Case Study

How to reboot brand strategy for the digital age

In the rush to engage today's connected consumers, the fundamentals of brand strategy are being neglected. That's why a clear brand positioning is more important than ever, David Taylor and Jon Goldstone write.

Lynx's global campaign encouraged men to throw off the shackles of conformity
Lynx's global campaign encouraged men to throw off the shackles of conformity

There is no doubt that digital marketing is the main topic of conversation for marketing directors and their teams today; in some cases, it appears to be the only thing they want to talk about. Every week, it seems a sexy new social media channel will pop up and sell itself as the next big thing. And there is no shortage of scaremongering and headline-grabbing from digital experts, who remind you how marketing is undergoing seismic change and warn that you had better keep up or risk extinction. 

So it is not surprising that "keeping up with the latest trends" was given as the main driver of social media use, according to research from The Brandgym, which questioned more than 100 marketing directors working in multiple categories and markets. 

Less than a quarter of those surveyed said their company based its social media use on the tangible evidence of business benefits. And the number of companies that were following the money, not the hype, had barely shifted since we questioned marketing directors four years ago.

Don’t get us wrong. New digital channels have opened up exciting and potentially profitable ways for companies to engage with ever more connected consumers. However, the risk of spending so much time, effort and energy on digital channel selection and execution is that the fundamentals of brand strategy are being neglected.  

On one hand, 91% of the marketing directors surveyed agreed that "the key to effective digital marketing is clear brand positioning". Face-to-face interviews with more than 20 of the respondents confirmed that a clear brand idea is more important than ever to help orchestrate the growing number of agencies delivering a brand over multiple channels. 

And yet most of the same marketing directors also agreed that, "with the focus on digital/social marketing, brand strategy gets overlooked". There are a lot of brands out there without a compelling, coherent big brand idea to inspire and guide effective marketing across all channels. As one marketing director observed: "For many people, digital is the lifeboat of marketing thinking." 

This neglect of brand strategy raises the risk of brand equity being diluted over time as the brand message and experience get fragmented across an ever-increasing number of channels.

So, how to inspire marketing and agency teams to rediscover the power of brand strategy? Our research suggests brand strategy isn’t broken; most marketing directors recommend fine-tuning it. The challenge is not to totally reinvent brand strategy but to "reboot" it for the digital age. 

Our research with marketing directors identified three main ways to achieve success. First, inject a greater sense of purpose into brand positioning by going beyond the role of the product to its role in life and society. Second, gain even deeper insight into consumers’ lives, hopes and concerns. Third, make brand positioning simpler and more visual to ensure more inspiring creative briefs.

Pot Noodle: The search for truth 

The most important success factor for brand positioning in the digital age remains deep consumer insight. This insight needs to be holistic and to explore the role of brands in consumers’ lives and popular culture, not just in their product categories. Digital technology can help generate the right insight, with data mining and social listening identified as the most useful techniques. However, marketing directors suggested that these should complement rather than replace direct, real-life contact with consumers. As with branding in general, the challenge is to reboot the insight process by blending the best of new, digitally enabled techniques with tried-and-tested approaches.

Pot Noodle used this strategy to revitalise its brand. Andrea Grimandi, brand director for savoury at Unilever, explains: "The insight behind the new Pot Noodle positioning came from a combination of social listening and deep consumer immersions. If we had stayed in the office and not visited students in their own kitchens, we wouldn’t have got anywhere close to the richness of understanding."

The social listening employed by the team revealed that the brand was stuck in the past: Pot Noodle was seen as a quick solution for people too lazy to cook a proper meal. The previous major campaign in 2011, "Why try harder?", reinforced this image, featuring a footballer’s wife character played by a man living a Wag’s life of leisure. This approach may have felt cutting-edge at the time but it was less suited to today’s era of start-ups and student debt. Culture had moved on. Pot Noodle had not.

When the team spent time talking to students, the initial feedback confirmed Pot Noodle’s negative brand image – most students denied buying it. However, poking around in the same students’ cupboards revealed they did use the product, albeit reluctantly. Pot Noodle was a convenient, tasty time-saver but its image was offputting.

The new "You can make it" positioning makes the brand more aspirational for today’s ambitious and go-getting millennial consumers. The campaign, by Lucky Generals, has delivered double-digit growth and dramatically improved levels of awareness, brand equity and social engagement. 

Lynx: Position with purpose 

Our research suggested that a clear sense of the broader role a brand plays in people’s lives and society is increasingly important. This reflects the growing desire among consumers to learn more about the companies behind the brands they buy. 

Lynx recently refreshed its brand purpose, moving away from the babes-in-bikinis image to remain progressive and provocative for today’s young men. Research carried out among 3,500 men across ten countries showed that they felt pressured by masculine stereotypes and only 15% thought themselves attractive. On the other hand, nine out of ten women said they found men most attractive when they were being themselves. This led to the formation of a new brand purpose – "helping guys to celebrate their individuality and be as attractive as they can" – and a new advertising campaign, "Find your magic".

Brand purpose should be authentic and integrated into the brand experience, rather than bolted on as an afterthought. In the case of Lynx, the brand has not only launched a grooming range and a distinctive new advertising campaign by 72andSunny Amsterdam, it also became the official partner of the Campaign Against Living Miserably, a charity dedicated to reducing the rate of suicides among men.

Mark Bleathman, marketing vice-president for personal care at Unilever UK, says: "The refreshed purpose, ‘Find your magic’ idea and Calm partnership have inspired us to do some extremely meaningful work that we are all very proud of." 

Purdey’s: Bring the brand to life 

Brand positioning needs to be simpler and easier to understand. One marketing director suggests: "We are constructing long stories for a hashtag generation." A final crafting process by a small team, not a committee, can sharpen and simplify the positioning. Visuals can then provide extra inspiration. Alternatives to complex brand pyramids include brand magazines, brand story videos and even turning the positioning into a movie poster. 

These simpler, clearer and more visual positioning outputs can form the basis of an inspiring creative brief. Here, our research highlighted the balancing act required in today’s digital age. There remains a need for a unifying big brand idea to orchestrate the larger number of agencies delivering the brand. However, clear guidance is needed on how to adapt the message and tone for different connection points, including social media.

A good example of a brand pulling off this balancing act is the recent relaunch of Purdey’s, the Britvic-owned soft drink for adults. There was a fear that the strength of the new brand ambassador, Idris Elba, would dominate and detract from the strategic objective. A combination of inspiration and discipline helped ensure that the brand connected with the right audience at the right moments. 

Kevin McNair, GB marketing director at Britvic, says: "It was important that everyone working on the brand knew the best way to leverage our relationship with Idris Elba. An old-fashioned positioning document wouldn’t have done the job. We used a powerful combination of video, impactful visuals and personal briefings. We involved Idris himself through the creative process – there was excellent collaboration between the agency, brand and ambassador."

This seamlessly integrated campaign has increased sales of Purdey’s by more than 30%.  

David Taylor and Jon Goldstone are managing partners at The Brandgym


About the research

The research was carried out by The Brandgym in May and June 2016. A global quantitative survey questioned more than 100 senior marketing professionals from across a range of different sectors and geographies. 

In-depth interviews were also carried out with more than 20 marketing directors from companies including Unilever, Johnson & Johnson, SABMiller, Britvic, Google and Costa.