Brand Planning: the bridge from strategy to action

If you’re a marketeer in one of the many businesses, who, courtesy of HMRC, are approaching your year end at the end of March, you’re now thinking about brand planning. Brand planning is a vital building block of all business as well as marketing, but it is often treated as something that ‘just happens’, for which common sense alone is good enough to do an adequate job, and gets steered by finance or strategy.

Unless marketeers apply greater rigour and ownership to the discipline of planning, we will limit our ability to deliver the primary aim of brand building companies, to positive impact target customers to effect successful change. And if we can’t do this, we won’t be taken seriously by others in the business.

As it is, sadly, most brand plans don’t get implemented. Why?

Confusing tactics with strategy. Getting excited by and jumping straight to the things you want to do. “Strategy” is an amplifying word, added to other terms to give them a sense of greater importance. Planning embraces three phases, each with a specific goal, sequentially linked and each distinct.

  1. Diagnosis: understanding the situation the brand (or company) is in, and why.
  2. Decide: working out how do we deal with the situation we face. Where do we want to be? What are the options for getting there cognisant of our competitive situation? This is the strategy.
  3. Do: the plans or tactics. Working out what the few, high impact, activities are that we need to execute in order to achieve our strategy. Being clear on what the distractions are.

Getting the diagnosis wrong based on the situational analysis, likely caused by data gaps, overbearing opinions or underplaying owned strengths of the brand or a competitor

Derailed process due to misalignment. Mid-way through the process an intervention from a senior leader questions the work so far, losing momentum and bursting the precious bubble of confidence that had been created.

Choosing the wrong competitive strategy e.g. not leveraging a real strength or perhaps taking on a competitor in the wrong way.

Failing to unite, align or enthuse key stakeholders involved in signing off or implementing.

In response to these issues, we have developed ‘Hourglass’ brand planning, reflecting the shape of the process planning needs to follow. Starting broad, narrow at the centre when focusing on the needs of the customer and the business and then flowing out again to the actions.

Hourglass planning is built off a small number of critical foundations, themselves rooted in the insight that cause planning to trip up:

  • Start by going broad in analysis; not just in terms of the content and approach to gathering data and making sense of it, but also in listening to the perspectives, opinions or strongly held views of key stakeholders in the process.
  • Make sense and choose what’s important. There are lots of tools available to aid with situational analysis but what’s missed is the human act of sensemaking and choice. You don’t want to end up with a very comprehensive but utterly useless synthesis of the current state. It’s what you choose to pull out and take action on that’s important. You’re looking for company or brand strengths that are distinctive, defensible, ownable, leverageable or competitor weakness that are the same. Boil it all down. Focus on the few enablers and blockers of growth because these will be at the heart of your action plan.
  • Be clear on who you’re competing for and evaluate and test everything through their lens.
  • Ensure you have long term foundations in place. Purpose, mission, vision are not interchangeable. You need to know the role of each and how it helps you make clear decisions that more often than not, are right.
  • small number of action platforms that flow directly out of the diagnosis. If you can’t see the insight threads from the diagnosis at the top of the process to the actions at the end, then your plan is likely misdirected and you’ll struggle to get buy in and engagement.
  • Brand activities that deliver against the essentials: we have yet to see an effective brand plan that does not deal with three themes: the brand’s ‘mental availability’, its ‘physical availability’ and bridge between the two, trial & repeat. The 4P’s fit here.
  • Great brand plans sacrifice. Don’t confuse this with prioritisation. Too often, prioritisation is a pretence that some things are more important but, through sleight of hand, we can still do everything. You can’t. Kill stuff properly and just focus on what’s really important.

Our experience in brand planning is built from both client side and agency experience. If we can help you with your planning challenge, get in touch.

David Preston is founder of The Crow Flies, a research, strategy and innovation company that helps brands find a direct route to long lasting success.  david@thecrowflies.co.uk; +44 (0) 1283 246260; www.thecrowflies.co.uk; @crowflieshigh. © The Crow Flies, 2022