How to develop a brand strategic proposition

Every company has a brand – the company itself is a brand, and it is the brand that has value on the balance sheet – it is the difference accounted for by the term “goodwill” between what a business is worth and what someone is prepared to pay for it. But not every company has a very clear idea of what their brand stands for. In fact, we would go so far as to suggest that one reason why so many businesses fail in their early years is because they haven’t thought through their brand strategic proposition to really clarify both internally and externally what makes them different and special in a crowded marketplace.

A brand is to a business what a personality or character is to a human being, and just as important. In the same way that people choose their friends on the basis of liking and trusting them, so too do they often choose the brands that they buy because they like and trust them. Some of the world’s largest blue-chip organisations have achieved their success due in large part to brand strength. For example, Apple phones are a long way from being the cheapest, and plenty of Android users would put up arguments against them being the best, but there is a huge ‘Apple tribe’ for whom only an iPhone will do. Surprising numbers of fans are even prepared to queue up overnight to be one of the first to secure the latest new model. The huge loyalty Apple commands is a clear reflection of the strength of its brand: Interbrand’s annual assessment of the value of global brands put Apple’s at the top of the pile (yet again) in 2017, with a value of $184 billion. Other companies with a strong brand proposition that spring easily to mind include Virgin, Google, eBay, Amazon and Coca Cola.

Whilst very few companies will reach Apple’s size, success on any scale relies on developing strong, liked and trusted brands. Through observation and analysis of what makes a successful brand, and helping Abacus clients to develop theirs, we believe the essentials of effective branding boil down to the following five factors, which we describe collectively as V5, and which we equate to what we call the ‘Voice’ of the brand. Create a strong strategic proposition, and your brand voice will speak with great authority…

• Vision – what legacy does the brand want to deliver?
• Values – what ethics and morals are important?
• Views – what beliefs and opinions does the brand hold?
• Virtues – what skills and knowledge does it have?
• Vows – what pledges are they prepared to make?

We would like to clarify at this point that a brand strategic proposition is different from a brand creative proposition, which is perhaps what most people think of when talking about branding. The two elements are synergistic, but they are entirely different – a bit like yin and yang. Yes, you do need a company logo and brand guidelines that deliver a design style that can be applied to all of your sales and marketing collateral to make you look professional to potential customers, but this is the visual representation of your business. It is perhaps the body or mind of your business. The strategic brand proposition can be thought of as your company’s spirit or soul…

Brand Vision

Note the way the question about the vision has been couched: “what legacy does the brand want to deliver?” Although a vision statement should set out aspirations for the future, taking it further to thinking about a company or brand’s legacy invites consideration of why it exists at all. A thoughtfully crafted vision statement will inspire employees and provide an aspirational purpose that they all wish to work towards. It will also make a brand instantly recognisable to its customers – even if they are unaware of the vision statement itself – because they will get a clear sense of what the company is about in their dealings with it. Conversely, a poorly thought-out vision statement (or none at all) can result in underperformance, because even if employees are individually all working well, they can all be pulling in different directions. Customers will get mixed messages about what the essence of the brand is.

While vision statements should be revisited from time to time as the business environment changes, the best statements set out the essential DNA of a company’s brand and shouldn’t need changing very much or very often at all. Think back to the idea of brands equating to personalities: although people change throughout their lives, they still retain an identity that is unique to them, and that makes them clearly recognisable. A vision statement should encapsulate the equivalent identity of a brand.

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Although a vision statement should be simple, it still takes time and careful thought to get it exactly right. As well as being aspirational and inspirational, it must be authentic. You could come up with the most brilliant statement of all time, but it will be worth nothing if your company pays mere lip service to it. It has to be lived and breathed and ultimately believed by all stakeholders.

A quick note about what is often referred to as a “mission” or “mission statement”. This combines the brand voice and the objectives outlined in the business plan to make it quite clear what the middle-distance purpose and direction of the organisation is to be. It should be something that is once again understood, believed and admired by all stakeholders, both internally and externally.

Brand Values

Just as a company’s vision should be clear, so too should the code of ethics it operates by (and we mean that it really operates by). This might sound a bit high-flown for small companies but it really does matter, whatever the size or your organisation. We would argue that it can be the difference between success and failure amongst ambitious start-ups and growth SMEs. Even someone operating on their own ought to have a framework that identifies the standards and principles that they work within. Whether they turn up to appointments on time, keep to budget, are easy to get hold of, have excellent processes in place, are polite and professional at all times, and so on, all play a part in how they – and therefore their brand – will be perceived by customers, suppliers, partners, staff, freelancers, etc.

As with a vision statement, writing down the values that your company holds sacrosanct helps to ensure that all employees know what is expected of them – and it can also be hugely helpful in clarifying the type of desirable characteristics in people you wish to employ too. Instilling these values so that they are mirrored by actual behaviour is a vital element in any brand’s success. Whilst it can take time to convince customers that your standards are high, just one instance of bad behaviour can undermine a brand’s carefully constructed reputation – sometimes fatally – especially since the growth of social media. At the time of writing, Facebook’s brand is taking a pummelling (along with its stock value) because many of its subscribers feel betrayed by how their personal data has been used, while Australia is reeling from their cricket team being caught in a ball-tampering scandal that is potentially going to have long-term repercussions for this proud sporting nation.

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As will be seen by these examples, for consumers it’s a matter of trust. If they don’t like your values, or if they feel you are saying one thing but doing another, they will take their business elsewhere.

Brand Views

Another feature of strong brands is that they hold, and are willing to express, clear ideas about the markets they operate in and the positions they take. Having unambiguous views and being able to support them persuasively is particularly important for new entrants trying to win business from long-established market rivals. This has contributed to the success of high-tech start-ups offering online alternatives to traditional models. In many cases, the new arrivals have taken the position that their innovative proposition offers more for consumers than the old way of doing things, and suggested – either overtly or by implication – that the status quo may have existed as much for the benefit of incumbent suppliers as for customers.

Sectors ranging from airlines to banking, and retail to telecoms, have seen new entrants come in with actively challenging brands. In fact, there are usually several aspiring new entrants and the one or two who emerge triumphant are those who have invested care to build their brands.

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A great deal of brand value can be built through setting out well-constructed viewpoints. If a company is recognised for its thought leadership, consumers will be interested to hear what it has to say, especially in the current climate, which sees customers wanting to be informed rather than sold to. Establishing just a few key viewpoints can generate a lot of marketing content to use on blogs, social media, in emails, and so on.

One of the things which makes us all different, is the views that we hold about every aspect of our life. It cannot be stated highly enough how important it is to ensure that your brand has a clear set of views too, for it is these which drive behaviour, innovation and growth.

Brand Virtues

In marketing products and services, we consider aspects that set them above the competition. It is just as valuable to apply the same exercise to brands. What does your brand offer that others don’t, or not as effectively? Perhaps it is tradition, or gravitas – or the complete opposite. One of Britain’s best-known brands, Virgin, manages to operate in industries as diverse as banking, broadband provision, train services and airline operations but still retain a consistently witty, slightly irreverent brand tone that helps to give them a unique identity. It offers a fine example of how brand messaging needs to be consistent in all communications with customers. Even in their onboard train toilets, the signage has a Virgin twist: where most companies offering public toilet facilities will ask users not to flush inappropriate objects, Virgin Rail’s more engaging injunction is not to “…flush nappies, sanitary towels, paper towels, gum, old phones, unpaid bills, junk mail, your ex’s sweater, hopes, dreams or goldfish down this toilet”.

Make the most of whatever it is your brand is offering. Brainstorm all the assets it brings to the table, especially including its people. Your team is unique to your brand, and their specific attributes won’t be shared by any of your competitors, so make the most of promoting their knowledge, experience, diligence, patience, humour, artistic talent, etc.

If your brainstorming produces a disappointingly short list, consider the virtues you would like your brand to have, then plan to develop them through training, research or whatever is necessary. A thirst for self-improvement is a virtue in itself, and good people will be attracted to work for brands that display it.

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As a nation, and we would argue as a race, we tend to be very coy when it comes to shouting about out virtues. In fact, we tend to spend a lot of time judging others critically and not looking at ourselves at all. This exercise asks us to take a positive, proactive and rational look at ourselves as a business and ask what we are doing well, and where we might need to improve.

Brand Vows

The final ‘V’ invites you to consider what vows your brand is prepared to commit to publicly. Vows need to be specific, significant, credible and relevant to the public if they are to have any value.

For example, with environmental concerns high on the agenda for many, a wide variety of companies have pledged to achieve specific targets to become more ‘green’. For example, BMW has said it will obtain all its energy from green sources by 2020.

The type of vows a brand commits to will obviously depend on the context – the market sector, what matters to its consumers, the scale of its operations, etc. – but should always be ones that everyone in the company commits to fully. Often a company’s pledge to do something in the future has implied within it an acknowledgement that the current position is imperfect (such as supermarkets accepting that they do use too much packaging) but humility is not a bad attribute for a brand, as long as the desire to improve is sincere. Iceland has done some good work in this respect recently, with regards to its commitment to eliminate the use of plastic packaging from all its own-branded products with five years. They have since followed this up with a pledge to stop using palm oil in the same time period too. All other supermarkets, take note…

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Vows can be written up as being service charters – and you can have as many service charters as you like, both internally and externally, to establish a list of promises that your brand, department or divisions wishes to be judged by. Just make sure that they are sensible, achievable and desirable.

Brand Voice

Add these five Vs together and you get a brand voice. Do it well, and engage everyone in the process, and you will have an incredibly powerful foundation upon which to grow your business. Behind all five Vs is the need to act with integrity and build trust. Consumers are rightly cynical about promises easily made and just as easily broken, so they want to see a company’s actions matching its words. A strong brand lifts a business above the purely commercial to something that makes a genuine positive difference to its customers and even the wider world.

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V5 Brand Process

While the V5 brand process methodology provides the bones, adding flesh to any brand still takes a lot of thought and expert independent guidance can make all the difference between success and failure. We have worked with many clients to develop successful brand propositions. Please contact Stephen Brown, head of strategy and planning, at stephen.brown@abacusmarketing.co.uk or call him on 020 7795 8175 for an initial chat. We could either discuss your requirements in more detail on the phone or – if you prefer – we are more than happy to meet up for a non-chargeable two-hour consultation at a venue of your choice.

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