Marcelo Ferrarini Carneiro, Senior Manager, Global Insights at the LEGO Group ponders what he wish he knew when he was starting out in brand strategy 10 years ago.

When I joined a brand consultancy 10 years ago, coming fresh from a finance-focused business undergrad, two things became clear to me, really fast: 

  1. This stuff is really cool, and I’m loving it – I could spend my life working with it and would have a lot of fun in the way;
  2. I can sense a lot of bullshit around here.

Take as an example one of my first tasks as an intern: to audit all communications of a leading Brazilian bank brand that was a client of ours at the time. Please don't judge me, but my thoughts were something like "I've just studied all about discounted cash flows, derivatives, corporate strategy, the 4Ps... why in the world do we need to analyse how much orange they have in their ads?" Or "does it really matter if the logo and slogan are there and well placed?!". As you will read below, those are critical tasks of a qualitative brand diagnostic, but at the time it felt too subjective to be useful.

On the flip side, we would frequently sit with the board of directors, CMOs and CEOs of the biggest brands of the country to discuss their future. It felt good, important, but also too philosophical in some cases. "Come on, this is a private financial institution... why are we talking about saving the world?!"

Most of us intuitively understand the power of strong brands in driving business success. But the discipline of brand management is still relatively recent, haunted by its grandfather, sales, confused with its father, marketing, and lacking scientific rigour by many industry professionals.

A lot has changed since then and I wanted to highlight two of those things.

  1. Advancements in behavioural science make it easier for us to understand what makes people tick. Books such as Thinking Fast and Slow and Nudge exploded my mind and tied many knots on why brand matters. The science is not perfect (e.g. lack of replication in some studies), but it's way better than what we had before.
  2. Advancements in marketing science, pioneered by the evidence-based Ehrenberg-Bass Institute and expanded by industry heroes such as Prof Mark Ritson and the Eat Your Greens

More recently, the topic of marketing science connected me via Twitter to a colleague heading the Planning department of a huge Brazilian agency, a curious mind also desperately trying to find more solid ground in the discipline. During our chat, we debated brand strategy now and then, and how we wished we knew more back in the day. So, what would I tell 10 years younger Marcelo about brand strategy? Here's a snapshot of where I would start.

It’s the behaviour, stupid!

This insight changed my views of how brands work more than any other, so I'm keeping it at the top. Often, behaviour (in many cases random or driven by design by a brand) will drive feelings that will then make us think certain things about a brand. Many brand strategies are still betting big only in impacting attitude, hoping it will drive feelings and then purchase behaviour. Instead of spending a lot of time debating and asking people what they think about your brand and category (which has its relevance), focus on what they are doing. This will provide critical insights into what you need to do along the customer journey to maximise the chances of your brand to be chosen.

Differentiation is overrated

I can't count how many endless meetings I joined trying to find a sweet spot positioning in which the territory would be "relevant", "authentic" and "different". 2X2 matrixes would try to make the case for a "gap" in the market, but we knew the axis were forcing that space. There is space for Differentiation, but it's not anywhere close to the divine position it holds in brand strategy decks. Focusing on relevant, authentic, and better than competition is the way to go.

Targeting has its place, but is overrated

"If you are targeting everyone you are reaching no one". How many times I heard and said that... but we now know that reaching all potential consumers in the market, especially light ones, is the critical task of marketing. We also know that the consumer base of different brands will look relatively similar to each other (the Harley Davidson average consumer is not like we see in the ppt decks), which makes obsessing about targeting in the traditional sense a much more nuanced job.

Consumers don’t care about brands as much as we think they do  

Most consumers won't care if most brands disappeared all of a sudden, which makes those bigger than life philosophical discussions about brand purpose quite delusional in practice. Purpose has a role for some brands, with some stakeholders, but making it the central piece of your brand strategy can often be ineffective at least and damaging at worst.

Not all is lost

At the same time, quite a few topics we used to discuss back in the day were surprisingly spot on. Even though we had to defend them with arguments such as "well look at what Apple and Nike are doing", there's enough evidence today to prove that there was truth to what we were preaching. See below three of those things.

You need to be authentic to what your brand stands for in the minds of consumers

Authenticity is a topic we would discuss over and over, but which I feel is losing space with the stubborn tendency of some to jump straight into trends, hypes, and new hot marketing tools. There is a place for that, but if you don't plan campaigns or new product launches starting from what consumers expect your brand to deliver, you are dramatically increasing the risk of those initiatives to fail. Start planning your marketing activities with what your brand stands for.

Consistency is a business matter

Another one of those learnings that I will never forget: marketing's job is to tell over and over the same story, with a pinch of freshness every time. Our brains are wired to capture and process the consistency in stories, so effective communications depend on that. Also, brands need to build strong visual and verbal assets to be recognised and chosen, and those can only be successful in doing so with consistent application in all touchpoints. With the recent rapid expansion and fragmentation of the media landscape and retail platforms, showing up consistently is more important than ever. That's why the audit I worked as an intern on colours, logos and taglines was indeed a business critical task!

Emotion is powerful

Now we know that to grow brands we need to create mental availability, and a key component to that is emotional communications, as they have a higher chance to stick in our memories. So, we were right to battle against the functional and rational comms that dominated the landscape of many categories back in the day (and still do for some brands today).

Curiously, the "spot on" elements seem to have lost some momentum with performance/digital marketing dominating the discourse. Marketers would benefit from remembering the importance of brand authenticity, consistency and emotion. Without those fundamentals, you will either pay too much to acquire a new customer or not grow fast enough to compete.

After all, those are much more than just "feel good" tricks; they are the bread and butter of the profession – they are powerful and unique tools to create real impact in people's lives and drive business performance.

This article was first published on LinkedIn.