The Puzzle That Wasn’t

Words by Jack Wimmer, freelance Senior Brand Strategist

October 2020

Jack Wimmer is a Senior Brand Strategist from Kansas, currently living on the Greek island of Samos and working remotely for a pair of branding studios in Australia. Here, Jack shares his thoughts on the strategic process, and why it doesn't always need to be complicated by philosophies, formulas and frameworks.

I was in Alabama, meeting with the president of an advertising agency that I didn’t want to work at. For practice, I guess. Confidence beamed from his bald head as his long strides led us through the front doors of a coffee shop near the office. A bit too comfortable in his shoes. We paid for our coffees, (the kind you’d expect to find in Alabama) and I followed him past a few tables designed for three, four and six, before settling into a long family-style table occupying the middle of the room, where he sat at the head. It’s just the three of us, mind you. Me, him, and a friendly project manager there to help interview me for a strategy position. In between client success stories and discussing the agency’s ambitions, he pointed to a community events board where too many business cards and flyers were tacked.

‘Glance at that board behind you… just for a sec’. What’s the first thing you see?’ 

‘Maybe the poster with the big black text? Towards the middle,’ I said. 

He responded quickly. ‘Exactly. Branding is all about words. Words get people’s attention more than any design or picture ever could. It’s why your eyes went right to that poster, and it’s why people pay attention to brands. This is what we believe strategy is all about,’ he said.

A boring oversimplification, to be sure – to suggest that branding is all about earning people’s attention with copy. What’s worse was the delivery, which had a flavor of overconfidence that’s all too common in the practice of branding. Such hedgehog-style philosophies are the lifeblood of the orthodox brand strategist and their followers. They’re easy to spot once you know what you’re looking for: like the belief that brands should always be led by purpose, or rooted in values. Or that a brand strategy only becomes real when it outlines an insight, a truth, a solution, and a response, in that order. That consumers should always be treated as friends, or that strategy itself is a hoax and all that really matters is making people smile. 🤷‍♂️

Such assertive oversimplifications sell. Entire books are written by marketers attempting to distill their own personal philosophies into a single recommendation or recipe for the next generation, usually as they’re on their way out of the industry. ‘Just listen to your gut,’ they say. ‘Just be weird,’ they say. ‘Just have grit and keep going,’ they say. For the pliable minds reading their LinkedIn posts and overpriced books, these can be comforting. Can we really blame them? This brand strategy thing is complicated. Strategists are expected to absorb more disparate information than they could possibly process, then come out the other end with a breakthrough idea – a revelation, even – and a plan to put it into action. These inputs span across the client’s objectives, competitive landscape, company culture, category trends, product pipeline, internal capabilities, audience needs and behaviors, the cultural winds at large, and all the other things I’m forgetting. Under these circumstances, it’s only natural for strategists to try and bring the process down to earth. Steps to take. Rules to follow. Empty gaps to fill. Boxes to tick. We’ve got problems to solve, dammit!

This tornado of information can feel particularly unwieldy for strategists in the branding industry, where a strategic idea isn’t just an idea, it’s the idea. Here, the strategist’s job is not to uncover a timely insight then present an actionable response, but to piece together every insight and observation they’ve ever come across and bake a cake with it. More often than not, these ideas come out of the oven looking a bit like Sean.

Sean from SNL’s Extreme Baking Championship

It sounds counterintuitive, but efforts to lasso this tornado using six-step formulas, predetermined frameworks and prescriptive guidelines only make it more difficult to produce quality strategic work. Sure, they can aid in communicating a strategy to others, but they’re rarely helpful in the process of production. Likewise, if you begin a project expecting to fill a giant pyramid with predetermined components, you’re only gonna find what you’re looking for (especially if you only have a couple of days to do it). 

One of the most common self-limiting behaviors intended to make strategy simpler is when branding agencies dictate the form of brand ideas. By ‘brand idea’ I mean the single, shorthand concept that lives at the center of a brand, intended to guide its visual, verbal, and behavioral communication, which most agencies aim to create. As the logic goes, it’s easier to land on a strategic solution if you know what sort of expression you need to create. This directive typically comes from the agency leadership, who instruct strategists to search only for a single vision statement or call-to-action proposition (Live X! Be X! Do X!), for example. Naturally, this dictation of form eliminates possibilities by deciding on the structure of an idea prior to creating its substance, introducing an unnecessary hurdle to the production of brand ideas. As we know, successful brand ideas – as well as campaign platforms – can come in many forms: Jose Cuervo’s Tomorrow is Overrated is a belief. Welly’s First Aid For When Fun Wins is a creative description. 2020 U.S. presidential candidate Joe Biden’s No Malarkey! is a promise. Backmarket’s Screw New could be labeled an attitude. 

For young people looking at the creative industry, and for those already in the industry but interested in switching roles, brand strategy can sometimes look like a hard science; a profession that requires memorizing a bunch of terms, formulas and processes, or at least digging through the available single-minded brand philosophies and adopting a few as your own. Take a stroll around ‘strategy Twitter’ and it’s easy to get overwhelmed by all the things people are telling you to do. The title’s pretentiousness alone is enough to fool someone into thinking that the job is more about solving jigsaw puzzles than it is coming up with ideas. 

In reality, half of being a brand strategist is just understanding the role strategy plays in an organization’s life. The rest boils down to a loose mix of deep listening, reading, learning to recognize great work, going for walks, writing freely, asking your mom what she thinks, making unexpected connections in your head, and asking a whole bunch of questions. 

Once you’ve mysteriously arrived at an idea which sufficiently weaves together everything you’ve come to know and believe about the brand, everything else falls into place. Your agency’s favorite formula is easily backfilled, the presentation quickly typed up, and any necessary pyramids practically build themselves. 

Trickle-down may be a backwards economic approach, but it’s the best way I’ve found to do brand strategy. How you arrive at the idea, however, is between you and yourself.

Words by Jack Wimmer. You can find him on Linkedin.

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