What should your brand sacrifice?

In branding, what you give up can become your strongest asset.

This article was written by Zak Menkel, Doubleknot’s Director of Strategy & Copywriting. (Photo Credit: @cottonbro)

When I’m working on brand strategy, the first red flag is when it feels easy. The writing flows, the presentation is greeted with smiles, feedback is minimal. It doesn’t mean that it isn’t true, or that it doesn’t hold together as a logical framework. But it’s an almost surefire indicator that it’s too watered down, too safe, or not fully honest. It’s shied away from the hard choices that would make it truly meaningful for the brand and impactful for the consumer. Give me the painful rounds of editing, the looks of discomfort. That’s how I know we have something that might actually break through the noise.

Look at the choices you make as a brand. If it wouldn’t be possible for someone to make the opposite choice and still have a viable path to success, then it’s not a strategy; it’s common sense.

“The essence of strategy is sacrifice.” — David Ogilvy

The job of your brand strategy is to identify what’s singularly valuable about your organization or your product and empower you to leverage that distinction to achieve specific goals. It should make hard the hard choices that will make other choices easier. Marketers and creative agencies get accused of pushing bold moves over “safer” options, or “wanting every brand to be Apple or Nike.” The truth is, we kinda do, and it’s kinda our job. It’s not (only) because they’re more fun, and it’s not because we’re blind to the risks and realities. It’s because we know consumers. Consumers crave simplicity and clarity, and — now more than ever, they (we) want to know what you stand for. They will make purchasing decisions based on your values and your character as much as your product and benefits.

Being loved by some is more valuable than being liked by many.

We’re in the midst of a moment of massive cultural and economic disruption. Consumer behavior is shifting at an unprecedented pace, and this means brands have an opportunity to take big swings. But that doesn’t mean swinging at every pitch. A good strategy defines both what you do and what you don’t do — it closes some doors in order to open others wider.

People want brands that are “all in.”

Brands are understandably risk averse. The bigger and more established they are, the more wary they become of wading into anything that could be seen as divisive, or political, or too edgy. The desire to be all things to all people becomes almost irresistible. After all, they have big money on the line, and since when is alienating customers a good growth strategy? But in branding today, neutrality is in itself a statement. It won’t necessarily keep you out of the political/cultural fray… it just means you don’t get to enter it on your own terms. Neutrality is also bland (sorry Switzerland). A beige wall may be inoffensive, but it won’t make anyone smile.

Staying silent is in itself a statement, and the bigger your platform, the louder that statement rings.

There have been a lot of very public examples of brand sacrifices recently, almost all of which fall into the “Corporate Social Responsibility” category — brands giving something up (generally profit) in order to do more good or less harm. CVS stops selling tobacco. Tesla refuses to enforce its patents. Other brands sacrifice by taking a political stand. Nike making Colin Kapernick the face of their brand. Patogonia condemning the president on their homepage.

There are two important things to note when looking at decisions like these:

  1. These grand gestures are the end result of strategic decisions that were made way upstream. Because CVS decided health and wellness was at the core of their brand, ditching cigarettes was a no-brainer. Because Tesla began with the purpose of reducing carbon emissions, it made sense to share knowledge (and it positions them as a leader instead of a trend chaser). They made the hard choices early, which made these “bold” moves not only authentic, but logical.
  2. While what we see is the cost (people burning Nikes, conservatives boycotting Patagonia), these brands have reaped tangible rewards from their sacrifices, in terms of awareness, loyalty, and profit.

This is not to say that every brand needs to be Nike, or Patagonia, or Tesla. Sacrifice can be as simple as a wine brand eschewing the traditional conventions of label design, an automaker focusing on comfort over performance, a financial firm focusing on happiness instead of rate-of-return. You can embrace qualities like inclusivity, approachability, restraint, humility; you just have to really stand for them. That means making conscious choices about what you will and won’t do, based on a strategic vision and a clear understanding of why your audience values you.

Whatever you say about yourself will be filtered through public opinion and watered down by the massive amount of marketing white noise we’re all exposed to. Your branding needs to exaggerate your positions, your values, your personality — not in a deceptive way, but by representing the truest, best and most specific version of your organization.

In that sense, sacrifice is also liberating. It’s like purging your closet of all the clothes you don’t wear or don’t quite fit. Sure it hurts to let go of that leather jacket you used to love, or that designer dress you got such a good deal on. Sure, it gives you fewer choices. But doesn’t it feel good to know that every time you get dressed, you’ll be putting on clothes you love?

Where to start

Sometimes, defining who you are not is the first step towards understanding who you are as a brand.

  • What consumers would be better off with a different product? Does the incremental revenue you gain by trying to include them water down the message you send to your core consumers?
  • What could we do that would make our core consumer angry? Knowing what they stand against is a strong clue to what they are passionate about (and what you can really lean into).
  • Which value propositions are NOT differentiating us? Building a brand around “table stakes” benefits is like marketing a car with four tires or a wine that tastes good. Box-checker attributes belong in a feature list, but not in your top level messaging — even if they’re really good.
  • Which value propositions do our competitors already own? No one is trying to be a safer car brand than Volvo. Unless we can take that territory away from them, we need to own a different lane.
  • How is our personality different from our competitors? It’s not just what you say, it’s how you say it. Strong brands use their voice and personality as a signal to encourage consumers to see their choice as apples-to-oranges rather than apples-to-apples. (When people choose Mac vs. PC, it’s not really about processor power or battery life after all.)
  • Which marketing channels should we ditch? Are you spending money in channels just because you feel like you should have a presence there? You’ll probably see a better return by abandoning them and reinvesting that money into the channels that are more valuable to your core audience. “360-degree marketing” is not a strategy — it’s what you do when you don’t have a strategy.

Sacrifice is uncomfortable. People may resent or even boycott a brand they see as counter to their values. But, the brand they will passionately align themselves with is the one that stands for something, the one that’s true to its character even when it’s uncomfortable — not the one sitting on the sidelines.

When brands don’t express their values, they are implying that what they really value is profit. When brands don’t have an authentic personality, it’s hard to see them as more than providers of a commodity. Being truly committed to your customers means showing them that you care about what they care about, and that you are willing to fight for them if necessary. Showing a consumer that you are willing to sacrifice for them tells them that they are worth sacrificing for.