If you’re trying to understand Brand Strategy and the place it has in the success of your business. Look at your business’ brand as if it were a basketball team.
Now picture this, one of the greatest dynasties in NBA history. Six-time champions in eight straight years and one of the all-time greatest players at the helm of the team. It begs the question… How the hell to do you create success like this?!
Strategy… yep, the answer isn’t “MJ”.
Just like on the court, having a game-winning strategy is no different in business. Be it marketing, financial, PR, advertising, hiring or brand strategy. This is a game of getting the ball to the basket by developing a playbook game plan. A game plan to outmanoeuvre the opposition before the buzzer and to win championships.
This is where the analogy comes in.
It comes off the back of the 🔥 Netflix/ESPN documentary, ‘The Last Dance’. Put simply, look at your brand or your clients’ brand as if it were a basketball team 🏀
Below are eleven parts that make a successful brand based on how the brand strategy developed for the business is implemented and executed.
The Playbook = The Brand Strategy
The Team Owner = The CEO and organisation of the business
The Coach = The Brand Strategist
The Players = Brand identity, marketing, website, social media, etc.
The Ball = The products or services
The Opposition = Brand pain points & competitors
The Basket = The Brand’s customers
The Game = Customer segmentation
The Court = The shopfront (digital or physical)
The Crowd = The Brand’s audience
The Season = The Brand goal(s)
Beyond this list is a deep dive into each aspect. To illustrate how the consideration of each area comes into play when developing a championship-winning strategy for success.
1. The Playbook — The Brand Strategy
Every successful brand, just like the 90s era Chicago Bulls, has a strategy to win. The playbook a coach has is a compendium of strategies tailored for the team to help them overcome different opponents, score more baskets and win games.
In branding terms, a well-developed brand strategy is there to facilitate the need to reach the desired goal(s) you have as the business owner or the goals your client is trying to achieve if you are the strategist. It’s a step by step plan to get from point A to point B and potentially achieve smaller goals or milestones along the way on the road to achieving the overarching goal.
We’re talking things like a more relatable brand that its customers can connect with. An identity that expresses a shared belief between the business and its customer. A desire to be uniquely transcendent beyond that of a customer's expectations and be wildly different from its direct competitors.
Now, these aren’t your typical financial business goals. Nor is the brand strategy focused on “how do we increase our customer numbers or repeat sales?”. Those are business goals. However, achieving them can be directly impacted by the overarching brand goal if it has been successful. Typically these are seen as smaller goals that form part of the yardstick for measuring the success of the brand strategy. Which is why they still form part of the overall brand strategy.
So if you looked at a brand as the roof above the players on the court that overarches everything within. This gives you the perspective that EVERYTHING needs to be taken into account when developing the right strategy for the brand at that particular point in time. Or for the relatively near future. Meaning, a brand and its brand strategy should evolve over time.
This is why brand strategies typically include:
Discovery of all the businesses goals in all facets of its existence. Along with its future plans, wants and needs.
Market research and Competitor Analysis to best understand the industry you’re in and the market need for the brands offering. Be it a product or a service. But it also factors in the territory or multiple territories the brand is actively engaged with to understand cultural nuances and buyer behaviour. As well as how our brand can differentiate itself from the competition by understanding their offering, especially if they are a more dominant market leader.
Positioning that solidifies where, on a sliding scale, the brand sits amongst its competitors based on it’s offering. Is the brand affordable and accessible? Or is the brand luxurious and high value? The positioning strategy also considers where consumer perception sits on that scale. Both considerations can not only determine the best communication strategy in the brands messaging and copywriting. But also how the brand looks in its visual identity, the craft and presentation of its packaging and even the product or service itself. For example. If it’s more viable to create a low-cost but high-impact end product that meets current market demand, the brand is positioned as such to align with that end goal.
Customer Profiling. We want our brand to know who its customers are. We also want to tell their story just as well as our own. What is their back story? What are their pain points and needs? What can we do to best solve their problems and exceed their expectations of what our industry typically offers? The more granular this gets, the more we understand our ideal and regular customers so that our brand is for someone, not everyone. That in itself is a proven winning strategy. One that can simply influence the main colour used by the brand, or provide a particular experience that is signature to the brand like a Tiffany’s little blue box.
Segmentation can also be considered off the back of your customer profiling. It’s the opportunity to realise if there is a need to segment your customer base into different categories to better deliver a tailored brand experience based on their demographic or psychographic needs. As a rudimentary example, think McCafé at a McDonald’s. It’s for the customers who are looking for a more premium barrister made coffee experience and end product. Rather than a pot coffee that’s been brewing for hours. Which is why the decor of a McCafe area looks different to the normal counter right next to it. As does the attire their barristers wear.
A Value Proposition that is just as evident to the customer as it is to the business. Knowing a brand’s worth in the value it delivers, not just in a monetary sense but potentially also psychologically or emotionally. For example, a movie can cost a billion dollars to make but the value of watching that experience for one person is potentially worth a lifetime of connection to something that becomes part of their identity. Think of Star Wars fanboys like me, a multi-billion dollar franchise based on a story I’ll connect with for life is worth way more than the $25 dollar ticket stub to see episode IX. The value proposition is where the product/service combines with the experience and what the brand means to that customer.
Which is rounded out by an actionable set of strategies based on a host of Prioritised Goals. They could be awareness goals like implementing a brand presence on Medium to share your perspective on the industry you are in as the business owner (like I’m doing). Or it could be a financial goal that requires an additional revenue stream. Such as implementing online takeaway ordering for your restaurant, during the crisis and restrictions we are currently facing. Either one of these requires and consistent brand presence, which might lead to a goal being prioritised that involves a redeveloped brand identity to meet those needs.
Ok, so THAT was a deep dive into some of the facets a decent brand strategy can cover when better establishing a direction for your business, based on the overarching needs or problems you approach a strategist to uncover and solve/achieve.
Now some brand strategists, depending on who you work with, may not touch on this type of strategy. It may be more focused on a strategy to best develop your brand identity. Both intangible (eg. brand values and messaging), or the visual identity (eg. logo and colours). This is what I call ‘Brand Identity Strategy’. It’s just as helpful for the success of your business by developing an identity that connects with a customer and it’s also the part I most enjoy when working with my clients.
So this is what the brand strategy playbook is used for. It’s the north star your business can use to execute and refer back to, to know that it’s doing the right things when building a trustworthy, memorable, recognisable and engaging brand.
2. Team Owner — You the CEO and your team (or your client)
You (or your client) are the Jerry Reinsdorf — the Team Owner of the Chicago Bulls. You own the organisation and you no doubt want to win games and championships, right?
Of course, you do. But as an owner, especially if you have a business of many moving pieces and people involved to make the game happen, you can’t create a winning brand/business yourself if you want to win championships. Which is why you bring on a coach to manage your team for the season.
You also have your own team in the organisation - your staff. They need to be just as aligned as you are with your brand goals and strategy to succeed. If everyone is on the same page, you and your staff can share the same values and present a consistent customer-facing experience. It’s why all Apple stores look the same, as do their staff wearing who wear matching coloured shirts.
This is not only important for a consumer-facing experience, but also for your business as a unified brand direction can set the tone for the type of people you hire. Using Apple again as an example, it’s why you are greeted by the same infectious type of personalities who all look like they have a heap of creative bones in their body.
Your role as the Team Owner in this context is to know what the objective is. As well as knowing what the numbers are saying on paper and what are the challenges that need to be overcome. But you’re also the decision-maker. This helps the coach understand what game plan strategies need to be developed and it’s up to you to also understand them and have an input in crafting them (along with your staff) to be able to make the call to proceed.
But who is the coach?
3. The Coach — The Brand Strategist (which could be you)
Hello Mr Phil Jackon. One of the all-time greatest league coaches… Alright that’s enough hype 😉
The coach, if that’s you, organises the team of players to excel far beyond their existing reach. But it’s not just about motivating everyone to be better. It's about understanding the relationship between each player. Knowing what the team’s strengths and weaknesses are, the coach is tasked with developing the game plan strategy for each player to be better and how certain players can feed off each other to better work together. All to produce a more efficient and impactful end result.
Ultimately it’s to get the players to guide the ball to the basket more and more. But it also requires you to read the opposing team and develop that strategy for the players to outmanoeuvre the opposition.
Training practice, for the sake of keeping this analogy going, is testing these strategies before they go out onto the court. Validation, be it user testing, market surveys or feedback from existing customers is what can be used (if required) to test a new offering or strategy so that time and money executing on the strategic plan is not wasted. If a strategy doesn’t prove to be successful when tested on a small sample size, we have the opportunity to tweak or even scrap it and move onto a new strategy with those learnings implemented. All in an effort for game day to be what our customers want to see, engage with and buy from.
The brand strategist is signed on for the season. To get the team to the basket. To win games. With the aim to win the championship. Coaches, just like players can be replaced if they don’t perform. So it’s up to the strategist to come through with a winning strategy for that period of time they are with the business.
4. The Players — The brand identity, packaging, website, marketing, social media, advertising, signage, etc.
These players are the stars of the brand. They are what the fans come to see and are tasked with getting the ball to the basket. Or in other words, as I’ve described, getting the product or service into the hands of the customer.
The players of our brand are basically our communication touchpoints. All of which are at our fingertips to entice our customers to want to engage with, try and buy from us.
So when I mentioned in the last point about the Coach needing to develop a strategy that considers each player of the team and how they interact with each other. This should make more sense when you think about how your marketing and advertising can work consistently with each other when a consistent brand identity is also developed. When that identity, be it the logo, colours, fonts, imagery and messaging is implemented in your marketing efforts, it can help reach new or existing customers by gaining their attention if it’s a well-complimented identity.
The thing to always keep in mind is that we might not land a basket time after time consistently. You might throw up airball after airball, it might hit the rim and bounce off, or it circles the rim and somehow rolls back out. Sometimes it’s just not your game (your ideal customer). We might either need to adjust how our players are coached and trained, by adjusting our message, imagery or colours through efforts like A/B testing to find the most engaging end result. Or we need to move on from that failed game to learn from that experience to find a new strategy that wins us the next game.
5. The Ball — The Products and/or Services
Everyone who is part of this team wants the ball to reach the basket time and time again, to win the game.
You’ve most likely got a great product or service that people want to buy and experience. But if there is a significant amount of hurdles getting in the way in getting to market repeatedly, we want to be careful when assuming that the blame lies with the players or the with the coach. Because the ball itself may be flat, out of shape or the wrong design for the game being played.
How could the ball be flat? Well, it could have an amazing use case but really isn’t all useful or pleasing to actually use or experience. Meaning it literally falls flat in the eyes of the customer upon first use, if the experience doesn't live up to expectations. Could the product or service be improved to exceed expectations and blow your customers mind?
What about the shape? Think of this as how the product or service is used. Is it really needed for that particular problem your customer has? Or does it have an alternative use that it may be better suited to? An example of this would be selling Coca-Cola as a cleaning product instead of it being a drink people enjoy consuming. It can do both but is it serving the most viable selling purpose. This is rare but it’s not a bad thing to consider if there are problems happening in your business that stems from your product or service.
And what of the style of the ball? First impressions, that are typically aesthetic tastes may not align with your ideal customer's expectations (eg. not as advertised) or be appropriately fitting to that market (eg. a Barbie Doll marketed to a boy). Some might be pleasantly surprised once it is experienced, but could it be jazzed up to align with the players that make it sing and the customer's expectations.
6. The Opposition —The Brand pain points and competitors
You might only think of the opposition as the direct or indirect market competitors. The people a brand must overcome who do what we do or serve those we serve. But for our brand, our opposition is also our brand’s weaknesses.
So how do we outmanoeuvre the opposition who stop us from winning?
Well, our strategy might consider implementing something like a SWOT analysis (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats) to better outline what we believe to be our most impactful weaknesses and threats. But potentially assessing whether our strengths and opportunities outweigh the former.
While leaning into our strengths and opportunities, as it’s clearly the easier option, we can’t forget to address and develop a strategy to overcome our opposing threats and weaknesses.
An example could be a poorly converting sales page and newsletter. It might look completely different from the rest of your branded touchpoints. It could be written in a totally different voice, as your copywriter hasn’t been provided with a unified brand voice to utilise consistently. It may simply lack a clear and engaging CTA (Call-To-Action) or easily identifiable CTA buttons that move your customers through your sales funnel.
It’s not always the fault of our competitors that are getting in the way of our brands’ success. It might mean getting out of our own way and making sure our Air Jordans are laced tight.
But if it is our competitors, we need to understand why their offer is resonating more with our competitor. We want to know if there are holes in their offering that we can fill and capitalise on — which would be uncovered in the opportunities section of that same SWOT analysis. To find out this information it might mean conducting consumer surveys that outline why they choose our competitor and out of a select few options, which would make them change to our brand?
This is a very common practice when a new product or rebranding is conducted, as it produces useful qualitative data from those in your target demographic or psychographic. Because knowing why our consumer buys from us is just as important as why we think it will help them.
7. The Basket— The Brand’s Customers
During the brand strategy phase of a branding or rebranding process, we’re considering who your ideal customers are. Knowing who your ideal customer is, is key. As we need to know what direction to run toward on the court.
Not knowing who your ideal customer is, is like playing basketball with a blindfold on.
Where do you shoot the ball?
How do your players pass the ball to each other if blindfold?
We need to know who our brand is championing so that we can create the message we need to communicate. A visual identity that is appealing, memorable and recognisable. As well as a strategy for how we present and market our brand to our ideal customer.
We want to know who they are, what is their back story, what are the challenges they are facing. We also want to know what needs they have and what solution would change their life if we could.
Why? So we can develop a ‘story brand’ as Donald Miller calls it.
Our brand’s story is not just about us. It also includes our customer’s story. We are not the hero of the story, our customers and our audience are. You, the Team Owner, are the guide. The Merlin to Arthur. The Yoda to Luke Skywalker or the Regina George to Cady Heron if Mean Girls is more your thing.
Being able to tell their story as if it were your own, will surprise and delight your customers. It will make them feel heard, thought of and considered. Because to know someone has your back and that their existence hinges off the need to help them, it’s incredibly flattering to know. But it also sets you apart from other businesses that might have simply treated them as just another scoring opportunity.
Though remember this, you’re not meant to be for everyone. Be for someone. Know who they are so you can champion that one person in particular. It could be an amalgamation of several different facets of your ideal current customer.
Maybe it’s their age, their location, job description, the industry they are apart of or even their marital status. These are the demographics.
The psychographics, on the other hand, is your customer's values, their interests, hobbies, pain points and challenges. In addition to their back story, future desires, needs or disposition (aka. their personality).
Even if you have customers that don’t fit that specific mould, they may aspire to be that person you have in mind. Or they may even have crazy FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out) to want to be that person that you focus your attention on.
There’s no easy swish from beyond the 3-point line when it comes to your shot selection. You only get better in time when all your players are trained enough to replicate success and hit the basket more often than not. Just never look at your customers as an easy feat or another number on the board. The market decides and what’s good one day may not land the next. Which is why our strategy needs to be an ever-evolving consideration to ensure your business can pivot where necessary to meet your customer's needs.
8. The Game — Customer Segmentation
In a basketball season, you’re playing multiple games against different opponents either on your home court or theirs. It’s a little different for your business but similar parallels can be drawn.
The games you are playing are what I’d suggest are the segmentations you implement based on your customer base. Meaning you might have multiple customer personas that your brand serves. It might be an older woman and a younger woman and you’ve developed different ways to package the same product or market it in ways that make that product align with each demographic. It could instead be geographic location differences that require a more culturally appropriate application of branding or a message that calls out a specific city in it’s messaging.
Whichever it is, most brands will have two types of customers they typically serve, even if it’s not at first considered. If you’re a taekwondo instructor that teaches children how to learn martial arts, your target market is not only kids. It’s also their parents and realistically in this situation, the parent is the primary target market because they are the buyer. So it requires a holistic understanding of who’s needs and expectations are we trying to connect with and serve.
Take Dove for example. They are globally most known as a female-centric brand. Primarily for the reason, that skincare is a higher priority to a female demographic than it is for males. But do they ignore males? No. They segment their customer base to position and market Dove towards males with a totally different approach, look and feel. It’s the same logo but Dove is playing a different game for each of their ideal customers so that they can appeal to a broader market but with a segmented brand and communication strategy.
It’s much the same for airlines like Emirates. You have First Class, Business Class, Premium Economy and Economy. Each customer, no matter where they sit on the plane is getting from their departure city to their destination city at the same time and on the same plane. The difference obviously is the experience they receive. Which is why customer segmentation is highly considered to sell the experience and the value to each customer in different ways for each so that everyone is valued, rather than selling the same point A to B result.
For an Economy passenger, that flight for them is the gateway to new adventures or to see loved ones. Premium Economy is the reward for flying with us longer and reaching your destination with a little more comfort. Business Class is communicated to two potential segments. Either Business people so that business can be achieved in person due to travel, be able to conduct business while in the air and be well-rested upon arrival. On the other hand, Business Class can be communicated to those looking for a special occasion experience to reach their destination in style (eg. those on a honeymoon). The flagship experience of First Class is targetted at those where the money exchanged is not a consideration. Luxury along with personal comfort and privacy is.
So the games we play as brands can vary. All we need to do is simply adapt the game plan that gets the ball to that particular basket.
9. The Court — The Shopfront (digital or physical)
Ever heard of the home ground advantage? Having your player dressing room, lockers, team graphics on your court, your announcers and crowd cheering you on is why the home ground advantage is huge to the success of a team AND to a brand.
Your home court is your store. It’s either your physical store or office customers can visit, buy from or go to for a service. Or your shop front is your website… it could even be both depending on your business!
It doesn’t matter if your website isn’t an e-commerce store or not. If its simply a hub for customers to find out more about you, that site is just as important as having a physical store or office.
The advantage you have is that your customer has now come to your store. Your not having to entice them from external advertising sources like social media or in newspapers, billboards or TV. Your customer has made the effort to visit you as they want to know more and they want to be given a compelling reason to buy from you.
Apart from having your sales processes in order, are you guiding them to the sale with the most effective and simple step by step process that makes it clear enough for them to find out more or to buy? If your customer is confused as soon as they approach your shop front, we have about 5–10 seconds to change their mind. If the first part of their experience is not simple enough to understand things quickly, we create friction and lose people.
It could be clear CTA buttons on your site or a really clear step by step guide of how your product or service works. In-store it could be greeting your customers with a question like “Welcome, have you been to X (our brand) before?” which allows your staff to take them through a quick and simple breakdown of how to get the most out of their experience to measure expectations.
Your court is the best opportunity you have to make the sale because the ball is in your court and you have a little more control to guide the experience to a potential sale. So make it a consistent and easy to understand experience. One they can pleasantly return to.
10. The Crowd — The Brand’s Audience
Thousands of screaming and cheering fans are what any team needs to spur them on, to win games and improve.
In the context of a brand, these can either be those who have bought into the brand already and have become advocates, evangelists and true fans who buy the courtside seats. Or they simply might be those watching your brand from afar with admiration but may have never bought your product.
To use myself as an example, I’ve never driven, sat in or bought a Tesla car. But I aspire to own one, someday. It makes me a fan sitting in the audience watching Tesla do their thing and hear the rave reviews from their customer's who experience owning a Tesla.
However true fans or even “Super Fans” as Patt Flynn describes them, are the people like me that camp out overnight to buy the new iPhone… Yep, I did that back in 2008 in front of the Sydney Apple Store. Or those who go to the midnight screenings of the newest Star Wars movie… Me again.
There are always those that fall in between who simply need your product or service out of necessity. But there will be customers who want and love your product or service over all others in the market, even if competitors in your industry do it better. It’s why people still follow their basketball team with unwavering loyalty when they’re at the bottom of the league with no wins. They still show up.
As consumers, we become loyal over time. Be it our favourite coffee shop, hairdressers, gaming console, car manufacturer, supermarket or even band.
So when developing a strategy that hinges on getting your brand’s name out there more. Utilise your audience to not only shape what your brand is but allow them to carry your message to others. Be it your marketing, advertising or face to face interactions with them in your store, all businesses have a customer that is willing to come back for more and tell all their friends. You might just need to stay top of mind and stoke their fire a little for them to get that message out there. This in itself could potentially become a strategic goal for your brand.
11. The Season — The Brand Goal(s)
The overarching season strategy is obviously to win the title championship as well as winning each game leading up to it. The comparison here is that our overarching brand strategy is the north star we are aiming to reach or to align the brand in the direction of that north star.
So knowing what the end goal or objective is, allows us to win each game that leads us to reach our goal. That end goal could be to have:
A trusted brand
A relatable identity
A recognisable and easily remembered identity
A unified voice and values
Team alignment of staff (present and future)
A more consistent user experience
A successful entry into a new market or territory
But to reach that season we may need to hit smaller goals that are stepping stones to help us achieve the strategies mentioned above. Things like:
More sales/sign-ups/engagements, etc.
A greater number of reviews/testimonials
A brand identity that reflects the personality and expectations of the business and the customer
A more memorable and/or consistent brand experience
All of these are especially used to measure outcomes, as a kind of KPI (Key Performance Indicator). Purely to know we’re on course to achieving the brand strategy goal(s).
A well-considered, developed and tested brand strategy is important for any brand to succeed, just the same as it was for the Chicago Bulls to win two three-peat championships. The takeaway is that no one player, even Michael Jordan (aka. your logo), can achieve success alone. So when you approach a branding specialist to create a new logo, you’ll know that a logo isn’t going to shift the needle as much as the whole strategy behind it.
This was originally a short, sharp ten slide Instagram carousel that was created in collaboration with Chris Do from The Futur on his Instagram page. All in an effort to help fellow designers understand the place brand strategy has in the grand scheme of branding and how it impacts every facet of that brand.
So a big thanks to Chris once again for the opportunity, especially to expand upon this analogy I originally created exactly a year ago. Interestingly, the analogy that was used back then, was for a football (soccer) team.
I hope this loooooong read proves to be helpful in understanding the benefits for having brand strategy implemented into your business if you are a business owner. Or if you’re a branding service provider, that this might have expanded your understanding of brand strategy and use it as a part of your skillset to better help your clients and achieve collective success.