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Is brand strategy a creative or a logical exercise?

Lindsay Says

Brand is neither purely analytical nor solely emotional – it’s both.

Leaders have different styles. Some lean into logic and approach every decision analytically. Some go with their gut and tackle challenges instinctively. The best leaders have a style that allows for both. And the best brands do too.

The Crux Is the Crossroads

When you are building a brand strategy for your business, you might think that it is primarily a creative exercise, a soft exercise, an exercise to engage the hearts of your customers. Or you might consider it an analytical exercise, an exercise in engaging your customers’ minds.

Both perspectives are correct. A brand strategy is both a creative and a logical exercise, meant to engage both a customer’s heart and her mind. 

In fact, the power of brand strategy is not in one of two sides but in the intersection of the two. Your customers are whole people – never just a walking heart or an unattached logic machine. We are all both of those things, at every moment of every day – and during every business transaction. The power is in the whole.

How Do I Do Both?

The answer is surprisingly simple: operate intuitively, but within strategic constraints. Before expressing your brand creatively (through design or messaging), develop a deliberate, framework-driven brand strategy. This vital framework provides boundaries within which to unleash creative expressions of your brand.

Here are two examples of resonant creative that resulted from exacting frameworks.

Shakespeare, Beep Beep!

Shakespeare, most would agree, was wildly creative. His literary works have stirred readers and theatergoers for centuries. But consider this: Shakespeare used strict constraints to create his plays. He wrote verse in iambic pentameter, requiring a line of verse with five metrical feet, each with one short or unstressed syllable followed by one long or stressed syllable. Within the demands of the iambic pentameter, Shakespeare produced volume upon volume of beloved and enduring literature.

And consider the Road Runner cartoons. Creator Chuck Jones defined strict rules to guide development of every episode. These rules are at times downright wacky. From “Rule #4: No dialogue ever except Beep Beep” to “Rule 6: All action must be confined to the desert,” Jones’s rules were his constraints, the edges of his canvas. Within this framework, Road Runner writers invented stories, tricks, and solutions in these adored mini-dramas.

This fruitful blend of structure and imagination illustrates exactly what resonant brand building requires too. Embrace the blend, and your business will engage with customers at the levels of both heart and mind.

The Perfect Relationship

Remember that brand is the relationship between a person and a business. If you ask yourself, “What’s a brand I really love? What do I love about it?” I bet your answer is multidimensional, just like any relationship. It has a grounded, functional appeal to appease your intellect. It has an inspirational appeal that stirs your emotions. Left brain, right brain; mind, heart.

I’ll explain with an example of a brand I love: Trader Joe’s. The stores sell grass-fed beef and also orchids. While I shop, I can enjoy free samples of coffee while my kids enjoy the in-store games. The people working there seem genuinely happy to help. Many of those things are emotional: I feel positive emotions when I shop there. Many are logical: the stores have the groceries that I want and need and that delight my family. If you take away either one of those, it’s not a full brand.

Like Shakespeare and the Road Runner cartoons, Trader Joe’s abides by its own stringent rules to deliver its promise. And like Shakespeare and the beloved Road Runner, Trader Joe’s is an unequivocal success: at around $8 billion in annual sales, Trader Joe’s sells twice as much per square foot as does Whole Foods.

Whether Shakespeare, Road Runner, or Trader Joe’s, stories and brands span the mundane to the sublime, the rational to the emotional, the sensory to the verbal. If you think of your brand as encompassing all of these things, just like any rich relationship, customers are more likely to bond meaningfully with you. And structure helps you span all of these elements.

Evaluate Your Brand with Both Heart and Mind

It’s not just your overarching brand that needs to span the logical and the emotional. It’s every single expression of it. As a leader, you’re called upon for all manner of marketing and operational decisions. Leaning on your brand strategy – and its blend of logic and emotion – will make these decisions easier.

When you’re evaluating any expression of your brand – a tagline, an innovation, a new price, a new way of buying your offering, a website graphic, an advertisement – I recommend you do so in a way that is not overly romantic. If you have a deliberate and ownable brand strategy, then everything about your business should stem from that strategy and be evaluated as such. Conversely, you don’t want to be overly clinical. You want the expression of your brand to be human and real, to be in sync with your gut. The key is to be holistic, to blend the creative and the logical.

I’m often in the position of advising leaders as they make important decisions about branding  – about how they express their brand to potential customers. Here’s the advice I give:

  1. Get extremely clear about your audience and their needs and what you uniquely offer to your audience. The intersection of your target customer’s desire and your unique strength is what I call your Uncommon Denominator. 
  2. Act methodically to express your unique promise, while also letting everything you do be informed by your gut.
  3. Do this by, in short, knowing yourself. Know your business’s orientation and its comfort zone – and know your default approach to decisions. I coach my clients who tend to evaluate ideas purely from a gut standpoint to keep checking themselves with the questions “Is this on-strategy? Does this express something that only my business can do and that is meaningful to our specific target customer? Is it big enough to matter, narrow enough to win?” With my clients who evaluate purely from an analytical standpoint, I coach them to consider, “Do you like what we’re producing? What does your gut say? Do you enjoy this, genuinely? Does it light you up in some way?”

If your comfort zone is in thinking of brand as a creative exercise, great. But don’t forego the logical structure to help guide and harness and unlock that creativity.

If you prefer to live unbound by rules, don’t be afraid of structure, because it’s the foundation for creativity that ignites your audience.

Harness Boundaries and Edges

Your best brand building doesn’t come from rigid rules or serendipity alone. A brand is most moving when you have used both your left brain and your right brain to create and express it, and when you are appealing to your customer’s left brain and right brain. By developing a framework-driven brand strategy before developing creative output, you are taking a page from Shakespeare and Chuck Jones. You are harnessing boundaries and edges to make your whole brand sing. 

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