Butterflies! Unicorns! Brand Strategy!

Does your brand strategy work for people, or just fantasy critters?

Last week, the Differ announced that one long quest was over: to find the formula for the word “brand” (Promise+Differ). But after de-mystifying one core branding concept, today’s cartoon from Tom Fishburne (below) reminded us there are still of a lot of other critters in the branding bestiary that deserve to be pithed, skewered, and / or labeled for posterity…

Nice cocoon. You ever coming out?

As usual, Tom not only completely nails his subject in one brilliant cartoon (at right), his blog post is also right on the money about the difference between a navel-gazing branding process that exists for its own sake (bad) and a customer-focused process that actually delivers real business value (good).

Along the way, he takes a gentle poke at the elaborate models and charts we branding consultants and managers are fond of using. Take your pick from “a brand onion, a brand architecture, a brand key, a brand pyramid, a brand d.n.a, or a brand unicorn.”

As far as I know, he’s stretching it a bit with that last one  – but not by much. It’s only a matter of time before some enterprising consultant starts pitching the “Brand Unicorn Model(tm)” to any executive gullible enough to pay for it.  If you piled up all the wonky stuff branders have come up with to make themselves seem like a secret pseudo-scientific priesthood, you’d swear we’d moved out of the boardroom, and into a magical fantasy kingdom.

And do you know why they do this?

Because it works… (for them)

Seriously, it is very tempting for any highly specialized profession to fall back on their own secret jargon and mystic shop-talk. It makes us feel important, smart, like part of an exclusive club. Fishburne also nails this tendency in his great “Gallery of Management Consulting” cartoon at right.

But if any profession should fight that temptation, it is brand consultants and brand managers. We are supposed to be the people that make stuff make sense, not the ones who complicate things.

We should be asking the one big question that should cut through all mystical mumbo jumbo:

Does this work for real people?

Practical brand strategy has to help real people make real decisions. It has to help brand customers find the stuff they need, and to do that, it needs to help brand managers make consistent “on-brand” decisions.

Fishburne gives a great example of practical (non-unicorny) brand strategy from his own experience at General Mills:

Cheerios stands for “nurturing” at its essence, which extends from the toddler first finger food moment to its cholesterol-lowering whole grain.  So, a free children’s book tucked in the cereal box would be on brand, but a $10 Dominoes pizza coupon would not.

Simple, useful, practical. The way it ought to be.

A brand architecture is most valuable when its easily understood by everyone on the extended brand team.  My friend Matthew said that they should pass the “IT guy test”, meaning that the IT guy should be able to understand the brand from reading it.

Here’s the pointy bit, little unicorn

But brand owners, if you believe this is true, you have to stop  paying for those happy-clappy, self-perpetuating brand exercises that make people feel good, but don’t deliver real results. Otherwise, we’re going to keep seeing more brand butterflies, brand unicorns, brand angels, brand gargoyles, and worse.

So go ahead and believe in unicorns. But in the meantime, a horse will get you there faster.

3 thoughts on “Butterflies! Unicorns! Brand Strategy!”

  1. Once again Dennis, you have your teeth on the bone. I do, indeed, have my own model that uses a metaphor (although not a unicorn). I developed it because I found that clients had difficulty envisioning what they were paying me to do for them. The model helps them get their arms around the notion of a brand strategy and, as you so importantly point out, what they will do with it in their enterprise.

    Strategy isn’t worth two wits if you can’t act on it.

    Love your blog, man. Keep it up.

    1. Thanks Aaron. I too have used my own versions of the “Unicorn Model”. We’re branders, so naming our special sauce methods with clever mnemonics is just how we roll. But as you picked up, the point is to not get trapped in the model, but instead to focus on the goal. Which is? Always this: Helping humans!

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