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Stretching the creative canvas: Why marketers need to let go of the brand strategy helm


By Neil Barrie | Global Managing Partner

April 1, 2019 | 6 min read

The debate around ‘brand purpose’ bubbles on. For some it’s the Holy Grail and future of business, for others it’s a land of hollow hyperbole and false messiahs.

Stretching the creative canvas: Why marketers need to let go of the brand strategy helm

I’ve bounced between both perspectives throughout my career. There have been times when I felt the palpable buzz of knowing that a company had unlocked something fundamental that spoke to their soul and would drive everything they do. And then there were times when I knew deep down all the work and fiery talk wouldn’t make for more than a few good meetings and an anthemic film.

What’s the decisive difference? It’s not the quality of the chief marketing officer, it’s not the creative brilliance of the ads, it’s not even the quality of the strategy — though all of those things are important.

Ultimately, it boils down to three things.

The first is about a person. Is the company leader the driving force behind the brand’s purpose? Were they intimately involved in its generation, and is it unlocking something personal in them? Or did they sign it off after a bout of masterful persuasion?

The second is about perspective. Specifically, what is the creative canvas for that brand purpose? Too often the focus is on some emotionally-charged campaign or communications effort equipped with a few PR-able actions. We’re all familiar with that scenario, with Gillette’s foray into #metoo being the latest in a long line of purpose-driven provocations that, for many, lacked the substance to be truly credible or enduring.

For brand purpose to really work, the creative canvas has to be the entire company, not a piece of communication. It needs to be driving decisions around product experience, acquisition strategy, people policies and, yes, obviously, marketing.

That brings us to the third: process. Treating the entire company as the creative canvas requires a fundamental shift in process and casting for those developing brand purpose. A brand’s chief executive should be its agency’s “chief creative officer”; the chief product officer should be the “executive creative director”; and the chief marketing officer should be its agency’s right hand, working to bring everyone to the table. It’s less an agency-client relationship and more a partnership: the client as the agency’s brand strategy team.

Use these 3 Ps and the results can be transformational.

You’ll first see a transformation in the chief executive. The purpose becomes a totem and filter for everything they do and say and expect of their employees, teams, and touchpoints. You’ll then see a transformation in the business planning and product roadmap. The purpose begins to drive the agenda and, ultimately, commercial growth — not the other way around.

If the 3Ps are done right, brand purpose starts as a company thing and extends into a marketing thing, rather than marketers attempting to reverse engineer it into the company’s ethos.

Starbucks is one example, with Howard Schultz leading from the front. Public missteps notwithstanding, they have consistently driven the purpose of nurturing the human spirit one cup at a time throughout the company. Arguably their employees and actions —from commitments to veteran support, staff compensation, and voting drives — are the most effective communicators of their purpose. Meanwhile, Whitney Wolfe Herd of female-centric dating app Bumble is a great example of the new breed of founder/chief executive putting purpose in action. The brand’s authentic public stands on issues such as the Kavanagh case and gun control have helped propel rapid growth to a $1bn valuation and its status as the fastest growing US dating app in a crowded marketplace.

At its best, you can’t tell where product, marketing, and social impact stop and start — and that is the key to brand purpose as a company-wide initiative.

So, what does this mean for marketers and agencies? It doesn’t make them redundant, far from it. But it does mean letting go of the helm and encouraging collective ownership of the process.

A successful brand strategy doesn’t come from months toiling away on insights in a separate office and then ‘selling in’ with an emotional presentation to leadership. It comes from a cross-discipline, C-level team shaping, interrogating, workshopping and co-writing from the outset. It requires an open, human process to get these diverse disciplines working in harmony. It requires listening more than presenting, collaborating more than crafting, and seeing feedback as a gift rather than something to be managed.

It might seem messier and far less ‘artful’ than the textbook processes we’ve come to know, but this is the reality of 21st-century business. And with this approach, the results will prove much more profound.

Neil Barrie is global managing partner of TwentyFirstCenturyBrand

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