How to deepen context and insight for brand strategy development

If you are reading this, you probably already agree that a brand’s strategy is the critical underlying piece that makes every other thing that comes after—from identity to ads, activations, experiences, and co—tick. The idea of a carefully thought out and crafted narrative for who you are, whose attention matters to you, how you connect with them, and what you represent at all times and with every opportunity, surely sounds like something to take seriously but the question usually is how to get it done right, and go beyond creative guesswork.

Putting together thoughts from our evolving process at FourthCanvas as well as continuous observation and learning from respected sources from across the world, here are a number of things (13, for now) to keep in mind, whether you are reading as an external consultant or an internal brand champion trying to lead the process from within or ensure your hired consultant is able to deliver the most intentional work on the job.

1. Set the frame

It is important to repeatedly take every opportunity available to talk about why the strategy is important and how it will take a joint effort from all sides to make it as intentional as possible. It helps when everyone involved understands the implications of getting it right (or not), and how important their commitment will be towards ensuring that.

2. Set your frame—for values over benefits

You already heard that marketing is about the benefits a feature delivers and less about the features themselves. Now, as you dig deeper for understanding in the branding process, you need to know that you are not only seeking clarity on the direct ways a business serves its people. More importantly, you are seeking out values inherent in the brand and how these connect with values the target audience holds dear. It’s never black and white, and that’s what makes it a little difficult but hey, you can do this, or at least get somewhere.

3. Start with an audit

It’s important to bring together as many materials as possible that have been deployed in the past to communicate, represent or sell the brand. There is no future without the past, and if we are standing right in the present, with a picture of the future in our heads, there is only one element missing. We must collate it, and study it adequately. Here is an example of a list we use at FourthCanvas when asking our clients to provide us with materials.

4. Walk the path with leadership—Interviews 1.0

Nothing beats having a full grasp of how the leaders/founders of a company or product have walked their paths so far and how they envision the future. Ask questions that take them down memory lane, force them to pause and think, and paint imaginary pictures. The answers here, as in most interviews, go beyond what is being said but also how it is being said—what is emphasized, said with excitement, or regret, etc.

5. Get real with employees—Interviews 2.0

First, ensure that the list of employees being interviewed is as diverse as possible, going beyond gender and other classifications to include how long they have spent at the company as well their level in the hierarchy. One main challenge here is getting people to come out fully honest and expressive. Anonymity can be helpful but whatever you do, the goal is to have them speak freely about their experience and opinion about the brand, among other points of possible insight.

6. Conduct surveys and polls

While you cannot speak to every employee, surveys can help to get more insights, embracing width where depth may be lower (made up for with interviews). Surveys can also be extended to a larger audience outside the organization. Also, Twitter polls can be something. The brand’s handle can be smartly deployed to gain some insights from followers on social media.

7. Get honest with clients/users — Interviews 3.0

There is no better way to have a feel of how people have experienced the brand than to speak with those at the tip of the receiving end—previous and current customers. Encourage a mix of both the happiest customers as well as the not-so-impressed, to achieve a wider range of reactions. The key questions here will revolve around what attracted them to the brand, “what they ordered vs what they got” (you can put it exactly like that 😄), what moments they are most fond of, if and why they would tell someone about the brand (apart from service excellence if they answer with that as you want to look further than the obvious).

8. Audit competitors and similar brands

The list may be a mix of competitors and similar brands, especially where there are brands in the same bracket for other reasons beyond what they do. The task here is to look through and analyze what these brands have going for them. SWOT analysis is a good place to start but it helps to look through what people say about them, as well as the promises and claims they make themselves. A list of attributes noted as you look through this collection will become pivotal when trying to determine brand positioning, among other things.

9. Comb the internet for sentiments

Maximize reviews on Google and mentions on forums and social media platforms to take a note of what the popular and unpopular opinions of people are about the brand. There is a growing number of tools to make this more effective. Compare and choose whichever works for you. One other method we have tried in the past is to partner with a data analytics agency.

10. Speak to influencers

Identify the movers of the industry and speak to them. They may be influential users, facilitators, authors, or educators playing a neutral role in the industry. It helps to get their thoughts on the leading brands in the sector, how they judge and compare them, as well as where they would place the brand under review, in the grand scheme of things. It helps to disclose ahead that you are conducting a research for the purpose of insights to aid a (re)brand process.

11. Hold (a good number of) internal sprints & workshops

Where possible, make this physical. However virtual sprints and workshops work too (pun intended). It is important to lead with context and pointers, from the overall why to clear guidance on how answers will be shared. While some sprints will focus on (re)determining the brand character/personality, some others will focus on the target audience and what brand attributes best represent the brand as it stands it out from the growing crowd. The goal is to “crowdsource” ideas on where the people within place the brand.

12. Be present and observe

Whether you are leading from within or as an external consultant working with the internal team, it helps to take that ‘boring, seemingly unnecessary’ time of simply watching things play out. Imagine quietly sitting with the engineering team or simply observing what happens in the kitchenette by 1 pm. The goal is to be (almost unnoticeably) present to see how things play out in real life. It helps to make people feel comfortable if you notice some awkwardness. In such a situation, an external consultant may find a way to say “it’s like being a governor for a day. I am excited to be your colleague even if just for a few hours”.

13. Study, study, study… & discuss findings with leadership

Now there is so much information, an overload in fact. It is important to read through the pile like you are preparing for a major examination. You are taking notes, sticking notes, and connecting dots. Before you go ahead to craft answers from this depth, the immediate next step is to summarize your findings and learnings and discuss this with the team’s leadership. Then you will pay attention to what they ‘absolutely agree with’, grudgingly nod too, and things they may vehemently disagree with. Whatever their reaction, nothing is to be thrown away, but surely you have a chance to double down on grey areas and discuss disagreements while leaving fully armed with what is unanimous.

With an arsenal of insights, crafting and development can begin, across the many key components that make up a brand’s strategy—from the big idea to core statements, personality, positioning, and more. It is important that the development process is lined up with continuous feedback-seeking. At the end of an agreed brand strategy, the next effort is to ensure it is actionable by facilitating a conversation on what changes are necessary if we are to align to the new strategy. What are we doing that we need to stop? What are we not doing that we need to start? What are we doing that we need to double down on?

Questions, questions, questions.

Victor Fatanmi, Opeyemi Olugbemiro, and Ayomide Ajayi combined thoughts from their work at FourthCanvas to put this together.

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