Brand Focus: The fear factor

The second in a three-part series on best practices to focus your brand's offer and communication....

27 May 2014 5087 Views

One of the primary tasks of strategic marketing is helping brands focus both their message and their target audience. But for brand managers that means making decisions. And that means taking risks, after all what if you choose the wrong thing to focus on? And that makes a lot of marketers anxious.  As Pontus Staunstrup pointed out in a recent post on the subject “A key aspect of strategic development is that it forces us to make — and commit to —decisions. … To many managers, this is a frightening prospect.” So, in many cases they simply don’t do it. Worse still, they rationalize their unwillingness to focus with faux-focus or (fauxus for short).

Image by Andrés Þór

It starts with the marketing manager agreeing to the brand’s value proposition and desired position. Then, over time, they begin to lose their resolve. Sometimes it is because they did choose the wrong position. But far more often it is because nature hates focus almost as much as a vacuum. People outside the marketing function who don’t understand the necessity of focus start contributing their varied opinions.

The brand manager tries to accommodate these different views by “developing” the strategy. This means adding novel items like “Key Message”, “USP”, “Core Value”, “Principle Attribute”, “Lead Selling Point”, etc.. Most of these are euphemisms for “alternate value propositions”. Before you know it, the brand communication architecture is a crowded smorgasbord of positioning possibilities and reasons to buy. The brand manager will rationalize the inclusion of all the extraneous elements based on the fact that every extra bit and bob has been given an important-sounding label. To the non-marketer, this looks like a focused strategy. The rest of us see if for what it is: fauxus.

Preventing fauxus requires two things. The first is making a clear distinction between risk avoidance and risk management. Marketing is an attempt to predict the future. Risk is inherent in that endeavor and therefore needs to be embraced. We can mitigate this risk greatly with research. But, data and insight will only take us so far. At one point, marketers must use that input to make a choice and focus. That’s what risk management is all about: Accepting that you’ll never have perfect information, but striving to reduce the gap in your understanding so that your leap of faith is as short as possible given your resources. Ironically, taking intelligent risks regularly, is the lowest-risk strategy for managing a brand.

The other alternative is risk avoidance. Managers who avoid risk use fauxus to give the appearance of being decisive without actually making any decisions. On the surface, choosing not to focus the brand message (being everything to everyone) appeals to common sense as the safest way to proceed i.e., “casting a broader net.” But a marketer who avoids risk is like a lifeguard who avoids water. They both pose a great risk to any person/brand under their supervision. Avoiding risk for brands means keeping the message either me-too or broad. Either choice cripples the brand’s ability to distinguish, differentiate and penetrate crowded markets with a message.

The tendency to avoid risk rather than embrace and manage it is not necessarily a character flaw. It can be a learned behavior in corporate environments where risk is discouraged and failure punished. Over time, this type of environment can turn even the best brand manager into a bland manager. In such cases, corporate survival trumps marketing strategy and the bland manger winds up making decisions based on what’s best for their career rather than what’s best for shareholders. The real problem is that the best marketers will shun these types of companies and their marketing departments will become magnets for aqua-phobic lifeguards.

So, step one in focusing your brand is to be sure the person in charge of the brand is capable of managing risk and understands that they are expected to take intelligent risks regularly, even if that means occasionally failing. Steve Hunton provides a nice overview on the subject in his Introduction to Risk Management. It’s important that senior management provides an environment, at least in the marketing department, that encourages and supports intelligent risk taking. Conversely, risk avoidance should be the trait that is openly disparaged. It should be called out and punished with the same vigor we usually reserve for foolish risk-taking with the brand.

The second step to focusing your brand message is a lot easier. It’s just adopting a consistent methodology for reducing the hundreds of potential selling points down into one focused message. In my next post, I’ll share a simple technique that we have found useful to focus the brand’s message and, just as important, keep it focused.

Sean Duffy | @brandranter
Speaker, consultant & founder of Duffy Agency, the flipped digital agency that provides accelerated growth to aspiring international brands.