October 24, 2023
8 mins

A guide to building—and destroying—brand strategy

In a world where one wrong move can tank a company’s reputation in the public eye, here’s how to build a brand that stands the test of time.

On November 9th, 2022 all was well at Eli Lilly, a pharmaceutical company known for its production of insulin. Just one week later, the company’s stock price had plummeted 6% after one verified Tweet from @EliLillyandCo that read, “We are excited to announce insulin is free now.” The issue? Eli Lilly’s Twitter handle was actually @LillyPad. The Tweet was from a fake account.   

But why were consumers so quick to trust the fake Twitter handle? Perhaps more importantly, why would a pharmaceutical company have chosen such a casual Twitter handle in the first place? 

In today's hypercompetitive landscape, one well placed move can create a rocketship by driving customer loyalty, establishing a strong market presence, and contributing to the bottom line. But similarly, one misstep can have brutal consequences, like irreparable damage and loss of consumer trust. These outward facing steps fall under the umbrella of brand strategy, and they play a pivotal role in determining whether a company will sink, or swim. 

So, what is brand strategy, and how does it shape a brand's fate?

But first, what is brand strategy? 

Brand strategy is a comprehensive plan and long-term approach that a company or organization develops to build and manage its brand effectively. 

It involves defining the brand's purpose, values, positioning, and personality in a way that aligns with the company's objectives and resonates with its target audience. A well-crafted brand strategy aims to create a unique and memorable identity for the brand while guiding all marketing and communication efforts to maintain consistency and coherence. 

“A lot of brand strategies are trying to figure out what role a brand plays in a person’s mind. How does the brand serve a function, or a purpose, or how does it give people what they’re looking for?” said Moshe Isaacian, a senior brand strategist who’s worked on campaigns for Snap, Nike, Amazon, and HP (among others). After sitting down with him for a chat about brand strategy, we felt confident that we could develop your go-to checklist for what to do – and what not to do – when putting together a brand. 

Building a Brand: A Checklist for Success

Creating a powerful brand requires careful planning, creativity, and consistency. There are many approaches, but the following checklist is a great place to start building your brand strategy:

  • Define Your Brand Identity: Start by defining your brand's purpose, values, and mission. What do you stand for? What unique value do you bring to your customers? A clear and compelling brand identity forms the foundation of your strategy.
  • Understand Your Audience: Conduct thorough market research to understand your target audience's needs, preferences, and pain points. Tailor your brand messaging and offerings to resonate with your ideal customers.
  • Craft a Strong Visual Identity: Design a memorable logo, choose a consistent color palette, and create a visual style guide that embodies your brand's personality. Think of iconic brands like Apple and Nike, whose logos alone evoke powerful associations.
  • Develop Consistent Messaging: Consistency is key in brand strategy. Craft a concise and compelling brand message that aligns with your identity and resonates across all communication channels.
  • Create Compelling Content: Develop high-quality content that provides value to your audience. Whether it's blog posts, videos, or social media updates, your content should reflect your brand's voice and values.
  • Engage on Social Media: Leverage social media platforms to connect with your audience, share your brand story, and foster a sense of community. Wendy's witty and engaging Twitter presence is a prime example of how brands can excel on social media.
  • Provide Exceptional Customer Service: Your brand isn't just about visuals and messaging; it's also about the experiences you deliver. Exceptional customer service can turn customers into brand advocates.
  • Innovate and Evolve: Stay relevant by embracing innovation and adapting to changing market trends. Consider how brands like Netflix have evolved from a DVD rental service to a streaming giant. “It's not just like making your brand great. It's also like making sure you have the foresight to adapt,” said Isaacian. “Bringing in an outside perspective can really help with this challenge.” 
  • Implement Technology: Just as defining your brand identity and understanding your audience are fundamental, integrating technology is equally crucial to stay ahead of the competition. Consider a brand management tool, like The Harris Brand Platform, that delivers unparalleled insights into your brand, competitors, and consumers. With data on over 1,000 brands, it empowers you to make data-driven decisions and adapt your strategies in real-time, ensuring your brand strategy remains agile and successful.

⭐ Superstar Brand Strategy: We’re McLovin’ It  

Every 90s child knew to look out the window for the golden arches. Excitement brewed in their voices when they spotted the famed Ronald McDonald, asking, “Mom, can we get a McFlurry?” Since 1940, McDonald’s has continued to keep pace with its consumers, establishing itself as the creme de la creme of fast food brands. In over 80 years in business, it hasn’t come without unexpected challenges, but even with changing consumer behavior and interest, “[McDonalds] taps into what people are already interested in and shows up in the spaces that [their consumers] care about,” says Isaacian. It really is all about meeting customer’s needs, and McDonalds does that so well. For example, in response to wait times, McDonald’s mobile ordering app recently rolled out a feature that will utilize geofencing technology to alert chefs when customers are getting close to the location. 

Further, McDonalds has worked tirelessly to create an instantly recognizable image. “McDonald’s is just very memorable,” notes Isaacian, when discussing the distinctive brand. From the golden arches, to characters like Ronald McDonald and the Hamburglar, the world of McDonalds is yellow and red, lighthearted and welcoming, and immediately identifiable. This brings a sense of comfort and safety, which is of particular importance to McDonald’s target consumers: parents. 

Through a strong visual identity and listening to consumers, McDonalds has made itself a mainstay brand. Which begs the question: What are some pitfalls that might lead a brand to fall short? 

Destroying a Brand: Pitfalls and Cautionary Tales

It’s not all fun and games. 

When Dove’s body wash ad featured a black woman “turning into” a white woman, consumers were taken aback. “It completely missed the mark and is tone deaf about what Dove stands for,” noted Isaacian.

As important as it is to know how to build a brand, understanding what can lead to its downfall is equally crucial, as years of positive brand strategy can be snatched in an instant from one misstep. Here are some pitfalls (with examples!) to avoid:

  1. Gap’s Stab at the Sans Serif-ication of Brands: Inauthenticity can quickly erode a brand's credibility. When Gap unveiled a new logo in 2010, the design was met with widespread backlash. After the company saw a 4% decrease in sales, the company reverted to its original logo. Staying true to a brand’s essence is an important component in the continually-changing way consumers relate to brands. 
  2. Blackberry’s Deaf Ears: Failing to listen to customer feedback and adapt to their needs can lead to brand deterioration. BlackBerry's downfall was partly attributed to its reluctance to embrace touch screens and modern app ecosystems, despite changing consumer preferences.
  3. Theranos’s Blood, Sweat, and Broken Promises: Making extravagant promises without delivering on them can damage a brand's reputation. In the case of Theranos, when it became clear that the technology didn't work as advertised, the brand's credibility crumbled.
  4. United Airlines, Turbulence in Crisis Management: Mishandling crises can have severe consequences. United Airlines faced a significant backlash when a video of a passenger being forcibly removed from a plane went viral. The company's initial response only exacerbated the situation which damaged its brand image.
  5. Burger King’s Tasteless Choice: In a globalized world, cultural insensitivity can lead to brand disasters. Burger King’s 2021’s “Women Belong in the Kitchen” ad, meant to showcase the gender disparity in commercial kitchens, unfortunately had the opposite effect, landing the fast food restaurant in hot water. 
  6. From “Das Auto” to “Das Unethical”: Engaging in unethical practices can lead to public outrage and a damaged brand reputation. Volkswagen's emissions scandal, where the company was found to have manipulated emissions tests, severely tarnished its image and resulted in legal and financial consequences.

Takeaways and Future of Brand Strategy

As we look to the future, the landscape of brand strategy continues to evolve. With the advent of AI, Web3, and Gen Z’s humor (recently described by The Times of India as “one big inside joke,”) brand strategists must be well versed in the past, current, and impending landscape. The list of what they need to be aware of in order to make informed decisions is seemingly endless. Here are some key takeaways and thoughts to consider adding to that list:

  • Embrace Purpose-Driven Brands: Consumers are increasingly drawn to brands that align with their values and contribute positively to society. Building a purpose-driven brand can lead to stronger customer loyalty and differentiation.
  • Personalization and AI: With the advancement of artificial intelligence and data analytics, brands can create more personalized experiences for their customers. Netflix's recommendation algorithm is a prime example of how AI can enhance customer engagement.
  • Omnichannel Experience: Brands must provide a seamless experience across various channels, whether online or offline. The success of companies like Starbucks, which offers a consistent experience in both physical stores and through its mobile app, highlights the importance of an omnichannel approach.
  • Ethical and Sustainable Practices: Consumers are becoming more conscious of ethical and environmental concerns. Brands that prioritize sustainability and ethical practices are likely to resonate more with this growing segment of consumers.
  • Agility in the Face of Disruption: The pace of technological advancement and market changes requires brands to be adaptable and agile. Learning from the failures of brands like Blockbuster, companies must be willing to pivot and innovate to stay relevant.

Building and maintaining a successful brand strategy is a complex and dynamic endeavor. It requires a deep understanding of your brand's identity, audience, and the ever-evolving market landscape. By following the tactical steps for building a brand and avoiding the pitfalls that can lead to its destruction, companies can position themselves for long-term success. As the future of brand strategy unfolds, embracing purpose, personalization, and ethical practices will be paramount in creating enduring and impactful brands. 

Curious about real-time research to better understand consumers? Check out Stagwell Marketing Cloud and improve your customer experience.

Alicia Marie Beatty

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