Brand strategy & engagement: 3 secret-sauce ingredients

Michael (MJ) AllenMichael J. (MJ) Allen
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Mar 19

Far to often when attending planning, campaign or strategy sessions, I’ve often found there is a very loose understanding of brand strategy. The various perceptions and interpretations tend to result in spending money in all the wrong places, or a blind optimism where and how brand should be delivered.

Its common knowledge the web has upended how consumers and businesses engage with one another and can impact a businesses survival. It has already transformed the economics of business and marketing, and making obsolete many of the traditional strategies and functions in the old structured marketing department. The old way is simply unsustainable by today’s practices.

Trying to interpret and understand brand strategy today, I often find its lost in translation or miss-understood among – similar to explaining what I do as a career to family and friends (their understanding is “oh, you work on computers”).

In similar context, I’ve been asked the same to describe brand strategy, and why should you care. I’ll aim to keep this to a 20 second elevator-pitch, as the concept or idea of brand strategy can easily be lost in its depth and translation.

I view a fair description of brand is anything of value that connects or bonds you (as an individual) to a product, company or person in a unique way. Whether it’s a brand that shapes your lifestyle (ex. Lululemon or Nike), or your own personal brand inside the office, or outside in your personal life.

The simplicity in this actually hit me when I took my daughter to a certain golden-arches restaurant that I had not been too in years. Only after ordering, sliding into the booth and unwrapping her secret-sauce experience, I tsunami of experiential memories flooded me. Numerous memories as a child and teenager swarmed me of the personal experiences I had at this chain of restaurants with my family and friends over the years.

The impressionable experiences I had at this place with those people is the value that bonded me to this brand in my own personal, unique way. So too does the athlete in all of us that bonds us to Nike through the sports we play, and the personal gratification or fulfillment we get out of it.

This is what any brand strives for, but fails either at conception or execution (likely the latter).

When I think the strategy side of brand, I define it as the framework for the ingredients (secrete-sauce ingredients) of how, what, where and when the brand value is delivered, received and repeated.

Done (20 seconds).

Putting a lens on the above, I’ve summed up the above understanding of brand + strategy to the following secret-sauce ingredients, and pointers of where to strategy can begin:

  1. Hyper-personal
  2. Contextual value and meaning
  3. Ecosystems and tribe playgrounds

In my world of digital marketing and business strategy, I hear far to much emphasis on the tactical ingredients of the overall brand strategy. Banners, mood boards, photography, fonts, primary/secondary/tertiary colours, storytelling, etc. This is not brand nor strategy.

These brand elements do not deliver any real value to me, but does help one to interpret the brands perception, among vast other aspects as the brand voice. It’s how the brand connects and engages consistently and holistically with me that will bond me to the brand.

To align the strategy side of brand (and its success) to execution, I view its as the intertwined threads across your businesses DNA, and the 30,000 foot view to see and understand the holistic experiences that matter, which gets delivered to your audience. The whole (of the brand) is greater than the sum of its parts.

When the whole of the brand is greater than the sum of its parts, there are countless ingredients (some more impactful than others) that make up the brand pie. But unfortunately in most cases, only 2 or 3 ingredients of the brand strategy are addressed, and brand strategy ends up failing.

In agency and corporate worlds, the brand matrix are the brand ingredients that make up the brand strategy pie, which typically includes brand architecture, identity, measure of equity (accountants love this), messaging and voice, engagement integration, consistency/re-call and emotional connectivity, parity, brand trust and flexibility, and of course the multi-channel touch-points in its delivery – experiential, social media, crowd-source, traditional, medias, internal customer facing teams, etc.

But as much as I prefer simplicity and a translation to something that is more meaningful to me as an individual, I take a view point that the brand ingredients are simply all the actions you do to over-delivery repeated impactfull and memorable experiences.

Brand matrix

The key word here is “all the actions” you do, because in business the brand strategy is not limited to just a few things. It’s not just your website, or your customer service. Its all the strands in your business DNA that deliver on a consistent and harmonically unified experience to the person as an individual.

If you look at brands who have hit home-runs with you in their brand strategy, it all boiled down to the relationship you personally have with them, which takes time and investment. My golden-arches experience above is a testament to that (although my intent is to share similar experiences with my daughter that I had – but also create new experiences when those brand experiences begin to degrade.

The same holds true with your own personal brand, its perception and influence on our social or professional circles.

But in the business world, whether you play in the consumer (B2C) or business (B2B) playground, the brands that win show simplicity in how they can anticipate their audience needs, wants and desires, and become interesting to them.

Brand strategy across social media that works

The rewards of this tend to grow your tribes of loyal fans, followers and customers who endorse your voice through amplifying within their personal or professional inner-circles.

Does it take millions to do? In some cases, yes. But for those like me, small entrepreneurs, start-ups, small businesses and even national brands can still reach and connect with their audience better than the big box office companies.

Just keep the high repeated experiences a top priority as you scale your growth and reach.

If this sounds like you, then you can make an impact on your personal brand without the millions of dollars invested, as you hold the ace-card of agility and flexibility for nimbleness and responsiveness to your audience and individual needs.

Where I see companies fall flat is when they spread themselves too thin and don’t prioritize the meaningful experiences as they the business grows.

It’s an attempt to tackle too many channels with brand positioning, or get to broad in their segmentation where they end up shouting rather than listening, or not speaking to the right individual with something of meaning. These companies cannot deliver the high-touch experience – the secret sauce – that connects best with the individual.

Brands can begin the journey to make-good on their brand promise by focussing on the fundamentals of brand strategy and on the core channels where your most important audience, or tribes connect already. (sorry, were you expecting to hear its about a logo, colour or style guides?)

You will know you are failing in your strategy strategy if you’re not seeing improvements in how you measure equity in your brand. Are you buying more customers than organically acquiring them?

Did you increase word-of-mouth customers, conversion rates, engagement activity, extend the customer lifetime value or reduce churn. Perhaps you increased share of wallet with customers or see X times lift in organic referral rates. You define how you want to measure KPI’s within your business, and personally.

I get it is difficult, and almost impossible for individuals and small businesses to tackle the gamut of brand ingredients. Time and money are the evils, and you chase what provides the best short-term value on the books and hope those incremental gains add up over time.

But let’s say if you are willing to commit to just to two or three aspects of your brand strategy over the next 6 to 12 months that provides the biggest impact, or to see if you can move the dial and build gains on your brand goals.

If you commit to this approach, I’d place my wager on the following three areas of brand strategy over the next 12 months to deliver lift on your overall brand equity and impact on revenue.

And as I view one of the most important aspects of brand strategy is experiential, and the influence experiential delivers; then an over-arching approach to brand strategy would be baked around cross-channel pollination of user engagement.

1. Hyper-Personal

Let’s be honest. Aside from your front-line customer service people, when was the last time your brand created an experience with an individual? And if you did, how was the information and data from that interaction captured to better understand what makes them tick…or their personal preferences?

We’re talking a real-person. Not a group, segment, or persona. While I’m sure we’d all wish this was feasible, the reality is in most cases it’s not done.

But there are ways we can capture certain interactions and preference of that individual, and aggregate this information to build a unique profile so we can know about him or her, grouping them into a bucket or segment with a few generic assumptions.

Some have labelled this as hyper-segmentation, taking a defined segment and getting to a granular or micro-level understanding of that one individual in the segment.

This is perhaps feasible to know and manage with your top 5 customers, but unrealistic across the rest of the business unless you have the means to aggregate all the interactions of the customer to create one long profile record of that individual – just think what Facebook and the CIA are doing.

Not to dwell into the details of hyper-segmentation, but the over-arching message here is to begin thinking about how you can build a master profile of a more complete picture of the individual, and then pull on the context of this data to build a more meaningful experience and interaction.

Think sex-with-data. Get your customer behaviorial data (website activity?), profile data (CRM data?), business demographic data, financial data and X data in bed and working together.

Strategy: Where to begin?
I worked with a framework of weaving the various engagement and transactional technologies (email, web analytics, marketing automation, social API’s, customer service, revenue, CRM) together into a central home or repository or data-warehouse to aggregate this data.

Then through applications that specialize in this area, the ability to map a profile of individual customers that was accessible to all. But the bigger challenge is once the framework is built, having the right business intelligence talent to pull meaning out of the data and bake this with marketing and sales to create and deliver programs or campaigns that deliver meaning and an experience. If it doesn’t deliver an experience, think again why you’re doing it.

It’s not easy. Start small. Keep it simple and as you see the value grow from it, then built it out to scale.

2. Contextual Value & Meaning

If there is any weight in making things (ex. content) ‘contextual’, look no further than Google’s major pivot towards ‘contextual search’ and how they deliver personal relevancy to what you’re seeking.

When you think of the deliverables in your brand strategy, what aspects can you apply a more contextual experience that provides something of meaning and value to that individual?

The tone of this is creating something compelling to the point that it connects with the person on an individual level. The output of this in is a contextual content strategy that delivers a meaningful experience or value through various formats and across platforms.

In a later post I’ll go into the digital marketing strategy framework and details of a UX-centric content strategy, but the important point to answer before going down this path is can it be executed to its fullest.

Delivering a content strategy is probably one of the most topical challenges marketing faces today. The reason why typically boils down to resources and time and linking it back to measures that are meaningful to the customer experience, and revenue.

It would be naive to think by simply build it that all your goals will be accomplished – lift in engagement, increased referral rates, lift in multi-channel values, revenue, etc. Again – execution is key. Contextual only ‘tells the experience” to the user, but they don’t feel the experience until they connect with you on multiple levels.

You can hire an agency (costs money), build an in-house team (time, available resources and expertise), try to crowd-source (like making something go viral – it’s a stretch) or a combination from all of the above (my preference).

However you go about it, the content strategy must deliver value and meaning.

The latter point I described around hyper-personal can provide you all sorts of data about what makes the person tick. The data on an individual-level is crucial, but it’s not the answer to the value you seek. It’s taking this data-driven insight, and delivering a meaningful experience (perhaps through a content strategy) that creates the biggest challenge.

Strategy: Where to begin?
Start with putting your audience under the micro-scope, use the hyper-personal or hyper-segmentation approach to gain the insights.

You may even take alternative approaches to this by leveraging an audience management application, or embarking on a social listening research exercise to listen-in and understand what those micro-audiences or tribes are talking about in the online space (ex. frustrations, problems, experiences, etc.).

However you approach it let it be the driving force behind a content strategy. It starts with the individual and your tribe(s).

Next, look at what you’ll deliver, and how. What content would give the most meaningful impact. Bet on one or two areas, and test and learn and repeat.

Define what is feasible in-house and external to support the creation of the content. Again, this is a feat on its own and no simple answer.

Leverage your distribution channels, or a content aggregation application, to seed the content across your audience’s playground(s), among multiple mediums and channels.

Lastly, engage. Monitor and respond to any and all dialogue and conversations where the content made an impact. And let’s be honest, not all content will make an impact out of the gates. You need to test, test, test and optimize from what you learn.

3. Eco-system & Playgrounds

Among your entire online eco-system where your audience will connect and play – website, micro-site, social brand properties, forums, mobile, customer-service (phone, in-person, chat), sales, the ceo’s social and communication actions and interactions, etc., what are the top destinations your community will visits, engages, shares and consumes knowledge?

Once you identify this (and there will be more than one), take a view if the platforms that embraces and facilitates the opportunities in your tribes playgrounds (for visitors, leads, customers, evangelists) allow a means to connect and engage. Get creative.

If you’re thinking ‘online’ and research a few websites for opportunities, keep in mind that most websites are simply product catalogues and content dumping grounds. In other words – little to no value.

Similarly the same traditional approach ‘dumping-ground’ approach is embossed on numerous social brand products like Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, etc. where organizations simply push everything and anything, including product and transactional content.

These are distribution channels or outlets where a brand is creating more noise than embracing the channel to stoke conversations or a form of positive engagement.

Look at this in the same light as entering a room full potential or existing customers, or on a personal-level entering a room for a speed-dating event.

You enter the room and start yelling above the crowd about yourself…how great you are, all your features and best qualities, and the latest thing you just did. Doubtful it’s compelling let alone engaging or of interest to those in the room when you’re trying to speak to the masses in the room, let alone anything of interest to say thats meaningful.

Take another approach, you enter the room, make eye contact with an individual (not the masses) and engage in a meaningful dialogue, where you’re listening more than talking. Others will over-hear and chime in, or that person will be so compelled that they will share the information or experience with others. And of course there will be others where it’s irrelevant at the current time…which is ok.

Only when you have something meaningful and compelling to say that connects on that personal level, are they ready to listen and interact.

The same can be said in your approach to the conversation and listening you do across the social platforms. Let others converse, and listen. Chime in where relevant and where you can provide something meaningful to say.

Having one or two destinations in your online eco-system where your community will meet, converse and learn from one another provides both value to your tribes, and equity to your brand.

Strategy: Where to begin?
Define your digital eco-system lay-of-the-land. What does it look like and what brand properties (Ex. website, social, forums, portals, etc.) do you have available that can be evolved into a destination platform with content that facilitates and encourages conversation.There are plenty of tools available to facilitate this, but apply those that only provide the core value to begin.

When you think to yourself “well, that’s Facebook or Twitter”, then take into account what you can do to build this on a property you own. There is nothing wrong, and much to gain, to facilitate this over the core social platforms, but what most don’t get is the equity being built is being done on a 3rd party – ex. Facebook. So whose brand equity are you really building? Facebooks, yours or both? Perhaps think how your approach can be more integrated.

American Express OPEN Forum is an interesting pilot of a brand venturing out to personify their brand through building and cultivating a community around meaningful content for small businesses.

They could have easily have approached this directly on a social platform like Facebook, but instead, inject where applicable the social platform tools to encourage the audience to share and amplify the conversation.

3 + 1 more (Bonus)

Ok, I said three areas to bet on to deliver the engagement ingredient of a brand strategy over the next 12 months, so let’s wrap this is one up to a bonus ingredient as its just as important as the above three, and makes the above very difficult to deliver without it.

For a brand to systematically deliver a brand strategy through meaning and experiences in the online world, has not been limited to the lack of data on your tribes.

It’s never been the case of a business having an average understanding of the customers’ needs and wants, the behaviour phases they go through in their decision making, or appreciation of the micro details that make your personas tick.

Perhaps it’s been the lack of content, or the lack of formulating the latter into content that is meaningful and connects? But I still wouldn’t put the blame on just this alone, as across a company or organization, the shared knowledge and insights among employees; customer service, marketing, product, c-level, etc.  combined would address this one.

If often found it is the culture and enablement that is at the crux of it all. Having solutions that allow accessibility and empowerment for company culture to connect, publish, and engage quickly is key….obviously with the appropriate guidelines and parameters in place. Just like one of mother natures eco-systems, there are natural rules and boundaries that define what can and cannot be done, and how…..but also enough empowerment and flexibility to tackle issues and make decisions (learn and adapt to mistakes made) to help the collective grow.

The flat organization with an empowered culture across all lines of business that encourages and drives experience aggregation across multiple sources wins.

Is it a recipe for chaos? Absolutely!

But there is beauty in chaos. The real discoveries come from chaos. It doesn’t need to come at the expense of a lawless society or culture within the company.

Put in enough parameters and governance that keeps the idea empowering to others (and give them the tools to do it), among enough agility that it’s not giving rise to bureaucracy that kills intent and learnings.

Governance and policies are simply the rules of the game in which everyone must play, but make the rules simple enough that it allows everyone to play…. play to their best abilities, at good speed and to grow through failing fast and smart.

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