Strategy is complex, but winning brands keep things simple

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There is arguably nothing more complex and dangerous in business than changing the look, feel and familiarity of your carefully hewn brand.

Imagine a trusted brand like Audi messing around with its iconic name and four circles. Yeah, despite our lead photo, we couldn’t either.

And, as Ben Bush, Partner and Head of Strategy at B2B marketing specialist The Frameworks, explains, a brand’s job involves so much more than just having a logo that looks good in the market and there are some simple, clear strategies to ensure your brand remains on the winning side…

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Ben Bush, The Frameworks

Abrdn has been back in the headlines recently. It’s been three years since the global investment firm’s rebrand was annihilated in the press, and now chief investment officer Peter Branner’s claim that this amounted to “corporate bullying” has landed the brand back on the front page.

Formerly Standard Life Aberdeen, the company’s new name was one of the most controversial corporate rebrands in decades.

Everyone from journalists and City analysts to linguists and branding experts had something to say about it, joking that the company had “irritable vowel syndrome”, had been “disemvowelled”, and had made a “rlly stpd” mistake.

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Disemvowelled: ABRDN’s controversial rebrand drew widespread criticism.

Interestingly, CEO Stephen Bird said the rebrand actually went down well with clients, who “fully embraced” the name change.

And that proves something all good marketers know – that a brand is much more than just a logo and a name. Abrdn’s brand power goes well beyond its frugal use of vowels.

Practical manifestations of a brand, like its visual identity or a memorable strapline, are essential tangible cues. But in reality, brands are deeply strategic.

They are about communication, culture, behaviour, tone and service. Each and every touchpoint between a business and its audience contributes to a holistic experience that shapes its reputation and perceived value.

A brand is far more akin to a relationship than a name. And, like most relationships, it’s complicated.

Why brands win or lose

In fact, brands are such a complex mix of activities and assets that it’s easiest to think about them from the audience’s perspective instead. As Amazon Founder Jeff Bezos put it: “Your brand is what people say about you when you’re not in the room.”

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Chatter: Amazon boss, Jeff Bezos says brand is what people say about you when you’re not there.

This is what determines how and why brands win and lose.

It’s less about knocking it out of the park with great content and slick websites and more about deciding what kind of relationship you want to have with your audience and anticipating and meeting expectations to support that goal.

As with any other relationship, this takes work. You need to consistently deliver on the unspoken promise you want your brand to represent. Over time, expectations will evolve to match.

Relationships and expectations are built over years, not days, so the best brands recognise that this is all about the long game. Any short-term deviation from those audience expectations can stick in the mind when it comes to brand reputation.

Sometimes, those deviations are positive. Any moment where a brand goes above and beyond will be appreciated and – increasingly – shared. But psychologists will tell you that a negative deviation from the status quo will be remembered significantly longer.

Think about the fleeting excitement of receiving a surprise gift compared to the disappointment you’d feel if a good friend forgets your birthday.

Successful brands recognise this and build expectations accordingly. Often, this means identifying and doubling down on a few things they know they can do better than anyone – and lowering expectations elsewhere.

Keep it simple, stupid

The rivalry between Yahoo! and Google in the 90s and early 00s demonstrates this in action. Both were early internet heavyweights who recognised that curious humans would need help navigating a new, exciting, and dramatically growing volume of content.

Both were also hungry to capitalise on the wave of innovation that followed.

Now, one of those brands is virtually synonymous with search and consistently sits near the top of the list of the world’s strongest brands. Spoiler alert: it’s not Yahoo!.

While Yahoo! extended and diversified to such an extent that people no longer understood what it represented, Google stayed single-minded.

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Verbed: Google’s simple approach has seen its name become a byword for online search.

Anything that sits under the Google brand today is there, by and large, because it helps consumers search for things or helps advertisers capitalise on search behaviour.

It’s a simple, direct proposition that even my mum understands – although every time she says, “I googled it up”, I picture someone in California dying a little inside.

That doesn’t mean Google lost its hunger for innovation and progress as a business. It was just smart enough to keep its acquired brands separate and bundle up its home-grown projects under Alphabet.

Businesses not blessed (or cursed) with Google’s scale and sprawl also have the option to build clear, purposeful and simple brand propositions. Arguably, it’s an easier choice, in fact.

But it can also mean walking away from previous initiatives and decisions that made perfect sense when they first arose, potentially even shutting down or selling off entire parts of a business.

Simplicity, then, can be a hard choice. But it is a choice. Identifying a clear, consistent purpose and shaping your entire business around it may sound daunting, especially when your own complex legacy is stacked up against the crazy world of transformational challenges and opportunities that surround all businesses today.

But with the proper framework – and a little imagination – it’s a choice any business can take.

And when you do, it can give your brand a foundation that will help it to weather most storms. Newspapers and journalists might hate your new name, LinkedIn commentators might hate your new logo.

But these are fleeting surprise gifts the creative industry likes to offer up from time to time. A simple and consistent brand strategy will stand the test of time.