Friday, June 19, 2009

Sponge, Idiot Savant, Creative, Geek.

A few people have asked what a brand strategist is and what resources I recommend for aspiring brand strategists. In super simple terms, a brand strategist is someone who learns everything there is to learn about a brand and everything surrounding that brand - including its users, fans, prospects, detractors - and can distill it down into only what matters to create the most relevant value proposition. And then recommends marketing and/or communication strategies for bringing that brand to life. 

A great brand strategist is: 

1) A sponge. You don't have to be a full-blown Account Planner, necessarily, to be a great brand strategist. But if you don't have a heaping helping of passionate intellectual curiosity, do choose a different path. My top three books on brand strategy are: 

Building Strong Brands, by David Aaker. Very academic but it's The Bible. This is what Harley-Davidson used to craft their brand identity system when I worked on their business. If you still have questions about what a brand strategist is, read this book and there will be no further possible questions. 

Disruption. Beyond Disruption. How Disruption Brought Order. all by Jean-Marie Dru and all absolute must reads. 

Truth, Lies and Advertising by Jon Steel. 

Those are just the books, obviously there are other publications (I love Communication Arts), numerous blogs (see blog roll for just a few of many), piles of research, etc. 

2) An idiot savant. I suck at abstract math, science, and history, and really anything truly useful in the world. But I can cut through a brand strategy like a knife through butter. Which does not exactly put me up for the Nobel Prize, but hey, it's fun. To be a brand strategist, you need a bizarre God-given ability to take an enormous pile of information and cut to just what matters. To craft it into a tight proposition that is confident, relevant and captures the heart of the brand experience. Frankly, I'm not convinced that being a really great brand strategist can be taught. You are either strategic, or you aren't. If you aren't, don't beat your head against the wall. 

3) A creative. Right now, I have on my desk essentially a laminated placemat of a brand value proposition architecture that a new client feels captures their brand to a tee. But it is complete and utter garbage if I can't translate it to a far more brilliant creative team in a language that they can relate to. (There's some killer stuff in Truth, Lies and Advertising on how to do this. The hair on the balls of a bee; if that doesn't pique your curiosity, I don't know what will. Read it.) So it helps if you have at least some creative urges, sensibilities or at least appreciation. 

4) A geek. While tactical planning is (thankfully) not a huge part of the job as a brand strategist, it definitely helps to throw yourself learning about all kinds of media, interactive, social and otherwise, so you can therefore bring forward ideas for how to express your strategies in a variety of ways, which inspires others. And it's important to be an inspiring geek, not a boring geek. If I am a boring geek, God forbid, I hope you will tell me so I stop blogging. 

It's pretty simple stuff. I hope that helps? What other resources do you recommend? 


  1. Thank you so much for these resources, I already have the books on order.

    Do you think there are any relevent ties between brand strategy and recognizing relevent emotional responses to a brand? How would you harness that ability and translate it into action that can apply to molding a brand's strategy?

  2. Absolutely - a brand is, by definition, an emotional relationship. You can't build a relevant brand strategy without including relevant emotional benefits. (Building Strong Brands explains this in a ton of detail.) Part of the "Savant" part of the job should include recognizing those emotional insights. In bigger agencies, Account Planning typically takes a leading role in that part of the gig. So if that's the part that turns you on, you might want to consider Account Planning. And you'll love Truth, Lies and Advertising.

  3. A Consumer?

    You could argue that being in the shoes of the consumer is part of knowing a brand inside and out, but you should be savvy of current consumer trends, wants, and needs to understand the right strategies to recommend.

  4. I feel a brand strategist needs to have a good solid gut feel for a brand and its imformation as well. On top of that, it's very important to be a strong storyteller.

    There is a significant element of emotion and meaning/essense that can and needs to be driven into a brand and a lot of the time, you just have to rely on what your gut is telling you.

    It helps to have a counterpart who can help prove the position, but guidance by gut is a powerful tool.

    Being able to tell the rich and powerful story is where it all comes together.

    My favorite branding books are Personality Not Included (Rohit Bhargava) and one not-intentionally-branding book: Blue Ocean Strategy. It's brilliant.

  5. AL #1 - I totally agree - a huge part of being a sponge is soaking up those emotional insights into what makes people tick. While marketers often refer to them as needs, wants, drivers, motivators, whatever, and those are useful terms, I prefer "insights" as I find it to be a bit more human. Likewise I try to avoid calling them "consumers" as it feels very detached for me personally from the fact that they are people like you and me. Its semantics, but I think that for some people it can be reflective of their outlook and ability to truly step out of their cubicle and look at their customers as people. Thanks so much for stopping by and commenting.

  6. Al Krueger -

    Wow you finally commented on my blog. It took you long enough! :D

    I agree with you on the importance of gut feel. It's a huge part of what makes the Idiot into the Savant!

    RE: being a storyteller. You know I agree with how essential that is in general. As a strategist, though, it's not really my gig. I feed the storytellers what to tell stories about. Make sense?

    Thanks for commenting!

  7. Yes! The sponge part is great, but while it's important to leverage knowledge from one engagement to the next, it's also sometimes important to be able to forget everything you know. Knowledge gained from one project can sometimes equal "baggage" for another. Great post, I wonder if this will fly on my resume...