Brand strategy calls on you to choose what to focus on. Choosing requires leadership courage.
As with any choice of strategy, brand strategy includes closing doors. It necessitates choosing what you are not going to focus on. By choosing what falls inside your brand purpose, you are also choosing what falls outside of it. This focus empowers success. Focus is how you win.
Denny Post is CEO of Red Robin Gourmet Burgers and Brews. While sharing with me her views of the brand, she said, “Ultimately, what a customer is buying is your promise, and your brand is your promise. Defining what your customer is buying is the toughest strategic work you will do, and the most important decision you will make as a leader.”
Do muster the effort to undertake this heavy-lifting strategic work. Do choose to stand for something – one thing. Your brand is what you stand for. Your brand strategy is the choosing of what you stand for. It is your choice of purpose. In choosing your “yes,” you necessarily choose many “no’s.” Shining the light on one thing darkens what lies outside that beam.
Tarang Amin, Chairman and CEO of e.l.f. Cosmetics, shared with me, “Strategy in general is about the choices you’ll make as a leader, what you’ll prioritize. What are you going to do, and what are you not going to do?” Brand strategy is “the choices of what you’ll stand for and not stand for. It encompasses the benefits you’ll prioritize, and the character that will bring it to life. Again, these are choices. When you choose to be one thing, you are choosing not to be something else. When you choose to prioritize a given benefit, you are deprioritizing others. Otherwise it is not a strategy.”
Now, let’s acknowledge something here. Choosing focus may make you nervous, because your fear tells you to keep doors open, not closed. But as Clayton Christenson wrote, “Focus is scary – until you realize that it only means turning your back on markets you could never have anyway.”
The thing that makes brand strategy scary – choosing focus – is also the very heart of its power. The more you hedge, the more power you relinquish.
Compounding the fear of choosing might be the knowledge that once you do choose your focus and make it explicit for others, there is nowhere to hide. You have turned on the North Star so bright that your equivocation is more visible. This clarity is of course the brand's very power. After all, if you were a customer or employee, wouldn’t you more likely connect with a business that goes to the trouble to get clear on why it exists?
Choose to stop hedging. You internalize that you owe it to your business, customers, and employees to choose. Grasp that you cannot be all things to all people, and that it's also a choice not to make a choice. Acknowledge that the act of choosing alone unleashes power.
Get highly empathetic to your customer. Listen to your customer intently to learn the true nature of the problem your business is solving, and what it is like to be your customer facing that problem. Develop the ability to channel your customer while making decisions that affect the customer experience.
Define your brand strategy, which articulates your business’s purpose explicitly, so that everyone can amplify and advance this purpose.
Ultimately, defining brand strategy is an exercise in building self-awareness. It is an exercise of looking in the mirror unflinchingly, identifying the specific and customer-meaningful thing you bring, and then defining it so that you can remember it and use it as your filter for every decision you make. By knowing your purpose and embracing it, you contribute meaning to why you are here.
Lindsay is a Brand Strategist and Founder of Ironclad Brand Strategy, which builds brands using an exacting and analytic method. Her background as a P&L owner at Clorox fostered a deep appreciation for the executive charge: to create sustainable value. Ironclad advises companies from burgeoning startups to national corporations, including Zulily, IMDb, T-Mobile and Starbucks. Lindsay holds an MBA in Business from the University of California Berkeley, Haas School of Business.