The 3 Pillars Required for Every Powerful Brand Strategy

By Rhen Wilson

When you think of Coca-Cola, why is it that words like “Happiness,” “Refreshing,” and “America” come to mind? A company’s brand strategy doesn’t just help it stand out; it also puts the company on a path to be successful. Get the three pillars of a powerful brand strategy.

This post was originally published on the Boston Interactive Blog.

When you think of Coca-Cola, why is it that words like “Happiness,” “Refreshing,” and “America” come to mind? Or when you pass by the golden arches of a McDonald’s restaurant, you catch yourself singing, “Ba da ba ba ba”? (I didn’t finish writing that jingle, but I bet you finished it in your head.)

The brand strategies of colossal brands like Coca-Cola and McDonald’s are well known and well envied by businesses hoping to become, if not household names per se, then well-established brands in their respective industries.

But just because you may not have the big bucks of a Coke or a Starbucks or a Nike, doesn’t mean you can’t follow the same playbook for a successful brand strategy. As long as you follow the three pillars outlined below, you can establish a truly business-altering brand.

In this post, we’re not going to discuss the nuances and merits of logo design, taglines, and style guides. Those are obviously must haves for any brand strategy. But they’re also tactics. The logo and tagline are merely the outputs of the three pillars we’ll discuss. The best logos and taglines aren’t built in a vacuum—they’re the result of these three essential brand building blocks: Differentiators, Purpose, and Personas.

(Please note that the pillars are not steps to be executed in the order in which they’re written here.)

1. Think Different(iators)

All great brands stand out from their competitors, not because of catchy slogans and memorable jingles, but because they fundamentally understand what makes them different and why that gives them a unique advantage. One of the most crucial elements of any brand strategy is to define and own your differentiator.

At Boston Interactive, one of the first tasks for any client engagement is to run a competitive analysis. We research our client’s competitors, market factors, and our client’s business itself. At the highest level, this research results in a SWOT analysis (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats).

SWOT Analysis Graphic

The benefit of a SWOT analysis is that, if done properly, you can clearly see in an instant what makes your brand different and how to take advantage.

You want to document this differentiator and truly own it. Sometimes it’s as simple as owning a word, says Laura Ries, co-author of the book The 22 Immutable Laws of Branding: How to Build a Product or Service into a World-Class Brand.

Say, for example, you decide your brand’s differentiator is unmatched customer service. To truly own that distinction, you must integrate it into every aspect of your company. Maybe you keep your customer service employees in the country, rather than out-source the work. Maybe you re-invent how customer service works through technology by partnering with a company like Facebook, which is allowing companies to build automated chatbots through Messenger. Maybe you increase employee training and compensation to ensure the best people in the customer service industry work for you.

The point is, a differentiator shouldn’t just be a mantra. To be a true brand pillar, your differentiator must be a defining aspect of your company.

2. A Purpose is Forever

If you search for “brand strategy template” in Google, you’ll inevitably find blog articles mentioning the importance of including a “brand promise” in your strategy. While I agree it’s important to define your promise (especially if it’s based on your differentiator), I think it’s more important to focus on your brand’s purpose.

Story time:

The CMO of Wal-Mart, Stephen Quinn, discussed the distinction between a promise and a purpose a few years ago, as reported by Forbes. Quinn explained that Wal-Mart’s status as the world’s largest retailer is the result of its promise to always offer low prices. You may remember the tagline that illustrated that promise: “Always Low Prices.”

Wal-Mart's Brand Promise

But while that promise guided Wal-Mart to the top, it was not without backlash. For years now, Wal-Mart has faced scrutiny over its low wages, lackluster employee benefits, and tough relations with unions. A documentary called Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Prices tells you pretty much everything you need to know.

In response to the backlash, CMO Quinn says the company’s leaders realized that a strong brand can’t just rely on a promise alone. It needs a purpose to truly succeed. So the leaders looked back to the founder Sam Walton, who wanted to promise low prices for the purpose of making his customers’ lives better.

With that in mind, the “Always Low Prices” tagline was stricken, and a new one emerged, full of both promise and purpose: “Save Money. Live Better.” The tagline is literally bifurcated that way—Promise: Save Money; Purpose: Live Better.

Wal-Mart's Brand Purpose

A final note to this story, one which demonstrates the success of mixing promise with purpose: In October 2016, the New York Times wrote an article reporting on the outcome of Wal-Mart’s changes to wages and employee training, entitled “How Did Wal-Mart Get Cleaner Stores and Higher Sales? It Paid Its People More.”

A Brand Purpose Template

With all this said, the conclusion, in my opinion, is that your brand’s purpose is the foundation upon which you build your promise. In that respect, the two should be developed simultaneously, and in all situations you should never speak of one without the other.

Here’s a nice template you can use for your brand strategy:

Our company promises [INSERT YOUR PROMISE] for the purpose of [INSERT YOUR PURPOSE].

Teach every employee that line, paint it on your office wall, and keep it at the forefront of your mind with every business decision you make.

3. The Few. The Proud. The Personas.

The last pillar we’ll touch on is certainly not the one you want to be thinking of last. As mentioned earlier, these three pillars are not meant to be chronological steps you take to achieve a successful brand strategy. Nevertheless, I’m ending on personas—your target audience—because with the context of the aforementioned pillars, differentiators, and purpose, we can better discuss the importance of personas.

Your differentiators and purpose are meaningless unless you communicate them effectively to your target personas. And by effectively, I mean that you deliver your brand with a message that resonates with the needs and desires of your personas. To do this, you must know your personas on a deep level.

The personas we create at Boston Interactive for clients go well beyond demographic and economic data. Yes, it’s important to know if your audience is a 25-year-old millennial versus a 65-year-old empty nester. But you also must know if those two buyers have different needs, challenges, life events, success factors, communication preferences, and on and on. You may find for your particular business, the millennial and empty nester have more in common than you first realized.

We typically break out personas by their similarities or differences and detail out the psychological and social behavior into easy-to-read guides.

Buyer Persona Icons

Persona Messaging Exercise

Once you have your personas defined, you can begin to tailor your brand messaging to fit their needs. Let’s use the promise and purpose template from above as an example (our example company is a smoothie shop):

Our company promises to create the best smoothies using the freshest local ingredients for the purpose of improving the health of our customers and the prosperity of our community.

(Sounds like a great company, right? That’s the power of promise and purpose. But I digress.)

The above-stated brand message is general. It’s for the company overall and not meant for any of our potential personas. Let’s change that.

Let’s say our persona is “Exercise Eric.” He’s 25-35 years old with a full-time job, and he works out at his local gym 3-5 times a week. He watches his weight, but he sometimes finds it difficult to eat healthy all the time with his busy work schedule and ends up eating fast-food burgers. He wants something fast and good for him.

Our messaging, when presented through the lens of our persona might look something like this:

Our company promises to create the healthiest smoothies with the quickest convenience for the purpose of providing athletes on-the-go a healthy alternative to fast food.

This persona-driven message doesn’t contradict our company’s overall message (if anything, it complements quite well), and it speaks directly to our persona Exercise Eric. You can imagine with this customized messaging, our brand can now start influencing how our employees speak to Exercise Eric, how our marketing materials will reach him, and even what new products are created for him.

By bringing personas into the mix, your brand strategy will adapt comfortably to your varying audiences. Each customer you touch will see themselves reflected in your brand. As Howard Schultz, CEO of Starbucks, said, “If people believe they share values with a company, they will stay loyal to the brand.”

If people believe they share values with a company, they will stay loyal to the brand.

Conclusion

The brand strategy is one of the most, if not the most, important requirements of any business that truly wants to disrupt its marketplace and make it big. The brand strategy is the DNA of the company.

But let’s also be realistic. A brand strategy doesn’t guarantee success any more than a seed guarantees delicious fruit. So while a brand strategy won’t determine your business’s path toward success, it will influence the direction you take.

Have more to add? Share your thoughts with me in the comments.