I’ve been a brand strategist for 25 years. Most of the time, I graft away quietly in the shadows, unheralded and largely anonymous. I like it that way. I relish being told that I’m not robust or sophisticated enough by others with proprietary methodologies to protect and books to sell. Bring it on.
I’m also a bit of a misfit who has developed my own unorthodox way of thinking that’s a blend of the many things I’ve read, learnt, experienced and observed along the way. The last two of these – experience and observation – are the crux of what I do and as much as others try to insist that brand strategy is a science, I know in my heart that it isn’t. There is science in it, but that’s not the same thing.
Today I read an excellent article in JP Castlin’s Strategy in Praxis newsletter by Claire Strickett which I agree with wholeheartedly, and these two passages in particular:
1. “There are probably many occasions when you’ve found yourself presenting a recommendation you were convinced was strategically, rationally, completely sound, solid and utterly necessary, to a stakeholder or colleague who, despite your very best efforts, remained utterly unmoved by your argument. No matter how many pieces of evidence, charts and graphs, data points and learned sources you threw at them, something just didn’t land.”
2. “Alongside my day job, I’m currently undertaking an introductory course in counselling and psychotherapy.”
All of us have experienced the first scenario but too few think enough about the second, with which Claire is making a very astute and important point.
Now, I am loathe to draw any analogy between brand strategy and the death of one of my children, so I want to make it clear that I am not doing that. There is no connection, correlation or lesson to be learnt from death about brand strategy. That’s clickbait rubbish. However, the mental journey I have taken, in particular the grief therapy and counselling I’ve had, the other bereaved parents I have got to know and learn from, has made me a better and bolder brand strategist.
Claire captures the key point brilliantly in her conclusion:
“Businesses are, ultimately, just made up of people, and people are complex, layered and often vulnerable creatures, no matter how big their title. That goes for me and for you too, of course. No matter how acute our analytical approach, how learned or expert we are, or how solid our strategy, paying closer heed to the human undercurrents that shape decision-making can pay dividends, and smooth the path to influence.”
It took a highly skilled therapist to untie the mental knots of my grief. It was so profound and debilitating that I didn’t work for almost two years and it took me a further three years to accept that I needed help. But when I did, it was a revelation. Amazed by the positive impact of therapy, I threw myself into finding out more, devouring books and research papers about how the mind works and how to reassure, soothe and influence people. It has played a driving role in the decision I made to use my own experience to help other bereaved dads but it has also significantly changed the way I practice brand strategy.
I have always been mildly suspicious of data and research, (see this old blog post for more about that), but am careful about making sweeping statements because there’s always some over-analytical and over-educated data expert out there to tell me how wrong I am. But am I, really? If I look back over my 25 years, most of the strategies that have worked best and, coincidentally, I enjoyed working on most have two things in common: gut instinct on the course of action and empathy, firstly with the client to get it signed off and secondly with the target audience that needs to be engaged by it. Data does not deliver instinct or empathy. Humans do.
This is not to say that data isn’t important. Clearly it is but I subscribe to the John Hegarty school of thought, which is that brands have become risk-averse, that ads are often boring and that our industry needs to lose its obsession with data and get back to its roots. The older and more experienced I get, the more I look at data analysis and insights as barriers to good strategy. They feel like a safety catch and a crutch that client and agency can lean on, just in case it all goes wrong and they can say that they followed the science.
I’ll apologise if you were expecting something more profound, but I think that’s part of the point I’m making. Our industry spends so much time digging for data driven insights because it needs the emotional safety it provides as well as the revenue it generates from clients they’ve deliberately and often cynically bamboozled. It says there are these things called consumers that act in accordance with a prescriptive model of behaviour. But ask yourself, seriously, have you ever met one of these consumers? They don’t really exist other than as a crude approximation of human behaviour. I’m being harsh, of course, as the truth is balanced somewhere in the middle but I prefer to moderate brand strategies towards the instinctive, empathic and conspicuous rather than the safe and the dull. It probably also explains why many of my clients are more likely to be entrepreneurs or risk takers.
I’ll end this stream of thought with something I said to a group of senior business executives recently who were foolish enough to sign up to one of my brand manifesto workshops: I genuinely love what I do. Brand strategists have the rare privilege in business of dealing with emotion and ‘feelings’ on a daily basis. It is our currency. It’s a wonderful thing that can influence, educate, entertain and inspire millions of people which comes with significant responsibility. Others have to deal with numbers, logistics, operations and things that are defined by structure, process and, often, physical limits. Many years ago I stepped into that world when the agency group I worked for decided to make me Managing Director of one of their business units. I was just 30 years old and thought I’d hit the career jackpot but it was the worst job I’ve ever had. It took me away from my clients, away from strategy and creativity, and all the emotion and empathy that comes with it, into a world of process and procedure that is at odds with my philosophy of life.
So, after all that, what’s my point? Well, I’d like brand strategists to stop over-thinking and obsessing with data. Instead observe, experience and absorb what’s going on around you. Watch how people react to events and circumstances and how they interact with each other. Apply it to your work and the relationships you have with your clients. Sure, check the data and use it to minimise mistakes, but have the courage to lead with the way you feel because that’s what your audiences will do when they meet your strategy out in the real world. If you can’t feel it, then neither will they.