“Brand strategy is the most vital marketing capacity in 2020, overtaking analytics.”
— Gartner CMO Survey, 2020
Let’s begin with a spicy opinion: The only two teams needed for tech companies in the future are Product and Brand.
Product is the function and features. What it does and the features that make it better. This involves engineers, product designers, data scientists, PMs, researchers, and customer success teams.
Brand is about the experience — the story that people tell. It is a feeling. A relationship to the product. The best brands are ones that consistently give stories to their customers to not only tell themselves but to tell others. They become your evangelists. Inevitably, a strong brand also attracts top talent and partnerships. This involves marketing, brand design, editorial, social, and community building. I would extend it to HR and people ops.
Product is merit. Brand is distribution, a signal for leadership.
From 2000 to the present, tech companies were informed by the trends of culture because of the unfathomable speed with which software was changing the world. Whether it was “Move fast and break things,” the Lean Startup method, MVPs, human-centered design, growth hacking, content marketing, influencer marketing, community building — there were levers to be pulled, some that exist today and others completely irrelevant.
Thinking about that Gartner CMO study … it’s funny to see how something as fundamental as brand strategy — a practice of getting clear about your brand’s promises, mission, vision, positioning; understanding competition and customers, and developing a rationale for the name and logo — is suddenly important again.
To ensure that an entire company moves in unison and makes decisions from the same page is, frankly, difficult. Companies want to perform like a grand symphony, but at best sound like a fifth-grade rehearsal that has a poorly funded music program.
A successful brand strategy transforms the way a company behaves. It turns words into works. Beyond a PDF, it shapes the brand’s language and tone of voice; it informs the symbols and personality; it becomes a center for every employee to ask, “Is this project, this decision, this partnership, this Instagram ad, this tweet, this conference … on brand?”
The cloud is littered with failed brand strategies that never made it past a PDF.
Brand strategy is the foundation for decision-making. At its best, a brand strategy informs and inspires every team within the company. The most successful brands have an incredible product, yes, and their brand — what they stand for, their place in culture, and how they do this at scale — sets them apart and signals leadership.
My hope is that this essay helps writers/strategist learn a different perspective — and real examples that came to life — because this is lucrative and fun work.
- How brand strategy came to be and where it is headed
- Branding is simply an expression of human nature: to belong and be seen
- The skills of a brand strategist
- Tech companies will have to focus on three areas: function, features, experience
- Why this could be a fulfilling career path
The evolution of brand strategy
Brand strategy began as a function of brand differentiation. While the invention of this term is difficult to pinpoint, the origins of brand management supposedly began at Procter & Gamble in the 1920s.
Neil McElroy was an employee at P&G who worked on Camay soap campaigns. According to this article:
“McElroy drafted a memo explaining his ideas about how Procter & Gamble brands could be built more effectively. He argued for a system that would target more resources and attention at Camay and other Procter & Gamble products, as well.
A hallmark of McElroy’s plan was that one person should be in charge of each brand. Further, McElroy proposed that a substantial and dedicated team should be engaged in every aspect of promoting each of the brands and that the teams should be focused only on their particular brands.
The idea was so complete in McElroy’s mind that he suggested the team should include a brand manager, a brand assistant, people who tracked the brand, and a handful of other positions focused on specific activities and tasks.”
This history reveals the bones of the kinds of teams that exist today. Even tech companies with multiple products will utilize various brand managers or brand teams to service those products with vigilance.
Branding 🤝 Human Nature
Two quotes that get to the heart of it.
“Fundamentally, branding is a profound manifestation of the human condition. It is about belonging: belonging to a tribe, to a religion, to a family. Branding demonstrates that sense of belonging. It has this function for both the people who are part of the same group and also for the people who don't belong,” said Wally Ollins in Brand Thinking and Other Noble Pursuits.
Brian Collins brilliantly said in the book: “In earlier years, I think branding was a lot about recognition and an attachment to a person that you aspired to or help up on a pedestal. So we went through an era where brands focused on an association with a celebrity or an inspiration individual. Now I think we've evolved, and brands now have the responsibility to enhance the communities in which they exist. By virtue of that, once a brand is in a community, it can quickly be built up or shut down. And branding is no longer about "I'm going to tell you why Pantene will make your hair x." It's about how Pantene can enhance women's lives.”
These days, when you hear people talk about brands, they talk about them as if they were people. They will defend brands they love from criticism. And they will try to cancel brands that go against their ideologies.
It’s no wonder people treat brands like this: they get baked into our identity. They were catalysts for our desires and ambitions.
How many marketing departments use “human” to describe their comms? How many founders do you follow on Twitter or Instagram? Why do we as a culture suddenly care about how a founder of a startup behaves?
We’re past TV jingles and tongue-in-cheek print ads as the core communications of a brand. We barely pay attention to them unless they’re jarring. And we forget quickly.
Brands behaving more and more like people is a byproduct of a digitized world. And to think…this is just the beginning.
The skills of a brand strategist
I look at the role of a brand strategist as a combination of a few different roles. There isn’t a one-size-fits-all process. There are many people who try to sell formulas or teach workshops. The way to separate the charlatans versus those who have skin in the game is to search for portfolios.
A strategy role in advertising is different from a design agency and different from a tech or startup role or venture capital role.
No matter what your role though, from my experience, the best brand strategists are a little of each of the following:
A journalist: A brand strategist operates in many ways like a journalist; they interview everyone involved internally and externally, they study the industry’s trends and history, they immerse themselves into a world that they are often unfamiliar with, they identify competitors and their behaviors, and they synthesize their findings into a compelling story. Their work gets people to see things they otherwise would have missed. It gives them language that they couldn’t generate on their own. In the role of journalist, they are an observer, a connector of dots.
A coach: As an outside observer, a coach can get a pulse on the health of a company and the momentum of their competitors. Even if the odds are against the team or the company, a coach inspires them to believe in a bigger narrative and act accordingly. A coach, most of all, has skin in the game. They were likely players of the game before. They understand the game and how it’s evolving.
A therapist: A core reason why companies can’t do their own brand strategy is because they are too intimately involved. A brand strategist is impartial enough to sit at the center of the web of a company without having the need for it to move in any particular way. They listen to everyone’s frustrations, desires, hopes, and dreams. The simple fact that they’re outside of the organization means that employees will be more honest with them. Down the road, a brand strategist in this role can reveal the gist of what everyone is feeling and saying, showing both common ground and the mismatch of beliefs or narratives.
Other skills a good brand strategist should possess:
Taste — From an initial presentation, to examples used, to words used or not used, taste is paramount to a brand strategist. A brand strategist with bad taste is impossible to take seriously. The executives/teams have to, in some way, look up to someone in this role. They hold knowledge, see patterns, or are immersed in the cultures that the client doesn’t have time to learn or the taste to know.
Curiosity — A brand strategist must genuinely care about the challenges the company is dealing with and be curious about why those problems exist and how they can be solved. They need to be curious enough to get to the heart of the story, even the ones that seem straightforward at the outset. In my experience, the most “boring” industries gave me the most exciting problems to solve.
Clear, engaging communication — Strategy is the gathering of information and stories; writing is synthesis. If strategy is a practice of emptying out people’s brains, writing is about context, making meaning of the mess. A brand strategist is not just someone asking a list of questions about purpose or values, but someone who can craft an impactful and compelling story to explain that to the rest of the world.
Presence — If a brand strategist isn’t speaking to the CEO or executive team, the brand strategy has no chance. There must be buy-in or else it’s just a PDF that lives in the cloud, and teams won’t give a shit about executing on this new strategy. A brand strategist must answer exactly how their work informs marketing, product, HR, sales, and design systems. Tech companies swap talent every few years. It's just part of a game: a brand strategy could be flawless, but the moment a new CMO or executive joins the company, they will want to make their own impact, and will often kill that strategy so they can get credit for it.
Persuasion — Along with being a strong writer, a brand strategist should be an eloquent and articulate storyteller. I once heard that selling is about “transferring enthusiasm.” One bad buzzword can set the client off into a mouth-foaming frenzy, but a good storyteller will get full buy-in and create dreams and futures for their client.
“Vibes” — Inspired by a conversation with Tom Critchlow, hiring decisions are moving away from being based on what school the applicant went to. It will be the totality of a person’s identity: How they show up online, their side projects, the companies they’ve worked at, the things they care about, the people they know and who know them, their website, their feeds, their newsletters, their articles — all of it. In the context of brand strategy, can these executives vibe with you? Have deep conversations with you? Trust you? Are they hiring you because of who you are?
From function to features to experiences
After a product’s function (what it does) and features (the bells and whistles that enhance the function), it’s about the experience (the feeling): How does it feel when I am using it? What story am I telling myself when I use this product? And do I effortlessly tell that story to others? (Thank you Leland Maschmeyer for teaching me this.)
Brand strategy is simply the story you tell yourself that informs the stories you tell others. It is a foundation to make decisions from.
“Great,” executives say. “Now what does it look like or what do we do with it?”
Simple: Turn words into works. Now that there is a strategy — a compelling rationale for who a company wants to become and the future it wants to build — all decisions moving forward are inspired by the brand strategy.
When a company doesn’t have a solid brand strategy, companies work toward different definitions of progress or success. Marketing creates ads that are disjointed from new features shipped; recruiters and people ops talk about the company in a way that is vastly different than what the executives say; etc.
The vision for the product and the trajectory of the company often lives in the heads of the founders or executives. They transfer that vision to managers, who then pass it on to workers, like a giant game of telephone, where the message heard at the end is vastly different from the message whispered at the start.
It’s no surprise why so many brands fail at consistency — which is the game of a thriving brand — why they change their illustration style every year, and why there’s a mismatch between how they sound on their website, newsletters, and tweets. They are all over the place.
Brand strategy should be the foundation for all outputs. It informs an identity system (the symbols of your brand), a tone of voice for the brand (how you sound on the website to newsletters to tweets), and a rationale for why a company should invest in an editorial platform to tell their stories (how do you stay in the conversation with customers?).
There are two general approaches to brand strategy.
One is for startups: devising a brand strategy that creates a compelling go-to-market approach. Developing stories that are unique to the founders and the company they’re creating. It clearly identifies how the marketplace currently behaves and what competitors look and sound like.
One is for established companies: a practice of unpacking the company’s bags. It’s a time of reflection and reorganization. We are on top of the hill, looking out. We wonder: Who do we want to become? What elements of our brand DNA are authentic? What do we need to let go of? What is our unique opportunity in the marketplace?
Here are some high-level examples that I’ve worked on:
Example 1: Clubhouse
While at COLLINS, I had the fun opportunity to work with the Clubhouse founders and their growing teams. Here was a popular app where people were using only their voice to connect with others, share stories, ideas, debates, etc. There was frankly nothing like it in the marketplace. The copy cats arrived.
Through dozens of conversations with teams and users, I distilled all of the interviews into a manifesto, values, taglines, and smaller narratives that could be used in various contexts (partnerships, marketing, product language, hiring). Once everyone was in love with the narrative and language, it became a foundation to inform the design system: logo, wordmark, colors, typography, social sharing images, and lastly, a new homepage that allowed anyone to download the app.
Without the strategy, every decision for the visuality and personality of Clubhouse would have been made on a whim, based purely on aesthetics (which don’t last). It would have been easier to create inconsistencies. Without a strategy, companies will chase what’s popular aesthetically versus what’s authentic to who they are and how the personality of the brand shows up in every touchpoint.
“Bounce around the hallways of the internet” was how I defined the value of being on Clubhouse. That single sentence — also thanks to working with the best designers — took that feeling, those words, and used it to build the personality of Clubhouse: the colors, typography, and logo.
Example 2: Crane
Crane has been making paper for over 250 years. Stephen Crane established the Crane paper business in 1770 and purchased the Liberty Paper Mill in Dalton, Massachusetts. By 1801, Crane was the primary producer of banknote paper for local and regional banks and, eventually, for the U.S. government.
They reached out to COLLINS to revitalize their brand, reboot their digital presence, and develop a more relevant brand voice as well as enable new products, artist collaborations, and customization capabilities.
This was the “unpacking bags” approach. The team visited Crane’s factories and unearthed fascinating relics, patents, and stories of the past. We learned about the greater ambitions of the teams and where they wanted to go.
Something from their past became a seed for their future. Around the 1840s, Crane invented the methodologies to prevent counterfeits by using complex, embellished engraving. By 1879, they won their first contract with the Bureau of Engraving and Printing. They became the paper supplier for all US dollars for the Federal Reserve Bank.
Around that same time, a push against the mechanization of humanity was taking place: the Art Nouveau movement, which influenced some of Crane’s paper products at the turn of the century. Studying the two and their styles helped us define a set of principles to guide the world of Crane for today and tomorrow. It inspired a new tactile experience within Crane’s products, where engravings give weight and detail to the written note, meant not just to be read, but to be savored and cherished.
As summarized: to weave words is to sew worlds.
The everyday consumer typically views a “brand” as the company’s logo. That’s a start. Symbols and stories are vital elements in communication. We’ve been using them since the beginning of time. When a symbol carries a story consistently throughout time, it is the beginning of a real brand. The most indomitable brands in the world have recognizable logos, yes, but more importantly, they have successfully kept their story consistent. Both symbol and story are elements in reinforcing the memory that lives in your perception.
Major gratitude to Nick Ace and Brian Collins for involving me.
A fulfilling career path
My first project as a freelancer in 2021 was doing brand strategy for a company that I knew nothing about in an industry that I never cared for. My background, objectivity, and spicy opinions allowed the company to name the challenges they’ve been facing and to build a brand beyond their product that would signal leadership. I fell in love with it and in turn, took on a full-time role to shape this new brand.
Some lessons learned:
1: Not everyone will care, and that’s okay: In the context of tech, brand is a bit woo-woo. Because it’s hard to quantify, many engineers and marketers will pretend to like the idea of investing in a brand to be a good team player — truth is, during the process of building it, they won’t give a shit. Whereas other types of clients, like B2C, believe brand is the single defining thing because it involves packaging. People will care when you show them how the evolved brand will affect their work. For an engineer, you can show how elements of the brand show up in product. For the performance marketer, take every ad the company has ever published (and competitors) and show them a stark difference in visuality and overall feeling of the ad or landing page. Then measure it.
2: The need for enrollment: I learned the practice of enrollment from my teacher Seth Godin during the altMBA. The concept is simple: How do you enroll someone on a path for change? You can’t force change onto them or they won’t do the work. How do you get them genuinely excited to go on this mission with you? To avoid having this brand strategy be another failed PDF in the cloud, I worked closely with team leaders to enroll them on this investment in brand. I also presented at an all-hands and gave a high-level overview. Then I created a sandbox in Notion for others to contribute and to see what other ideas are being generated. Lastly, you have to show the process: from brand strategy to an identity system to improved tone of voice, guidelines, assets, and updates to every brand touchpoint (homepage, newsletter template, social, HR, partnerships, decks, sales, campaigns, etc.).
3: Building a brand is very fucking hard: The most successful tech brands feel like they are just categories of one. They define a category rather than being defined by it. Think: Notion, Spotify, Mailchimp, Robinhood, Stripe, Figma. On one hand, these companies hire the most brilliant engineers because they have insane money. More than just the function and features of the product — which are vital to earning and retaining customers — they’ve also built a unique brand. A brand that gets customers to transfer those stories to other people. A brand that has a unique point of view on the world and knows how to tell that story over and over. Building a brand is a long game, which is why so few companies invest in it because they don’t A) have the talent, B) the vision, or C) they don’t believe in branding.
Think of it as a human being: How difficult is it to keep your promises? Now imagine that in the context of a company with hundreds of people responsible for keeping this promise consistent and done at scale.
The job of a brand strategist is to turn words into works. To identify — and create — language that is unique, differentiated, and above all, true to the DNA of the company and the future it seeks to build. It’s about leveraging the past to reimagine a future. The language informs the symbols of the brand: illustration, animation, typography, colors, logo, photography. The language inspires how sales or marketing sells the product.
As more people build products or turn side-hustles into companies, brand strategy is vital. It is a compass. It is a story that helps scale the mission, attract talent, and inspire teams.
Unless you have a visionary leader and the top 1% of talent in the workplace who can consistently communicate the brand’s mission and all its outputs, you need strategy to unify existing teams and future hires.
Strategy is like a dream and tactics are what we do to make the dream real.
And it all begins with my favorite element: words.