Strategy, luxury or neccesity?

Strategy – a word we throw around these days. A word that has come to mean a bunch of different things. Misunderstanding strategy’s value to our process often contributes to an assumption that it’s a luxury. We view it as a necessary tool that helps underpin many of the most fundamental choices we make with our clients.

What is it and what do we do with it?

Richard Rumelt, author of “Good Strategy Bad Strategy: The Difference and Why it Matters”, has a pretty straightforward definition:

“Strategy is problem-solving,” he says. “It is how you overcome the obstacles that stand between where you are and what you want to achieve.”

Through the lens of brand development, for example, we could define strategy as the continued development of specific principles to keep a brand consistent, memorable and distinct over time. Ultimately we are attempting to ensure that a brand exists front-of-mind when prospects are thinking about purchasing.

Brand strategy also helps align internal teams, determine a customer’s experiences with a company and inform decision-making in terms of product development, marketing and communication. All those things are massively beneficial to any organisation: internal alignment, positive cultural development, structured decision-making and consistent communications with customers.

But, there are still misunderstandings about the value of strategy. If you have self-diagnosed a specific problem, its symptoms and its cure, perhaps you’ll see strategy as a wasted investment. Perhaps you just want to get going. From experience, those that favour speed over rigour, or favour assumption above the knowledge and insight gained from diagnosis and research, often fail to achieve their stated goals.

Strategy should influence every last inch of brand development, offering purpose, clarity and the opportunity for consistency both internally and externally. It keeps the dial pointing towards the things that really matter: the connection between the brand and the customer.

So, before we dive into the benefits, here’s a somewhat simplified overview of the steps we take:

1. Diagnose to identify of the key challenge
2. Establish what actually matters so we can simplify it as much as possible
3. Determine a way to overcome the identified challenge
4. Articulate the tactics in a way that stimulates collaboration
5. Execute and deliver a plan of action

Strategy helps to solve the right problem

In our experience, designers care most about solving problems and, in our field of work, those problems are typically problems, or challenges, of communication. These problems and challenges can only be solved once they are defined. Sadly, it’s not uncommon to brief a design agency superficially, and sometimes that means not identifying the true or underlying problem. This is the first error (see point one above).

So, strategists spend time researching the problem, trying to define it, understand it, frame it and begin to see how it can be solved. This research and the insights drawn from it form the backbone of a good creative brief. Without this rigour, we’re putting most of our eggs into a basket labelled ‘assumptions’ and keeping our fingers crossed (see point two above).

In fact, without the strategy, a clear problem articulated and the clear journey we’ll take to overcome the obstacles, the communication design process becomes somewhat untenable. We may be able to produce something that looks nice, but will it serve to solve the problem or overcome the challenge? Design on a surface level very rarely provides any significant commercial return (see points three, four and five).

Strategy creates an environment to support objective criticism

Subjectivity is going to help derail your project. Objectivity, on the other hand, will keep it very much on the right track. Determining what the problem is, creating a hypothesis on how we can solve that problem, and then measuring the solution provides everyone involved with a clear set of objectives. We can simply ask ourselves, “How is what we are doing helping to solve the problem we’ve identified?”. We can, on this basis, determine how we should feedback, what, when, and to whom.

Typically, the audience we are solving for is not involved in the approval process. So having some objective measures allows us to look at the solution from their perspective rather than our own.

Objective and constructive criticism also allows each working group member to remain the authority in their specific area. If briefed well, strategists can apply their craft to defining the audience we need to care about, how we can connect with them and begin the process of gathering information and creating insight into solving the problem. If briefed well, designers can apply their craft to the layout and placement of subject matter, becoming the arbiter of logo size, type scale, image selection etc.

This doesn’t mean subjectivity is outlawed altogether. But, when we balance the needs of our audience with the needs of the business and our own preferences, we should be able to clearly see where we should focus – audience and business should triumph over personal preference. Ultimately we’re looking to reduce ambiguity, provide clear criteria for measurement and ensure that subjectivity is not allowed to deter us from solving the problem.

Strategy presents opportunities to reveal culture, vision and purpose

The process of determining a substantive strategy for any brand, new or existing, involves articulating a set of deeply held beliefs. A stance that a business takes on its reasons for being, for doing what they do. Of course, this stance will have some financial purpose, but more often than not, there is an important cultural purpose too. It’s the cultural purpose, or connection, that creates audiences of advocates, willing to recommend the brand to family, friends, colleagues etc.

Identifying these cultural connections is in the realm of strategy because strategy helps us to continually reference both our brand and our audience. Once identified, these connections can be communicated with clarity and consistency. Without them, we don’t see what the brand stands for, what differentiates and makes it distinct from its competitors and, ultimately, we create no compelling case for interaction whether financial or cultural.

Within communications, consistency and clarity are both vitally important. Brands succeed when they are distinctive and memorable in the build-up to purchase. To create this sense of memorability, it’s necessary to push messages that reiterate culture, purpose and mission consistently. Messages which positively affect the perceptions of the brand on the associations that matter.

Our output is strategy made visible

There’s an argument that strategy and tactics are divisible, that strategy and execution are not a part of the same process. This argument is a mistake. There is a fundamental connection between the two. Whilst strategy attempts to change the future by creating a blueprint for actions, tactics are the performance of those actions to arrive at the change the strategy has imagined.

So, in order to affect change, and increase visibility, memorability, and salience, design must work in lock-step with strategy. And, in some ways, this means that the “work” is never completed. Everything becomes part of an iterative cycle that consistently looks to improve the possibilities of arriving at the future or affecting the change the strategy has imagined.

The “output”, be it a message, a logo, or a digital experience, is a tactical expression of the strategy’s attempt to solve the right problem. Encouraging a change in behaviour that was planned through specific actions. Not by happenstance.

Output without strategy is chaos made visible.

No direction, not answering the right challenge. Not providing any objective criteria for criticism or measurement. Maybe communicating culture? If it works, it’s more likely to be a result of luck. And, if it doesn’t work? Well, it’s an unnecessarily expensive, frustrating and failed experiment.

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