Sound strategy means you can’t be everything to everyone

One of the toughest aspects of working with a client team to develop their brand strategy is to help them create focus by defining clear boundaries for their brand. Deciding what a brand is – and importantly, what it is not – going to stand for is a tough conversation, because often times it makes teams uncomfortable to feel they are leaving any perceived opportunity (a customer segment, a brand extension) untapped. But saying no is a critical component to any sound strategy.

A quote I have used for years is from Michael Porter: “Strategy is about making choices, trade-offs; it’s about deliberately choosing to be different.” At first blush, this seems easy. But in practice, it never is. And being unable to make those tough choices leaves brands and organizations spinning, constantly debating what initiatives to prioritize.

I’ve never pulled out that quote more than when I was working for a retailer leading up to the days of a Chapter 11 filing. Strategic planning was a struggle, because in the midst of trying to stay afloat, it was hard for leaders to say no to anything: what they did last year, what their competitors were doing, what shiny new technology was being pitched to them as the saving grace of the business. But the company was in the position it was in because for years they hadn’t really made the tough choice on who they were targeting, what they were offering, and how they were different. So they weren’t different, and they were going under because of it.

Recognizing that a brand has many stakeholders within the organization, the strategy must be developed with cross-functional input. I find it productive to engage the business leads, product developers, marketers, and operational functions in the strategy discussions for two reasons. First, it brings to the table the many perspectives, considerations, and questions to help weigh options about what to say yes and what to say no to. Having clear delineation of a brand’s guardrails then makes executional decisions very simple, freeing the business to focus on operational excellence rather than revisiting strategy at every turn. Second, bringing a larger team through the strategy development creates brands stewards in an organization. They understand fully why certain decisions were made, and can explain and advocate for the strategy to their respective teams. Most importantly, the organization must be fully bought in and aligned on their strategic focus areas – and what they are agreeing to walk away from.