The Heart of Brand Strategy

I’ve been a brand strategist since Caribou Coffee was launched (go ahead, look it up, just don’t say the year out loud), but I continue to have to explain to people what brand strategy actually is.  (For the record, a brand strategy is a set of parameters used to intentionally create, operate and grow a brand). These days, I find myself having to also explain why it’s relevant,  when “they” suggest that all one needs is a user-friendly website, social media exposure, top-notch SEO and a really good CRM, right?

Wrong.

Let me let you in on what I have always considered to be the key to any brand’s strategy, the best kept secret in branding. It doesn’t have a sexy name and it sounds a bit academic, but that doesn’t mean it’s not important.  Because for me, and the hundreds of global brands that I have helped since Caribou was a calf, it’s the central piece of any brand strategy:  Strategic Brand Identity.

Strategic Brand Identity is the expression of the role a brand wants to play in its category and frames the relationship it wants to have with its customers.

Many people use the term “brand identity, but it can get a bit muddled.  Sometimes they are talking about a brand’s image (i.e. how the brand is perceived externally), but mostly the term ‘brand identity’ is used to refer to a brand’s visual identity – the logos, icons, signature, palette and other visible and visual expressions of a brand.  That’s not what we’re talking about here.  We’re talking about a specific role that a brand has chosen in order to define itself for its customers and differentiate itself from other brands in the category.

Other brands can say the same things, offer similar products, and even use your colors, but ultimately, a firmly established, well-executed and consistent brand identity is your single most precious brand asset. 

Here are a couple brands that have intentional and in my opinion, exceptional strategic brand identities:

It’s ultimately the most important element of your brand strategy because it provides your brand with a potentially ownable, unassailable point of difference over time.

The Home Depot

Home Depot is a fantastic example of a brand that determined its strategic brand identity and has stuck with it over time. While campaigns and products come and go, Home Depot’s decision to be an “Instructive Confidence-Builder” for its target audience remains constant.  That decision has framed the brand’s actions in many ways, including its:

  • Focus on Consumer Education and Education Services. For example, Home Depot
    holds a wide variety of educational workshops for DIYers, professionals, and even kids, and has developed an extensive array of instructional videos on its YouTube channel.
  • Value propositions for consumers and professionals. The current value proposition for its DIY target is summed up in the tagline “helping doers get more done”, which reflects the end benefits of confidence and productivity that the brand wants their customers to feel.
  • Encouraging, coach-like brand voice and tone:  “Come on”, it says, “let’s get this done.”

The simple statement behind this essential strategy could read something like, “Home Depot will be an instructive confidence-builder for its target consumers, encouraging them to develop their skills and confidence in improving their surroundings”. 

Electrolux Group

In 2005, Electrolux Group adopted a new strategic brand identity, defining their corporate brand as the “Thoughtful Design Innovator”.  That idea, unique in an increasingly Asian-dominated appliance brand landscape characterized by “innovation for innovation’s sake”, has ensured a customer-centric approach to appliance design across its brands, which include Electrolux, AEG and Frigidaire. 

Here’s an example of how they communicated it:  “This [identity] means innovating with insight…design for the user’s sake.  For us, thoughtful design means making appliances easier to use and tasks more enjoyable to perform, freeing our customers to experience ease of mind”.  

Importantly, the organization didn’t just create a phrase, it created an entire strategy around that desired identity that informed the consumer insight process, established R&D innovation priorities, and drove product design and market communications.  And importantly, they published and shared their identity everywhere – and I mean everywhere — from annual reports to product user manuals across the globe.  It remains a core strategy of the Group today, providing both focus and guardrails for business and brand operations.

Developing Your Strategic Brand Identity

Your Strategic Brand Identity starts with a statement that expresses your desired role and relationship with your customers.  It requires more than a few minutes thought; it should be based on an audit of the strategic brand identities of your key competitors (not many will have one, luckily, making your job easier), as well as a thorough analysis of your brand’s existing equity and internal capabilities.  It is a strategy, after all, and should be approached in a structured way.

To help develop strategic identity statement alternatives, ask yourself the following questions:

  1. Do you have a defined vision or mission for your brand and / or company? (That should be your starting point, but in my experience your strategic brand identity will most likely end up creating your vision and / or mission. That’s a good thing.) 
  2. What role do you currently play in the market?  Are you the “whiz kid innovator” or the “safe choice”?  The “champ” or the “challenger”?  Be honest, or, even better, ask people who know you who you are, what role you play in the market and to them personally. 
  3. Is that who you want to be? What role do you want to play going forward? What are the implications of making that choice? What will you do and what won’t you do as a result?
  4. And most importantly: what is the relationship you want your brand to have with your customers? How do you want them to think of you in relation to themselves?

An honest but inspired Strategic Brand Identity that both defines and differentiates you is the fundamental catalyst for brand action, innovation and long-term brand equity.  Just do yourselves a favor and don’t let your competitors know!

lisa craig
Lisa Craig has been fascinated by brands for over 25 years and is passionate about the value of strategy in a tactically-focused world. Her strategic brand identity is “Grounded Strategist”. She serves as Savvyeur’s VP of Brand & Content Strategy while continuing to work with global brands in the areas of insight, brand architecture, and brand strategy & identity development as the owner of Northern Magnolia Brand Consulting.