Brand = strategy made visible

A confident and successful business doesn’t hide its strategy — it should be visible to all — and the organisation’s brand should be the most tangible manifestation of that strategy to all its audiences inside and outside the office walls.

To make sure we’re all on the same page, it’s worth defining what’s a strategy. Well, there are multiple complex and complicated business school definitions available — try googling it — but the best of them all is Michael Porter’s aphorism that, “the essence of strategy is choosing what not to do.”

So, it follows that if strategy is choosing what not to do, brand is telling the story of what’s left. Or, putting it more positively, if a good strategy requires making sometimes difficult trade-offs on where you think you can win, then a good brand becomes the celebration of the benefits of those difficult decisions.

When an organisation’s brand and strategy are working well together, you should be able to go to their website and after a few clicks know the strategy.

The idea that “brand is strategy made visible” comes from my late friend, mentor, and the godfather of branding, Wally Olins. A phrase coined when the concept of corporate branding (i.e. organisation branding rather than product branding) was in its infancy. He also, mostly meant it to refer to the ‘corporate identity,’ or visual identity as we would call it now, because in a pre-internet era there weren’t that many ways for a corporation that didn’t make products on shelves to project its brand other than through the way it looked (usually on a flag pole!).

These days the logo is a far less critical part of the brand than it once was — when there are so many channels of controlled and uncontrolled communications flowing around that add or subtract to the brand story — many of which are far more content-based and have little or no visual component. A good brand requires a good strategy, but a good brand doesn’t always flow from one. Too often, they are disconnected, and many firms do have vague and wishy-washy brands.

When an organisation’s brand and strategy are working well together, you should be able to go to their website and after a few clicks know the strategy. If you can’t, then either the marketing team is detached from the leadership and strategy process, or there is a strategy vacuum and the marketing team have just gone rogue and made something up.

Look at Apple, Google, Nike, Unilever — their strategies are clear and made visible in their brands. We can tell their strategies are clear because their brands are built on them.

Then look at some of their direct rivals: Huawei, Yahoo, Adidas, P&G — they are less clear. We could guess at their strategies, but their brands are less clear and less compelling. They may have good strategies or they may not — but it’s likely that their strategies are a bit vague as well. Vague to us on the outside looking in, and probably just as vague to the organisation’s people on the inside as well.

The discipline of marketing and branding can add real value to a firm’s strategy process

Closer to the world of knowledge businesses (professional services, financial advisory, digital and innovation consulting, accounting, etc.) it’s interesting to wade around a group of close competitors and see if you can see a distinctive strategy shine through from the way one firm communicates its brand.

PA Consulting, the innovation company and (full disclosure) a client of mine, is a perfect example of ‘brand = strategy made visible.’ As a client, of course, I’m under a strict NDA not to divulge any confidential info, and yet I can easily ‘show’ their strategy because it’s crystal clear in their brand which you can find all over the place. The brand concept is ‘Bringing ingenuity to life’ which already tells you quite a lot about the strategic choices they’ve made and where they are focused on being the best, in only four words. Spend a few seconds flicking through their website and it’s clear what they stand for, what kind of work they do, who they do it for, and what they are really passionate about. You can easily imagine that those people who work inside PA Consulting are also pretty clear what their strategy is and are well placed to take action in their day-to-day lives to help implement it. The holy grail of achieving strategy ambitions.

A couple of other shining examples in professional services. Quinn Emanuel, the world’s biggest litigation-only law firm, has the brand statement, ‘Litigation is a zero-sum game. There is a winner and a loser. We know how to win.’ How clear is that! They’ve made strategic choices about what not to do, and in their brand, they are celebrating the benefits of that strategy towards their audiences (clients and recruits). It won’t surprise you to know that Quinn Emanuel pride themselves on being a bit different from other big law firms in the way they operate internally as well. They’re known in the recruitment market for their ‘flip-flop’ culture, or “Talent mandatory. Suit optional.” as they put it on their website.

How many strategy papers have you read that contain a shopping list of ‘priority’ services, sectors, geographies?

Another terrific one is Shillings. I don’t even know how to say what kind of organisation they are — they used to be one of many law firms that dealt a lot in legal privacy cases — but in recent years they’ve transformed from doing that into being “the only business in the world to deploy – under one roof – intelligence experts, investigators, cyber specialists, risk consultants, lawyers and top people from the military, banking and government.” And in their brand story, they’re celebrating that strategy by positioning themselves as the people who will ‘find the fix and control the crisis.’ Not a service I ever hope to need, but of course these days they know that there are many who do and it’s not difficult to believe that they are the best, or at one of the best firms to turn to if you find yourself in a crisis (and the funds to pay for it of course).

If reading this and you’re thinking, “it’s ok for Quinn, PA, Shillings because they are very focused businesses compared to ours,” I would say that’s the problem with your strategy, it’s too general. These (and other) firms with clear strategies have also followed the Porter method and made difficult choices and trade-offs. They are quite capable of doing lots of things to a ‘good-enough’ standard, but they choose to focus on only the things that they think they can do better than anyone else (for a specific group of clients at least). Sure, Quinn could probably, easily bolt-on many other non-litigation departments to leverage their client-base. But they don’t because, by doing so, they would lose their differentiation and be one of ten, twenty, thirty, international law firms that do high-stakes litigation. And they also know that the aggressively clear brand proposition that is an absolute asset in litigation wouldn’t work in the more consensual deal-making world of mergers and acquisitions. They’d be forced to tone it down and add in some “we’re also really nice to deal with” messaging. It would be a car crash.

That’s where the discipline of marketing and branding can add real value to a firm’s strategy process — by forcing the discussion to a higher level of abstraction and focus. How many strategy papers have you read that contain a shopping list of ‘priority’ services, sectors, geographies? That’s all too easy in a 20-page document. But good branding doesn’t easily allow for that degree of fudge — unless you go for ‘we put our clients first’ or ‘we’re really good and nice to work with.’

If you can gain permission for that conversation within your organisation, and come out the other side with something like “bringing ingenuity to life” you’ll have added tremendous value to your firm, and your brand will also have authenticity and support from all parts of the organisation. Supporting the brand is supporting the strategy — strategy is made visible.


If you enjoyed this article please like and share with others. If you want to recieve more like this from Principia you can subscribe here (bottom of page).


Ian Stephens

CEO and Founder of Principia, the world's most experienced branding and innovation consultancy for professional service firms.