Create layered meaning, not a singular narrative

A predominant approach to brand strategy has been the creation of a singular narrative or “brand story.” This concept is broken. Successful 21st century brands don’t focus on singular narratives, instead they create layers of meaning for their customers.

The idea of brand-as-story is an artifact of two historical factors:

  1. The rise to dominance of television advertising as a means of building brands in the latter half of the 20th century.
  2. The intellectual dominance of CPG (FMCG if you’re in the UK) thinking, which sought to attach emotional differences to what are essentially commodities, because they’re hard to differentiate at the product level (toothpaste being toothpaste after all).

With television in the driving seat, brand building became about economies of scale at the idea level. The advertising agency coming up with a singular “idea” or narrative, to be distributed consistently via a limited number of television channels. The goal generally being to reach the maximum possible audience.

And while these narratives might change over time, it was highly uncommon to have multiple narratives in market at the same time.

While we all understand that the Internet has changed things significantly at a media, channel and analytics level, we have yet to truly embrace it’s true impact on underlying brand strategy.

Let’s start by comparing today versus the conditions described above:

  1. Television is just one of a number of potential media channels available to you. And not necessarily the dominant channel depending on the brand.
  2. CPG brands no longer dominate in mind-share terms, as the overall economy has shifted towards services, and we increasingly deal directly with what used to be referred to as “corporate” brands (e.g. the corporation is the brand, like Google).
  3. Brands increasingly require multiple narratives in market, across multiple channels, customized to individual customers, in order to be contextually relevant to their situation.

Now let’s consider a brand which operates in a 21st century way. Let’s think about Amazon.

What is the singular narrative behind the Amazon brand? Is it convenience? Is it selection? Is it service? Is it low cost? Is it technology? Is it entertainment? Is it a connection to others? Is it innovation?

The truth is that Amazon is all of these things, all at the same time. If we tried to retrofit a singular narrative to Amazon, we’d fail. We’d come up with pieces of the puzzle, but we’d lose the magic. The difference being that the Amazon brand represents a complex layering of meaning, which is what makes them so very difficult to compete against.

Importantly, much of what Amazon has done to create this meaning is operational rather than through advertising. The pricing is transparent, the reviews are right there, the selection is a quick search away, the delivery is quick, the customer service fast and polite. Unlike the world of CPG, where the product offering is essentially fixed and commoditized, here the offering is rich, which increases the ability to differentiate and create meaning.

And that is the goal. To create a brand that customers find so meaningful that competitors can't compete.

Luckily, we’ve never had more potential to create layered meaning than we do today. We can innovate across the product/service spectrum much faster, we can target communications much more effectively, we can execute marketing tactics that are experiences rather than stories, we can create new digital products, and we have a whole new suite of analytics to draw from.

The inherent complexity of this new world, however, places greater pressure on brand strategy to add value. Moving forwards, brand strategy must:

  1. Connect the dots via the underlying anchor of your purpose in order to define the layers of meaning you intend to create, and how you intend to create them.
  2. Be useful for both operational and innovation activities, rather than just being focused on communications,
  3. Encourage a new sense of flexible cohesion, rather than pushing for rigid consistency.
  4. Place a greater emphasis on internal culture as the ultimate driver of brand decisions, rather than creating a set of rules to be followed.
  5. Provide a clear sense of forward momentum for the brand and how it will dynamically evolve over time, rather creating a set of static constructs that will hold you back.

Take a look at your own brand strategy today, and it refers to itself as a “story” or a “narrative”, then take a closer look at what it is saying. And if it doesn’t provide adequate insight into the layers of meaning you intend to create, or take into account the implications on operations (including customer service), innovation and internal culture, then you might want to consider re-thinking it.