Is brand strategy restricted to Marketing in your company? If so, you’re missing a powerful tool for driving growth.
Some companies consider brand strategy to be a marketing exercise, but this dramatically limits its power. Brand strategy is an essential tool of business strategy: it is an exercise in driving focus and thus growth for the business.
Business Strategy = Business Advantage
We all operate according to the maxim “strategy is scarcity’s child.” It’s impossible to be all things to all people. You don’t have unlimited resources, so you must choose one path, to the exclusion of all others. But how do you know which path?
Recall Jack Welch’s take: “The first step of making strategy real is figuring out the big ‘aha’ to gain sustainable competitive advantage – in other words, a significant, meaningful insight about how to win.”
So which path do we choose? We choose the path that gives us a clear and reliable advantage in the marketplace.
As an executive, your job is to grow the business. Growth is about taking your advantage and shining a spotlight on it. Advantages come in many different flavors. For example, you may have a structural advantage, as Boeing does when the U.S. government needs an influx of military aircraft. Or you may employ an operational advantage, as Starbucks does by offering only four cup sizes yet seemingly infinite permutations of drinks.
Brand Strategy = Business Advantage
The most sustainable business advantage is having a powerful brand positioning strategy. Unlike many types of advantages, brand gives you agency. It’s the only advantage that you have a significant amount of control over and that you can sustainably grow.
As with business strategy, the heart of brand strategy is identifying and building on a company’s advantage in its market. Playing to that advantage necessarily pushes resources toward some ends and away from others. This can feel daunting to leaders, who want to leave options on the table. But the power is in pinpointing and committing to the one path to sustainable growth.
A good brand positioning strategy starts by asking: Where is our advantage? What is the one thing that we’re really good at, that we own and no one else can do?
A leader’s charge is in assessing possible advantages to exploit, and then ensuring that everyone, company-wide, marches to the beat of the chosen advantage. A standout example is T-Mobile, whose unique business strategy rests on a powerful brand positioning strategy.
When John Legere took the reins in 2012, T-Mobile was last among the four major U.S. wireless carriers. He chose the advantage of being the underdog, the carrier that was willing to break out of the system of contracts and push away from (and even make fun of) the rest of the industry. He essentially chose to make lemonade out of lemons.
Hence the “Un-Carrier” strategy that brought T-Mobile back from the brink and propelled it to #3 (Sprint is now #4). The Un-Carrier brand positioning strategy is about pushing off of the industry and being everything the others are not: no contracts that box you in; flexible phone payment plans; great customer service; a rebellious tone instead of the staid personality of all the others. He could have chosen from any number of possibilities: leaning into favorable real estate, going downmarket, partnering with another vertical.
Legere chose Un-Carrier, and he truly sticks to it. T-Mobile has not gone back to the contract model. They have made their communication scrappy and rebellious (Twitter even produced a rare custom emoji to celebrate Leger’s own famous account). They’ve made everything they do – in marketing and beyond – about pushing away from the rest of the carriers.
Brand as Advantage
T-Mobile’s Un-Carrier business strategy is a brand positioning choice. Among the big four in the wireless marketplace, Legere defined T-Mobile’s positioning as different from the rest: the underdog, rebellious, flaunting the rules. He chose a space that was both valued by customers and untouchable by competitors. He carved out this distinct positioning to set T-Mobile apart in the customer’s mind from AT&T, Verizon, and Sprint.
He stuck to it, and it worked. T-Mobile pulled themselves out of last place. The brand positioning choice, rigorously chosen and faithfully deployed across the whole company – not just in marketing – propelled T-Mobile from the bottom and continues to grow their business years later.
Expanding Your Advantage
When you choose brand positioning as your business strategy, there are a number of ways to apply it with an eye toward consistent growth over time, including:
- You can deepen your advantage.
In T-Mobile’s case, they could choose to become even more “Un-Carrier.” They could use even more provocative advertising, or use even more unusual plan bundles. Think of Apple, which makes its products more beautiful, more integrated, and easier to use with each release.
- You can broaden your advantage.
In T-Mobile’s case, they could become the Un-Carrier in realms beyond wireless. Look at Nike, which applies their “victory” positioning beyond shoes to apparel and technology.
- You can stimulate demand for it.
T-Mobile could use marketing and the Four Ps to make the Un-Carrier even more appealing. Create different Price points to hit different segments sweet spots, make your product available in Places where your customers shop, Promote your product with effecting messaging and advertising, and consistently improve your Product.
Each of these are business strategies rooted in brand positioning. Any direction chosen by leadership, built into the company DNA, and played out through every aspect of the business, will reap rewards.
If brand positioning is relegated to the level of a marketing exercise in your business – if it is below the radar of the company’s leadership – you are missing a powerful instrument for success. As a leader, you’ll be well served to consider brand strategy an essential tool for growing your business with intention.