Branding your strategy: how CMOs can lead with a big organising idea

A good strategy needs a big organising idea to give it the spark of life. Yet most strategies developed for professional service firms are utterly bereft of ideas, focusing exclusively on historical analysis and future targets. CMOs, your firm’s strategy committee needs your help with this! 

What’s the big idea?

The Economist Newspaper has had the same strategic narrative since its inception in 1843 as a publication created to campaign against the British Corn Laws. The then editor and founder, James Wilson, set up The Economist with a strategy to “take part in a severe contest between intelligence, which presses forward, and an unworthy, timid ignorance obstructing our progress.”

What a wonderfully clear and passionate concept! With the benefit of nearly 180 years of hindsight, it’s easy to see that this 19-word phrase captures a powerful organising idea that has guided the strategy of The Economist’s many editors, journalists and even owners ever since.

Having a powerful organising idea framing a firm’s strategy makes it much easier to lead.

Framing strategy with a powerful organising idea

Wilson achieved his immediate purpose when the Corn Laws were repealed in 1846, but rather than quit while ahead, The Economist morphed into a wider political and economic publication with a strong free-trade agenda—but it stayed true to its original organising idea.

The story is quaint and interesting in its own right, but the reason for mentioning it in 2024 is that today’s leaders of professional service firms can learn from it when developing the narrative of their own firm’s strategy.

Engaging with such a strategy requires no ability to read a balance sheet. Everyone inside and outside of the business has a sense of its priorities and where it believes it can win. It helps new employees engage with the culture and values. Everything a strategy document is meant to achieve but often falls short of.

At 19 words, it’s arguably a little verbose for today’s attention spans, but nevertheless, its quality can be seen reflected in some of the more recent and successful strategic organising ideas of major companies and institutions.

Good strategy needs a big organising idea to give it the spark of life.

Mind the gap: the need for big ideas

Leaders need big ideas to help them communicate their strategies and to help shake things up. But, in my experience, strategic plans rarely come with any big ideas in the box.

Even the best strategy consulting firms seem remarkably reluctant to bring their strategic recommendations to life with any big ideas that capture the imagination.

If they do produce something, it’s more likely than not to be the standard: “Our vision is to be the best [insert your service/product] firm in the world.”

Fine in terms of general direction, but visions like this are targets, not strategy, and are most unlikely to inspire specific changes in behaviour and focus.

Organising ideas don’t compete with strategy; they complement it.

Big, simple, different, true: the hallmarks of big organising ideas

Organising ideas don’t compete with strategy; they complement it – at least they should.

There’s no inherent reason why strategy consultants should not complement their analysis and recommendations with big, resonant ideas to help bring them to life in the organisations they serve.

But they mostly don’t – even though many of the biographical strategy books they have on their bookshelves (Steve Jobs, Richard Branson, Bill Gates) are littered with them.

Some of the most famous include: “A computer on every desk and in every home” (Microsoft), “Within arm’s reach of desire” (Coca-Cola), “Organise the world’s information” (Google), and “Insanely great products” (Apple).

What these ideas have in common – that distinguishes them from traditional advertising slogans – is that they are ‘organising ideas’ that make them active within the company and give people a sense of mission and purpose that the day-to-day strategic themes often lack.

One of the best examples of this from the world of professional services is Linklater’s ‘clear blue water’ strategy.

A good organising idea should be:

  • Big = ambitious, exciting, aspirational, meaningful.
  • Simple = concise, clear, unambiguous, easily understood (and translatable when that’s important).
  • Different = a differentiator, not a qualifier, distinctive, compelling, charismatic.
  • True = authentic, resonant, achievable, real.

Many people are deeply analytic; many are intensely creative, few are even averagely ok at both.

Bridging the analytical and creative: A rare skill set

One of the challenges in developing strategic organising ideas is the tension between the competing needs for almost trivial brevity and profound meaning for the business.

It’s an odd skill set, requiring an unusual combination of what is often (probably erroneously) called ‘left-brain’ and ‘right-brain’ skills.

It’s not the depth of talent in either that matters very much—it’s the relative scarcity of the combination. Many people are deeply analytical, and many others are intensely creative, but few are even averagely good at both.

Conclusion: the role of CMOs in shaping strategy

CMOs are often the key figures who can bridge this gap, offering both analytical and creative insights.

Half the battle is listening skills—coming up with something that resonates powerfully with both the organisation’s strategic imperatives and the leadership’s collective personality.

The other half is the often laborious and sometimes frustrating process of sifting and sifting through the millions of grains of sand until you stumble upon a few tiny specs of gold.

Finally, the third half of the battle, to torture the metaphor, is developing the influencing skills to share your ideas with the decision-makers. While listening, you must persuade to see if it’s resonating as you hoped or whether a better version is still to be discovered.

Alternatively, be the company’s founder and dominant shareholder, in which case you can simply tell everyone what the big idea is.

By focusing on developing a clear, compelling, and authentic organising idea, CMOs can significantly enhance their firms’ strategic direction and impact.

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Ian Stephens

CEO and Founder of Principia, Ian is the trusted advisor on branding to leaders of many of the world’s most prestigious international professional service firms and knowledge-intensive B2B businesses across a range of sectors including law, consulting, strategy, technology, engineering, and innovation.