robust market research, or simply pull together a small team of in-house resources to DIY – there are three key components:

  1. Know what you stand for, your Purpose.
  2. Understand your audiences.
  3. Stick to the agenda.

A little deep diving to articulate what’s at the heart of your brand and then communicating that consistently will take you a long way. It provides focus and squelches scatter-shot initiatives that burn through budgets without moving the needle. And, possibly best of all, you’ll have an identity that everyone loves for years to come.

What’s your story? We’d love to hear it.