Okay, I know what you’re thinking. This is an attempt to sell the concept of brand consulting – by a brand consultant. Well you’re right, but you might find our early learning about the emerging role of strategic brand consulting of interest. In starting a brand consulting practice focused solely on brand strategy, Tait Subler gained some insights about how clients view the strengths and weaknesses of ad agencies and other marketing service suppliers. We also have new perspective about the way a strategic brand consultancy complements the work of agencies and graphic design firms. Most remarkably though, we’ve seen how such a firm fills a void in the current world of brand management.
A little history
Tait Subler’s mission is to infuse creativity (original ideas) into brand strategy. We have found a robust market for our services. To be fair, our clients’ experiences with creative agencies may not be fully representative. However, they have told us that a brand consultant fills a unique and much-needed niche in the total spectrum of brand marketing activity. In fact, a strategic brand consultancy helps them avoid compromises that were necessary when dealing with design shops or ad agencies alone.
Brand consultants provide more holistic strategic guidance
Advertising and design agencies have strategic thinkers (usually in the account planning or management ranks) who are dedicated to creating the most powerful, break-through communication possible for their clients. In good agencies, they bring rigor to the cause of writing a creative brief for a client’s brand. The “brief” is the fundamental strategic output of a typical agency. It defines the proposition that the advertising/design must communicate and to whom.
There is great skill required to write a useful brief. However, it is different than the skill required to define a strategic point of view and a holistic brand blueprint. A brand blueprint identifies the key strategic elements of the brand that must either evolve or stay the same to achieve maximum success. The creative brief format is focused on the proposition of the communication while the brand blueprint defines the overall theme for the brand. They are different things and they have different purposes. A brand consultant specializes in developing the more holistic brand blueprint that helps frame the role of communication as well as other company activities — from service standards to hiring practices. Many agencies today don’t even have a format for a holistic brand blueprint.
Exhibit A – the brand blueprint
A good brand blueprint defines the brand today and then defines the brand at its best, usually in a multi-dimensional manner that breaks out emotional and functional benefits, values, etc. (see Exhibit A). The “brief” is the persuasive linkage between the two points. It can only be properly pondered once the brand blueprint is defined. Many clients seem to be looking for an agency to define their brand through the brief and the subsequent advertising ideas they develop, without first articulating such a blueprint. This is folly. Even if an agency were to somehow define the brand brilliantly through an advertising idea, these clients might not recognize it, having never articulated and agreed to a brand blueprint.
General Mills is an example of a company that is wisely trying to make a clear distinction between the advertising brief and the brand blueprint. The venerable packaged goods food marketer has a very successful track record, dominating many categories like breakfast cereal in the U.S. But they came to Tait Subler because they realized that they needed a blueprint model that was as instructive about the brand for packaging or promotions staff as it was for those developing advertising. In other words, they wanted to be brand-centric, not ad-centric so it made sense to have a brand consultant assess their briefing process and brief formats to provide recommendations for a more holistic brand blueprint.
The most effective theme vs. the most inspiring creative brief
Now, some may argue that agencies or design firms are amply qualified to develop a holistic brand blueprint. And in principle, we’d agree. It really comes down to a matter of degree. Agency strategists specialize in developing communications briefs. Strategic brand consultants specialize in developing holistic brand blueprints. Each can do what the other does, but not as well. As we’ll discuss below, in a business model where advertising per se is not fundamental to driving brand success, an ad agency’s strategists can find themselves on less sure ground than a brand consultant who is used to thinking in a more holistic way about brands.
But there may be a more contentious point to be made. Some of our clients have indicated that the very way an agency functions can conspire against its ability to define the best strategic point of view opportunity in the market. They argue that because an agency is focused on the merits of its creative output, the best theme idea can be forsaken for the most creatively interesting advertising/design execution. It’s not that agencies are irresponsible or don’t care about getting the positioning right. But when execution and strategy are developed by one organization, a brief is often tweaked or altered as the advertising is created. Many clients are wondering if there is room for such strategic compromise on the way to the advertising or design solution. They worry that the compromises that take place in this process can make the difference between a successful long-term strategic point of view and a short-term advertising campaign that gains some notoriety and then fizzles.
Anyone who has ever worked in a traditional agency knows that the initial brief is often altered and compromised in order to better inspire the creative director and his team. This makes sense in a traditional agency, where the goal is to produce great ads – the best brief is the one that gets to the most powerful creative idea the most quickly.
Some agencies argue that the brand idea can never be considered as important as the advertising idea. Their contention is that if the “right” strategic point of view leads to boring ads, it is not really the best idea at all. This is an argument many clients bridle at as it puts advertising at the center of the brand universe. They believe that the relevant consumer hot buttons, competitive environment and company capabilities/culture should be used to divine the best possible idea for their brands. The role of advertising is to help achieve the strategic point of view with consumers, not to sacrifice that idea on the way to the ads.
By separating the process of executing communication elements from the process of developing a strategic brand blueprint, Tait Subler’s clients feel that they get better work in both areas. They even claim that when they have a clear brand blueprint and strategic point of view, the creative tends to be better. Clients like Phil Knight and Steve Jobs know what their brands stand for and they get better work from their agencies and design firms because of it. Companies that have well-defined brand blueprints feel they can similarly focus the work of their creative partners.
It’s important to note that we have yet to meet a client that doesn’t respect and admire the work of advertising agencies and design firms. It’s just that there are some who are starting to see the need for another kind of strategic resource. Ask Jeeves (the popular search engine) is an example. Their launch ads (e.g., print ads that asked questions like, “Do fish sleep at night?”) positioned them as “the place to go when you have a trivia question”. This made for interesting advertising, but was a very limiting position for a search engine. Ask Jeeves asked Tait Subler to develop a more comprehensive strategic point of view that would help frame the development of future advertising briefs and also drive web site revisions, targeting, etc. They didn’t see the brand consultancy as an ad agency replacement, but they knew that it was essential to nail the right idea before executing design, advertising, etc. Ask Jeeves found that if the strategic point of view is in flux when the advertising is being created, it may be pushed astray.
Interestingly, big brands like Lexus have recently turned to consultants to help define their brand’s “DNA”. This trend is not necessarily a threat to agencies either. For some clients, it’s simply a smart alignment of resources that results in strong communication elements without giving up what they consider to be the right strategy.
Why should companies with smaller advertising budgets settle for lower quality brand thinking?
Let’s face it; advertising is not always the right weapon for brand building. There are business models where mass advertising will never be vital to the success of the brand. In fact, some of the best brands in the world have used means other than advertising to build relationships with their consumers. Starbucks and Google are arguably the most potent brands to come on the scene in the last 20 years, but in North America they have done almost no advertising compared to a typical franchise operation in fast food. So a brilliant brand strategy and successful brand can be built without a classic mass-advertising-driven approach. Still, many companies in this situation are perceived as less dedicated to marketing and branding simply because they don’t have big advertising budgets. As a result, they often find that their branding partners are not necessarily the cream of the crop.
This situation leaves an obvious gap in the market. Managers that recognize the need for incisive brand thinking but cannot justify advertising, do not have access to the “A” talent that brands who spend more on classic marketing can command. A top-flight brand consulting operation has tremendous opportunity to help these kinds of companies. It can work on a retainer or a project basis to craft a smart brand strategy and develop actionable implementation strategies on many fronts.
We’ve worked with clients like The Motley Fool (multi-media financial and investment advice) as well as Gulfstream Aerospace ($40 million jets for elite executives and billionaires). In each of these cases, the companies needed to make fundamental brand decisions that would have long-term impact on their growth. Since they weren’t seen as classic, “big marketers”, they had trouble finding competent resources to address their thorny brand issues. They dealt with the issues in-house or through the advice of design or ad agencies that were more focused on execution than strategy. Without the option of a strategic brand consultant, these companies were left making serious compromises in their partnerships.
Pragmatic considerations: short-term, outside perspective
Quality agencies are looking for lasting relationships with clients who typically pay a fee or retainer on an ongoing basis. While this model is obviously successful and appropriate for many marketers, it is not appropriate for all marketers all the time. A brand consultant addresses very specific challenges and charges a one-time fee for the service. Many clients find it very attractive to enter into an arrangement with a defined end-date and cost, rather than an ongoing retainer fee. For instance, Miller Brewing looked to Tait Subler to help develop a new brand concept for them. Once we had provided our ideas, we were done. And they were done paying us as well. While they have many agencies on retainer, this type of arrangement gave them an outside perspective without committing to a long-term arrangement.
Ironically, strategic brand consultants seem to have done a poor job of positioning themselves. They are seen as either expensive researchers or graphic designers who bolt on some strategic thinking. And perhaps this was a fair assessment at one point. However, if our early learning is any indication, there is a clear role and demand for pure strategic brand consulting. Clients ranging from small start-ups to multi-national packaged goods marketers have identified specific needs that brand consultants uniquely satisfy. Moreover, there seems to be a unique strategic development step (defining the brand blueprint) that brand consultants may be better able to serve than a typical ad agency or graphic design house that is perceived to be more focused on execution than strategy.