Rebooting Brand Strategy for the Digital Age

This article is written by David Taylor, Group Managing Partner of the brandgym and was originally published in Market Leader, Quarter 1, 2017.

The growing importance of digital and social channels is confirmed by the survey reported in this article, and harnessing these channels is top of marketing directors' agendas. However, the study highlights the risk of neglecting brand strategy in the rush to experiment with the latest, sexiest digital toys. David Taylor argues that the key to creating brand-led growth is not to overlook brand strategy, but to 'reboot' it for the digital age.

Digital marketing is the topic of conversation for most marketing directors and their teams today; in some cases, it seems to be the only thing they want to talk about. Take the chief marketing officer of one of the world's leading consumer goods companies as an example. In a recent meeting, ostensibly to discuss brand and business strategy, her main question for us was not to do with strategy at all, but was rather "What is your guys' take on digital marketing?"

Now, we might expect such a digital-centric view of marketing from a younger 'millennial marketer', but from a CMO?

This experience prompted us to properly think through the challenge put to us and come up with a clear point of view. But rather than coming at the digital question from a general marketing angle - something already done to death - we decided to use the lens of brand strategy. We asked ourselves: what is the role of brand strategy in a marketing world transformed by digital technology? Is it still relevant, given the apparent need for brands to be agile, adapting their message and tone depending on the channel they are using? And if brand strategy does still play an important role, how should the brand vision and positioning process evolve to be fit for purpose in today's digital age?


To answer these questions, we carried out research with marketing directors across multiple categories and markets, including leading companies such as Unilever, SABMiller, PepsiCo and Mondelez International. More than 100 people completed a quantitative survey and 2 5 of these marketing leaders did follow-up, in-depth interviews with us to explore the key issues in more detail. This article shares key insights from the research and makes recommendations on the way forward.

Brand Strategy in Crisis?

The first and most fundamental finding from our research is that brand strategy is suffering something of a crisis, struggling for attention in a marketing world where digital marketing is so dominant. More than 95% of the marketing directors in our survey agreed that digital marketing had become more important in the past two years, streets ahead of any other marketing topic. Every week there seems to be a sexy new social media channel popping up, selling itself as the next big thing. And scaremongering, headline-grabbing social media experts warn that marketing is undergoing seismic change, and that you had better keep up or risk extinction. It is, therefore, perhaps not surprising that the main driver of social media usage in our survey is 'Keeping up with latest trends' (Figure 1).

Fewer than a quarter of companies are basing their social media usage on tangible evidence of business benefits. Even more concerning is the fact that this proportion has barely shifted since the research we published in Market Leader four years ago, in an article entitled 'Can social media show you the money?'1

In fact, so much time, effort and energy is being spent on digital channel selection and execution that many marketers are neglecting the fundamentals of brand strategy, despite their best intentions. On the one hand, 91% of the marketing directors surveyed agreed with the statement "The key to effective digital marketing is clear brand positioning". Our face-to-face interviews confirmed that a clear and compelling brand idea is more important than ever. Marketing directors have to conduct an ever-enlarging 'orchestra of brand musicians', in the form of different agencies delivering the brand over multiple channels. But, on the other hand, the majority of the same marketing directors also agreed that "With the focus on digital/social marketing, brand strategy gets overlooked". Professor Mark Ritson highlighted this issue recently, commenting that: "Marketing seems to be devolving into a tactical pursuit, devoid of strategic thinking." 2

This apparent disconnect between strategic intent and executional focus has serious consequences. Many brands may be missing a compelling, coherent brand strategy to inspire and guide effective marketing across all channels, including social and digital. This in turn raises the risk of brand equity being diluted over time, as brand messaging and experiences become fragmented.

Figure 1. Key drivers for companies' use of social media


Rebooting Brand Strategy

So what is needed to encourage marketing and agency teams to refocus some of their time and energy back on harnessing the power of brand strategy? Encouragingly, our research suggests that brand strategy isn't broken altogether, with the majority of marketing directors recommending fine-tuning. The challenge is not to totally reinvent brand strategy, but rather to 'reboot' it for the digital age. Our research identified three main drivers of success for brand strategy in a digital age (Figure 2).

  • We need even deeper insight into people's lives, hopes and concerns, not just into products and services.
  • Brand positioning needs a greater sense of purpose, going beyond the role of the product to the role the brand plays in life and society.
  • Brand positioning outputs need to be simpler and more visual, as the basis for inspiring creative briefs that work across multiple touchpoints.

I explore each of these three success drivers below, brought to life with examples from our interviews and brandgym project work.

Figure 2. Success drivers of brand strategy (% very important)


Search for Truth

The most important success factor for brand positioning today remains deep consumer insight. This insight needs to be holistic, exploring the role of the brand in consumers' lives and popular culture, not just in its product category. '"Role in life' is becoming more important," observed one marketing director, recommending a need for "clarity on which culturally relevant conversations the brands need to have a point of view on."

Carling Black Label, a leading beer brand in South Africa, used this approach as the foundation for a successful positioning relaunch that reversed several years of volume decline. Semiotic decoding revealed a cultural truth about masculine achievement (the brand's heartland) no longer being about the physical effort at work, which had been a brand focus for years. The 'blue-collar hero' portrayed in the brand's marketing was no longer an aspirational role model in the way it was during the initial post-apartheid era. Masculine achievement had become a multidimensional construct, encompassing other aspects of life, whether it be a man's role as a sportsman, brother, father or friend. This cultural truth was combined with a human truth about men needing inspiration and reward to help them achieve their potential.

Insight into the brand revealed a relevant brand truth about Carling being South Africa's most-awarded beer and the perfect reward for achievement. The fusion of these different forms of insight led to the creation of a brand purpose about making everyday men feel like champion men, and the brand idea 'Champion Men Deserve a Champion Beer'.


Carling Black Label's 'Champion Beer' Campaign

This inspired a refreshed communication campaign and also an award-winning activation platform, 'Be the Champion Coach'. Twenty million consumers voted via mobile to select the players in a pre-season derby match between South Africa's top two football teams, with the activation subsequently winning mobile marketing campaign awards. Here we have sexy social and digital marketing, but focused on bringing to life a clear and compelling brand strategy.

Digital technology can help generate the right insight, with data mining and social listening identified as the most useful techniques in our survey. However, marketing directors suggested that these complement rather than replace direct, real-life contact with consumers, such as immersive insight and observation.

The optimum approach, as with media channels, is to blend the best of new digital techniques with tried-and-trusted, more conventional ones. Ben & Jerry's used this blended insight approach to refine its marketing mix and boost effectiveness. Social listening showed increased 'chatter' about the brand on Thursdays in anticipation of the weekend. Data mining indicated particularly high consumption during hot weekends, as expected. But wet and rainy weekends also prompted sales peaks. The data mining showed what consumers were doing. However, immersive interviews were needed to reveal why they were behaving in such a way - which revealed that they were using the brand as an emotional lift, nicely reflecting the brand's positioning of 'Joy for the belly and soul'. This led to a refined media strategy, with investment focused pre-weekend, leading to an increase in ROI.

Ben & Jerry's blended real-life insights with data feedback


Position on purpose

Having a clear sense of purpose about the broader role a brand plays in people's lives and society is now more important for almost two-thirds of our panel, with a typical comment: "We speak more about brand purpose, aligned to how the brand really makes our consumers' lives better." This reflects in part the increasing desire and ability of connected consumers to learn about the companies behind the brands they buy.

Lynx recently sharpened and updated its brand purpose to ensure the brand remains progressive and provocative for today's young men. This is part of a move away from the brand's '1990s lads' mag' image using advertising featuring scantily clad women. Research undertaken among 3,500 men across ten countries showed that they feel pressured by masculine stereotypes, with only 15% agreeing that the stereotypes are attractive. On the other hand, nine out of ten women find men most attractive when they are themselves. This led to a brand purpose of 'Helping guys to celebrate their individuality and be as attractive as they can be' and a new campaign, 'Find Your Magic'. This illustrates that it is important to ensure brand purpose is relevant to the category in question and avoids 'laddering up' so high that it loses touch with reality. In the case of Lynx, the purpose is still anchored on the product truth of great fragrances that make guys feel and smell good. With the new strategy the brand has remembered and refreshed what made it famous.

To be authentic, brand purpose should also be integrated into the brand experience, rather than bolted on as an afterthought. For example, the 'Good Business Journey' of South African retailer Woolworths plays a central role in the brand's marketing, including digital and in-store activation. This includes the MySchool card, which donates a percentage of each shopping trip to a school of the customer's choice.

Inspiring brand briefs

Brand positioning outputs need to be simpler and easier to understand for today's marketing and agency teams. As one marketing director observed: "We are constructing long stories for a hashtag generation." Having a final crafting process done by a small team, not a committee, is one suggestion to sharpen and simplify the brand positioning. But words alone are not enough, especially not the complex, text-heavy, box-filling positioning tools still commonly in use. More use of visuals or video helps make the brand strategy more inspiring. Techniques we have successfully used on recent projects to bring to life brand positioning include brand magazines (more readable than conventional brand books), brand story videos and even turning the positioning into a movie poster.

Simpler, clearer and more visual positioning outputs then need translating into an inspiring creative brief. And, here, today's digital age requires a balancing act. There remains a need for a unifying big brand idea. On the other hand, clear guidance is also needed on how to carefully adapt the message and tonality for different connection points, without too much change that leads to brand fragmentation. The shipping company Maersk Line used customer research to adapt delivery of its unifying brand idea 'Your Promise. Delivered' for different social channels. Encouragingly, the focus for Maersk is firmly on following the money. Davina Rapaport, social media manager, recently explained at Marketing Week Live how the company's social media strategy has moved "from communication to commercial", with a focus now on "generating leads, not just likes".

Face-to-face time beats facetime

Having established three key ways to reboot brand strategy, one final area we wanted to explore was how best to work with a team on brand strategy. Our approach to creating brand vision and action plans has always been based on a collaborative, workshop-based approach, bringing together cross-functional teams to co-create the strategy and action plans. However, given the advances in technology, such as video conferencing and online ideation tools, we wondered if this approach was obsolete.

Our research suggests it is not: even in the digital age, face-to-face meetings are still key for creating big brand ideas, according to 87% of the people surveyed. As one digital agency head commented: "Even with all the technology for running meetings, you still can't beat getting a bunch of bright people together in a room for creating breakthrough ideas."


The importance of the emerging digital and social media channels shouldn't be allowed to obscure the overarching importance of strategy. The key to creating brand-led growth today is not to overlook brand strategy, but rather to reboot it for the digital age.

  • Search for truth: uncover deep, true insights, not just for your product category, but also about culture and your consumers' lives.
  • Position with purpose: make your brand positioning more purposeful, aligned to how it can really make people's lives better.
  • Less is more: ensure your positioning is simple, clear and visually inspiring.
  • Consumer connection: use a single big brand idea and insight to connect consumers with relevant, distinctive content at the right time.


  1. 'Can social media show you the money?', Market Leader, Quarter 1 2013,pp28-30

Source: Rebooting Brand Strategy for the Digital Age - David Taylor, Market Leader Quarter 1 2017, January 2017