At Reforge, we see brand marketing as a wheel of four components: brand strategy, brand identity, brand governance, and brand distribution.
In this guide, we’ll focus on the first by determining how to develop a brand strategy. Specifically, we’ll walk through:
- What is a Brand Strategy?
- The Who, What, Why Framework of Brand Strategy
- Tools to Codify Brand Strategy
- The Complete Brand Strategy Framework
And we’ll weave a number of brand strategy examples from companies such as NerdWallet, Drift, and Abercrombie & Fitch.
What is a Brand Strategy?
Brand strategy is the art and science of identifying what your product or company stands for, who the brand best serves, why the company is motivated to deliver what it’s offering, and how the brand should be brought to life.
A brand strategy should:
- outline who the brand best serves
- why the company is motivated to deliver what it’s offering
- how the brand should be brought to life
Brand strategy should pinpoint all three pieces to be effective. Tech companies, however, tend to employ brand strategies with missteps in one or more of these areas. To avoid this common mistake, let’s break down the who, the why, and the how.
The Who, What, Why Framework of Brand Strategy
Let’s start with who the brand best serves. The focus should always be the target audience, but at the highest level. To do this successfully, it’s important to understand what attracts people to a category and what their journey has been like thus far.
Brand Strategy Example 1: Grove Collaborative
To illustrate this, let’s look at an example from Grove Collaborative. When Grove really zoned in on their “who,” it catalyzed their rebrand from ePantry.
Back when they were ePantry, they believed they best served busy, urban professionals in need of an efficient and convenient way to keep their homes stocked with basic necessities. Over time, it became clear that they best serve homemakers instead.
This audience deeply cares about the environment, but also wants to create a home they can be proud of—a home where things are clean, and kids and pets can play without worrying about toxic chemicals or smells. Using high-quality natural products is both how they get the job done and a reward for a job well done.
Next, let’s look at the why. When we refer to the “why” for a brand, we’re zeroing in on the necessity for a company to exist from the point of view of the company itself. This distinct stance on why their offering will solve a problem or set of problems is a key component to emotionally connecting with the target audience.
Tech companies often get their positioning wrong when they don't clearly express their brand's purpose in the world, but instead over-emphasize what they bring to market.
For instance, before ePantry rebranded to become Grove, the company put the spotlight on what it sold: eco-friendly products that could be delivered to your doorstep. Although this was a unique value proposition, it didn’t strongly position the company’s why.
They envisioned a world where consumers would never again have to choose between a clean home and a clean planet. This became their “why,” and with this refocus came their rebrand into Grove Collaborative.
Shifting from a functional ‘what’ to a purpose-driven 'why' gave Grove permission to re-think how they should talk about themselves as a brand. Ultimately, they moved beyond the products and brands they sold and the convenience of buying online, choosing instead to talk about home, those that live there, sustainability, and eventually, the environmental impact of the e-commerce industry.
When companies fail to convey their “why” as a brand, they find themselves planted in a space as a company, but undefined as a brand. Companies can survive without an undefined brand when competition is limited.
But when more players crowd the field and alternatives become available, customers look for a way to sift through the noise to make a purchase decision. The “why” of a brand becomes that beacon. As Martina Tam, COO at Brightwheel, says, “The ‘why' is powerful in elevating the connection with your brand above the product features and benefits.”
Brand Strategy Example 2: Drift
For this let’s consider Drift, a B2B marketing technology company.
When Drift was founded, many B2B companies gated their content, requiring potential customers to provide their contact information through lead forms. In a world full of impersonal lead forms from its competitors, Drift decided to take the stance that human interaction is the most important part of sales.
Through a suite of marketing and sales tools, Drift offered companies a product that enabled real-time, personalized conversations with their customers.
And even though conversational marketing is not easily scalable, Drift made humanizing customer interactions in order to significantly enhance the customer experience the crux of their “why.”
So when the landscape for marketing technology accumulated thousands of players, Drift's unique point of view helped them stand out. In fact, Drift campaigned with anti-lead form messaging to shift public perception, driving potential customers to their ungated content.
This opened the door for more conversations, leading to more trust, more sales, and more customers who initiated even more conversations, producing a loop powered by brand. This allowed Drift to become the world leader in conversational marketing.
Once a company has their “who” and “why” solidified, they can decide how to bring the brand to life. The approach companies adopt should be directly related to both the brand's “why” and the primary touchpoints the brand has with its target customer, both current and future.
Back to our Grove example, as they started building around its new “why,” how the company brought its brand to life shifted in a few important ways.
- First, homemakers needed to be prominently represented in marketing. This led to a major push towards influencer marketing, where influencers who were actual customers would talk about the products, and Grove, on their platforms.
- Second, Grove needed product selection to be more relevant to the entire home, and everyone who lives there. This gave them permission to expand into personal care, beauty, kids products, and pets.
- Third, the internal strategy for physical products shifted to focus more on safety and sustainability. This was crucial, since products are Grove’s primary interface with customers, and there were few household products in the market that were both effective and sustainable. So Grove needed to offer consumers options that met both criteria.
Tech companies commonly see their “how” fall apart when the product or feature doesn’t actually deliver on what the company promised to solve, disconnecting the brand’s “why” from how the brand is brought to life.
Brand Strategy Example 3: HubSpot
Consider HubSpot. They wanted to put the decision-making power back into the hands of consumers by promising to make marketing friendly and empathetic through inbound approaches. Their “why” countered aggressive advertising tactics that were popular in the early 2000s.
However, when HubSpot was building sales software for the first time, they looked to beta users and customers, learning they wanted a way to quickly get through calls. In response, HubSpot built an auto-dialer feature that teed up phone numbers to enable reps to quickly call customers.
Sales reps loved this new feature, but it actually undermined HubSpot’s brand “why” by reducing customers to a number in a queue, instead of treating them with humanity and care. To remain true to their “why,” Hubspot revisited their “how” and rolled back this feature.
With the who, what, why framework of brand strategy covered, let’s move towards the tools we can use to help along the way.
Tools to Codify Brand Strategy
As the steward of the brand, it is the marketing leader’s responsibility to codify their company’s brand into a brand strategy that can be scaled.
John says, “This means marketing leaders serve to ensure key voices are incorporated, that the brand resonates with target audiences, and new consumers are attracted and retained.”
To help you do this successfully, we’ll be introducing two important tools: the brand strategy grid and the listening tour.
Tool 1: Brand Strategy Grid
Let’s start with the brand strategy grid. There are a number of frameworks that companies use to organize their brand strategy. You’ve probably heard names like house, pyramid, canvas, and others.
While the names and layouts of these frameworks vary, the importance of each is that they bring together the core elements needed to build strong brands.
We’ve developed the Reforge Brand Strategy Grid to articulate an approach to brand strategy that puts people over products. This framework brings together 12 components that will have customers authentically believing in and reaching for your brand.
For Reforge members, login to your account to access our ready-to-go template on Brand Strategy Grid which we use to articulate an approach to brand strategy that puts people over products. This framework brings together 12 components that will have customers authentically believing in and reaching for your brand.
Not a member? Apply today or follow along and build your own as you go! We’ll walk through each component individually and illustrate how the brand strategy grid applies to NerdWallet, a personal finance company now generating over $180 million in annual revenue with more than 20 million monthly users.
The brand grid is broken into three parts.
- The first part is for inputs that fuel the brand, including your company’s mission, vision, and core values. These are set at the company level, before brand development begins.
- Once those have been established, brand development can begin. This consists of the foundational and narrative elements necessary for authoring a compelling brand story.
- The brand development process then shapes the outputs, or the tangible pieces of a brand that will be disseminated at the company level: brand personality and messaging pillars.
Let's delve further into the inputs of brand strategy: the mission, vision, and values. Like we mentioned, these come from your company strategy and are set at a company level before brand development begins.
Brand Strategy Example 4: NerdWallet
A company’s mission is an actionable statement that conveys why an organization exists. The mission statement allows leaders to define a coherent set of goals that the broader company works toward. Your mission states the core offering of your company, so it should be the number one thing that your brand actually does and does well.
For example, the mission of NerdWallet is to provide the tools, information, and insight people need to navigate all of life's financial decisions.
A company’s vision, on the other hand, is what the company aspires to achieve or become in the future. John Russ from Coinbase likes to say, “the vision represents how the world will change in 10 years if a company is successful.”
Your vision should be compelling and inspiring. In the best-case scenario, it’s category, or even world, changing. The vision should help people understand the journey your company is on. If you can pinpoint the thing that you exist to do in the world, and the world that you want to see when you’ve changed it, you’re well on your way to zeroing in on the specific group of people you're there to serve.
NerdWallet’s vision is a world where everyone is able to make financial decisions with confidence.
Finally, a company’s values define what the organization believes in and how people in the organization are expected to behave. They provide a compass that guides decision-making and establishes a standard for assessing actions. A marketing leader would not develop these independently, but might partner with leadership to define these. In some cases, leadership will have already defined them.
In NerdWallet’s case, the company established five core values.
- Consumer, Company, Team, Self: It’s a consumer-centric company that believes in the power of teamwork and leaning on each other to succeed.
- Relentless Self-Improvement: Internally, that means employees take responsibility for bettering themselves every day. As an extension, so do their customers with new financial knowledge and goal-setting.
- Open, Candid, and Constructive: This means that everyone is an active participant in each interaction, and feedback is shared and received gracefully.
- Informed Risk-Taking: A focus on setting actionable goals that challenge the status quo.
- Ownership: This is where every individual is responsible for asking themselves what they can do to improve results.
Once these three key inputs are solidified, you can move on to the second section of the grid: brand development.
This can be broken down into two subsections: foundational elements and narrative elements. Brand development brings the “who,” “why,” and “how” together with your brand story. We’ll use NerdWallet’s journey to illustrate each component for a clearer view of how this is done successfully.
When developing a brand, you need to establish a foundation rooted in your target audience or niche, and the reasons why you have a right to win with that group.
As previously mentioned, the audience or niche encompasses the individuals for whom your product or service provides value, but at the broadest level. You should know enough details about your audience or niche to understand what attracts people to your category.
A few key questions to ask yourself are:
- What type of people need or care about what my company offers?
- What is the problem they are facing that we as a company are trying to solve?
John says, "It's better to start by thinking about a problem and working toward a solution, than starting with a solution and trying to prescribe a problem."
Looking again at NerdWallet, the team identified their audience as individuals seeking to make informed decisions. Rather than taking a lax approach to money management, these folks aim to make calculated and strategic moves rooted in knowledge from trusted sources. This understanding helped NerdWallet identify the right target audience.
The right to win considers the factors customers base their decisions on. This means thinking through how to leverage your company’s offering in a way that customers care about most. John likes to characterize the right to win as the reasons consumers should believe in your product or service over other solutions to their problem.
NerdWallet earned its right to win in 3 key ways.
- First, by accumulating a robust collection of well-researched content. NerdWallet's depth of expertise across specific verticals enabled the company to produce higher-quality content than almost all other fintech providers.
- Second, by personalizing both their content and product recommendations based on prior content consumption and things customers indicated were important to them in a financial product. NerdWallet was then able to present relevant information to consumers no matter where they were in their financial journey, earning them another level of trust and credibility.
- And third, by clearly drawing a line between content and affiliate products. NerdWallet discloses its partners and affiliates, and does not lead consumers to products based on the revenue generated from those affiliates. Instead, they provide objective, expert-generated content and product selections based on what consumers want to solve in their financial journeys. This transparency generates even more credibility with an audience seeking to make informed financial decisions.
We can turn now to the narrative elements of brand development, which has five parts
- Features and attributes: Product-focused strengths, claims, differences, and offerings
- Functional benefits: What the product enables users and customers to do
- Emotional benefits: What the product enables users and customers to feel
- Brand promise: What the brand commits to deliver to its customers every time
- Positioning statement: The company’s statement of differentiation.
We’ve summarized these for NerdWallet in the visual below.
NerdWallet actually ended with positioning statements for each of those three buckets: expertise, quality, and ease of use.
The third part of the brand strategy grid is the outputs to brand strategy, which will become the basis of your brand identity and go on to shape the tangible assets of your brand for the entire company.
The first output is brand personality. If your brand were a person, this is how it would look, act, and speak. Codifying brand personality traits help ensure that you’re consistent in the way you communicate with the world.
NerdWallet, for example, strives to be knowledgeable, honest, and relatable, like a “nerdy” friend you would turn to for trustworthy financial advice.
Your messaging pillars, meanwhile, are a set of key messages that represent your brand by reflecting your core values, value propositions, and points of differentiation. These pillars should help your brand resonate with your target audience.
For NerdWallet, their three pillars were similar to: simplified financial decisions, objective financial guidance, and save customers time and money.
Next, marketing teams should consider brand strategy as an iterative process requiring cycles of research to gather input and validation from key stakeholders. We like to call this research a listening tour.
Tool 2: Brand Listening Tour
Listening tour is where you take the time to consult four key groups of internal and external sources and gather their insights.
The sources include your
- executive leadership team
- existing and potential customers or users
- product team
- customer-facing teams, including sales, customer support and service, and possibly other marketing teams like events teams
Each of these stakeholder groups impacts each component of brand strategy.
These diverse insights should catalyze more in-depth conversations that will ultimately help you converge on brand components that are authentic and consistent across the company.
We’ll start with the inputs to brand strategy: mission, vision, and values. Since mission, vision, and values serve as important components of company strategy, executive leaders are usually the owners of these topics.
Because the CEO or company founders likely had a heavy hand in authoring these, you’ll want to hear what they have to say about how you’ve interpreted these as inputs to brand strategy.
Executives are often seen as spokespeople for your organization: every time they talk publicly, they serve as a voice of the company and a reflection of the brand. So it’s critical for them to be on the same page about the inputs to brand strategy.
To highlight this, consider the apparel retailer, Abercrombie & Fitch.
Brand Strategy Example 5: Abercrombie & Fitch
In recent years, Abercrombie & Fitch’s brand has gone through a transformation, with an active movement toward inclusion. To embrace these values, Abercrombie & Fitch runs ad campaigns featuring diverse models and offers expanded size options for their clothing.
Unfortunately, this wasn’t always the case.
Back in 2006, the company’s then-CEO was quoted saying he “only marketed to thin and good-looking people” in an attempt to justify his decision not to make clothing for diverse body types. If the former CEO had made these comments today, it would call into question the ethos of the current brand because these verbatims run counter to the values the company is now putting forth.
Being on the same page with leaders about your mission, vision, and values helps ensure brand authenticity and consistency.
Another way to pressure-test the inputs to brand strategy is by connecting with other employees to get their view on how these topics show up across the organization.
For example, you may find that your company’s values have a strong presence across upper management, but as you make your way down the chain of command they may become weaker.
This can become a source for brand inconsistency, because employees further down the chain of command can still influence how customers or the public perceive your brand, whether through customer interactions, word of mouth, or posts on social media and company review websites.
Brand Strategy Example 6: Away Travel
Consider Away Travel, the luggage startup. Beyond suitcases, the company sold a vision of freedom, adventure, and inclusion.
Employees, on the other hand, described the culture as cutthroat and toxic. In 2019, Away became embroiled in scandal after internal email and Slack communications were leaked. Leadership changes ensued and the company’s brand took a significant hit.
How the Listening Tour Leads to Brand Development
Let’s now move on to the brand development part of brand strategy and find out where our listening tour takes us next. Starting with the foundational elements, two stakeholder groups should validate your target audience and your right to win: customers or users and the product team.
Customers or Users
Consulting with current users or customers will unlock key insight into who falls into your true core audience. Sometimes we think we’re best suited to serve one audience, when customer interviews reveal it’s actually a different audience that’s best served. We saw this in Grove’s case: they originally thought they were serving urban professionals, when they were really serving eco-conscious homemakers.
Users can also clue us into the strength of our right to win by revealing what aspects of a product are required to garner their business.
That said, there may be some things that are not apparent to customers or users, such as technical advantages or other behind-the-scenes aspects of a product. This is when you want to pull in the product team to round out your understanding of what about the product gives you the right to win.
Working with the product team will help marketers confirm your product’s features and attributes, and even discuss how well those features and attributes solve specific customer problems. With that information, you can better identify the functional benefits your product will create for users.
You’ll also want to continue connecting with your customers or users to vet the components of brand strategy that are associated with the “why” of your brand, because it’s the key to emotionally connecting with them.
Ask questions to your customers and users around how they perceive the functional and emotional benefits of your product. For example, asking the tough questions around what their biggest frustrations are and what solutions are no longer working for them can unlock honest answers that will help you solve their pain points in a way that demonstrates you truly care.
You may even learn things that influence future product roadmaps. At minimum, you’ll be able to gauge how customers or users perceive your product, and specifically if they recognize all the features and attributes you bring to the table. This will clue you into how well your product puts forth a compelling “why” for your brand.
Let’s round out brand development by returning to the brand promise and positioning statements. To create the brand promise and positioning statements, the marketing leader is tasked with synthesizing all the different inputs they’ve taken in over the course of working on the brand strategy. Therefore, the marketing leader themself is the key stakeholder here. However, it’s still a good idea during later cycles of the iterative process to surface these components of brand strategy internally with leaders, product, and other teams for validation.
Finally, we look to the outputs of brand strategy: the brand personality and messaging pillars. Since both of these components are external-facing, the listening tour leans on the insights from customer-facing teams like sales, marketing, and customer service or support to gauge what the organization is doing today.
By the same token, these colleagues sit at the frontlines of the customer experience. To ensure the customer experience matches the brand, it is important to align with and train these teams on the decided-upon brand personality and messaging.
The outputs to brand strategy also need to be durable enough to speak to the future, not just corroborate what’s going on today. Having intentional conversations with executive leadership around their vision and dream for the company’s future can and should impact the brand strategy’s build out.
We’ve now walked through the four core audiences that you should interface with when developing your brand strategy: executive leadership, customers or users, the product team, and customer-facing teams. We’ve also discussed how each stakeholder can inform each component of your brand strategy and how these conversations will provide you with the necessary inputs to complete your brand strategy grid.
You can think of this process as iterative and hypothesis-driven. It’s more than okay to return to stakeholders for further validation as you’re getting into the weeds of each component. In fact, creating a culture where periodic conversations around brand are the norm leads to a better version of your brand strategy with each cycle. It ensures that your brand strategy reflects the true reality of your organization and, therefore, better resonates with your audience.
The Complete Brand Strategy Framework
It should be clear now that brand strategy fuels the rest of brand marketing, which we detail in our complete Marketing Strategy program. It is the central node for brand marketing and powers the three spokes of the wheel. It informs brand identity so you develop a look and feel that is consistent with the direction the company is heading in. It determines how brand should be distributed. And it offers direction on where brand governance will be needed.
But not investing in a strong brand strategy has even deeper ramifications than just undermining your brand marketing endeavors.
It also affects the other domains of marketing: product and growth marketing. Brand strategy is foundational to product marketing and provides guardrails for growth marketing, ensuring ads are consistent with the brand. Without a strong brand strategy, you put your entire multi-domain strategy at risk.
Fortunately, we’ve just walked through the brand strategy grid and listening tour that you can use to develop your own brand strategy.
Want to continue building your brand strategy from here? Apply to Reforge today to unlock our complete program and resources on brand marketing.
We’ve developed the Reforge Brand Strategy Grid to articulate an approach to brand strategy that puts people over products. This framework will have customers authentically believing in and reaching for your brand. Through the Listening Tour, brand strategy uses an iterative process to perform cycles of research that gather insights and validation from four key stakeholders groups.