Ultimate Guide Brand Strategy | Branding 101

Kevin Namaky
13 min readJul 24, 2023

Brand strategy is made up of a few core frameworks that work together to define and set direction for your brand. Once you’ve documented these components, you’ll be able to more cohesively build brand equity, tell your brand’s story, and create a message map that keeps your market executions on strategy. Be sure to subscribe for more brand management guides and frameworks.

Branding is a somewhat nebulous term. Depending on who you talk to, branding can mean a couple of things or it could mean 100 different things. If fact, here’s a list of documents I’ve seen “experts,” “consultants,” and “strategists” say are required for branding:

  • Brand Vision
  • Brand Mission
  • Brand Story
  • Brand Manifesto
  • Brand Positioning
  • Brand Purpose
  • Brand Promise
  • Brand Strategy
  • Brand Persona
  • Brand Profile
  • Brand Muse
  • Brand Idea
  • Brand Message
  • Brand Logo
  • Brand Guidelines
  • Brand Values
  • Brand Construct
  • Brand Archetype
  • Brand Identity
  • Brand Tagline

If so many things can be considered “branding,” how on earth are you supposed to know if you’ve covered all your branding bases? And do you really need ALL that stuff?

The straight answer is, “no.” You don’t need all that stuff. And if you do have that many things in your branding, it’s actually more harmful than helpful.

After 20 years as a brand insider, I can confidently tell you that most of the stuff on that long list is a total waste of your time. Any good brand leader can define the brand using just a few documents, and in this guide I will show you the ones I recommend.

This guide will empower you to create and define a brand and to lead branding projects with clear thinking and frameworks for brand development.

STRATEGIC PLANNING VS. BRAND STRATEGY VS. BRANDING — WHAT’S THE DIFFERENCE?

We’re here to focus on the core components of brand strategy. But how does that differ from strategic planning and branding? Aren’t they all the same thing? Well, yes and no.

While all of these terms are related to brand strategy, they each solve a different piece of the puzzle. Let’s dig into what the differences are between strategic planning, brand strategy, and branding.

Strategic Planning. You gotta do your homework — strategic planning includes market research, market analysis, competitive research, and the creation of a business assessment. All of this information is then used to outline a long-term business strategy that includes your business vision/objectives, key issues, strategies, and roadmap. Depending on your organization, you’ll hear different terms and language, but basically all of these terms mean approximately the same thing:

  • Business Strategy
  • Strategic Plan (a.k.a. Strat Plan)
  • Brand Plan
  • Growth Plan
  • Long-term Plan

I personally use the terms strategic plan and business strategy interchangeably — those are my preferred terms.

Note that many people will refer to the long-term business or growth plan for the brand as their “brand strategy.” I avoid referring to the larger business strategy in this way because I think it creates confusion with the brand definition documents that I’m going to teach you how to use in this guide.

Brand Strategy. I use the term “brand strategy” to refer to the set of internal strategic documents that define the brand, including targeting strategy, positioning/messaging strategy, portfolio architecture (a.k.a. brand architecture), and design strategy. You can consider brand strategy as a subset or supporting pillar of your overarching business strategy.

Branding. Branding is the cumulation of both the internal and external assets strategically developed to create or reinforce a specific impression or perception in the minds of a specific audience.

The internal assets are what I referred to above as the “brand strategy.” The external assets are executions that can include product design, a big creative idea, your marketing and media plans, and your brand activations (ad, web, PR, events, etc.).

Both the internal and external assets collectively make up “branding,” and both work together to help you build brand equity.

Now that we have the higher-level concepts clarified, let’s dive into what I recommend you need for your band strategy (your internal branding documents).

TARGETING STRATEGY

When you create a targeting strategy, that means you are aiming your marketing efforts toward a specific consumer or customer group. These target group members will all share a common defining characteristic, one that makes them receptive to the benefit your brand provides.

To create a targeting strategy, you should employ the following guidelines and tips:

  • Conduct research with consumers and customers.
  • Think persona — imagine a single person and write to them.
  • Go beyond demographics.
  • Balance size with winability — find the balance of having a meaningful audience in size but also be able to have a winnable strategy.
  • Target narrow, catch wide — avoid broad/vague targets like “moms,” “millennials,” or “health conscious.”

SEVEN DEFINING CHARACTERISTICS OF A TARGET AUDIENCE

I always consider these seven key characteristics when targeting a brand’s audience. Once defined, you’ll be in a better position to find and serve your high-potential customers and shield your business from competitors.

  • Industry — A B2B market segment based on a branch of commercial activity (trade or line of business). Think automotive, healthcare, power, aviation, consumer goods, foodservice, etc. A tailored approach to your target audience leads to higher provided value and better competitive resistance. Find your industry (or industries) by examining your existing customer base and looking for common themes.
  • Demographics — Statistical data related to groups within a population, often based on tangible traits (such as physical or socioeconomic characteristics like age, gender, income, nationality, etc.). These are usually the first targeting characteristics brands utilize because they’re relatively easy to obtain via third-party data and are the primary way that brands purchase media inventory.
  • Psychographics — A characteristic that involves the classification of people according to mental beliefs, personality, mindset, and other psychological criteria (not physical or socioeconomic). They describe the key motivations and priorities of the target, like attitudes, opinions, values, aspirations, and motivations. They can be uncovered in qualitative research and then measured in custom quantitative research.
  • Attitudes — An attitude is a way of thinking or feeling about something, like a perspective or stance. When used in marketing, they are sometimes expressed as beliefs about, or disposition towards, a particular subject matter. Initial attitudes can be uncovered with qualitative research. They are also measured in A&U surveys and segmentation studies.
  • Behaviors — This is the way in which a person acts (non-verbal for marketing purposes). Usage behaviors are category or purchase behaviors (ex: purchases coffee every morning), while telling behaviors are tip-offs that identify a prime target (ex: their dog sleeps in their bed with them). Quantitative surveys can measure usage behaviors while ethnographic research, observation, and some third-party data can uncover telling behaviors.
  • Needs — Needs are customer/consumer requirements, wants, or desires. They can be functional or emotional, articulated or unarticulated, met or unmet. This includes things like softer bath tissue, long-lasting battery power, safety, pleasure, fun, or pride. Articulated needs are uncovered in almost every research study and can sometimes be speculated. Unarticulated needs must be observed.
  • Problems — Issues, tensions, and barriers that stand between the customer/consumer and their desired experience are considered problems. They can fall under a category (bland-tasting food), life problems (dry skin), and emotional problems (sadness). Problems are usually best uncovered through ethnography and observation, and, once uncovered, incidence can be measured via quantitative surveys or third-party data.

Define the 7 characteristics and then place them onto a single-page document. If you have more than one target audience (multiple segments that you target), create a profile for each one.

Use your defined target to recruit and conduct research, giving you additional insight into their tensions, needs and desires. With insights in hand, you are better prepared to write your brand positioning.

BRAND POSITIONING STRATEGY

A brand positioning statement is an internal document that’s used to provide clear direction for your business (including your marketing activities and innovation initiatives) by making it unmistakably clear what the brand delivers. It is not for external communications, even though you may develop external messages based upon it. Instead it should use clear language that isn’t likely to be misinterpreted by other internal team members or agency partners.

Consider these key elements when creating your brand positioning strategy:

  • Target Audience — to whom are you positioning your brand? (See above for info on uncovering your target audience.)
  • Competitive Frame of Reference is how you identify your primary competitor for positioning purposes. You can often find a single common thread among all primary and secondary competitors to position against. Once you’ve identified your competitors, document their strengths and most importantly their weaknesses.
  • Functional Benefits include what the product does (product benefit) or what the target receives (customer benefit).
  • Emotional Benefits refer to the way the target audience feels while using the brand.
  • Reason(s) to Believe (RTBs) are specific product/service features or attributes that serve as proof. They prove to the target that the benefit is true. A great one is all you need, but you can have more than one (I suggest only a few as a general rule of thumb).
  • Brand Character or Tone (also referred to as brand personality) is important because it serves as another point of differentiation and it’s another way to relate to your target audience.
  • Values is another element that isn’t always present in positioning statements. However, I recommend it because they are very useful from a design standpoint. Values give designers a jumping-off point.

When you’ve worked through each of the above pieces, you can combine them together into a single-page brand positioning statement. You can get our recommended brand positioning template here.

In my trainings, I like to refer to Aveeno as a company whose brand positioning is really clear and consistent. Their example brand positioning statement can be seen here.

With a targeting strategy and brand positioning strategy in place, you are now ready to work on your brand’s design strategy.

DO NOT ATTEMPT DESIGN STRATEGY IF YOU HAVE NOT DEFINED YOUR POSITIONING. Otherwise you are just asking for a lot of trouble and rework.

DESIGN STRATEGY

Design strategy, like branding, can seem quite nebulous. At its essence, however, design strategy is simply a set of choices regarding how you will bring your brand positioning strategy to life via design.

This includes the look and feel of your brand (how it appears in the market). And, although the trend for design strategies is leaning toward more depth and detail and creating entire “design systems,” ultimately it’s up to you to decide how much or how little to include. It depends on what you feel you need to operate as a brand.

(Do not be afraid to seek outside help in this department. Design strategies can require an expert to craft a clear, focused strategy for your brand.)

Whether you create your design strategy in-house or out, you’ll first need to create a design brief that includes your brand strategy information and some additional direction for the designer and/or creative team, such as:

  • Your target
  • Your positioning
  • What do you like and not like about other brand designs and also who your competitors are and how their brands are designed.
  • What’s in and out of bounds for your brand. (Can the logo, packaging, or website be changed, etc.)
  • What 3–5 “things” (singular words) do you want the brand to evoke (thoughts/feelings) through its design? What should people take away/how should they feel when looking at your brand?
  • Get help finding these words by going back to your positioning and looking at your brand’s benefits and values.

Following the brief and subsequent creative work, you should expect to have the following three deliverables (at a minimum):

  1. Expression Boards. These capture the overall aesthetic of the brand on a single page. Think of these as a painting or a picture of the brand.
  • Each board in the early stages should provide a distinct visual direction.
  • When finalizing the strategy, a single board will be chosen and specifically reflect the chosen brand identity.
  • The single, final Brand Expression Board then serves as a litmus test for all future executions. How well do your executions fit the look and feel of this board?

2. Identity System. The identity system breaks out the specific visual pieces and parts used to create the brand expression.

  • Includes colors, typography, logos, symbols, shapes, etc.
  • If the expression board is a painting, think of the identity system as the palette, paints, tools, and textures used to create that painting/your brand.
  • The identity system is then subsequently used by other designers and creatives to easily and consistently use/recreate the proper look and feel of the brand.

3. Brand Guidelines. These are more-specific executional rules for different contexts.

  • Includes the dos and don’ts of specific types of brand executions.
  • Examples include guidance for logo/asset usage, photography style and rules, specific ad/communication types, and even templates and examples for designers to model off of.

Many brands are publishing their brand guidelines online so that there’s a single source of truth for everyone to follow. Starbucks is one such brand and you can find their example brand guidelines here.

With targeting, positioning, and design strategy in place, you now have the three most important brand strategy (internal branding) documents that you need. The direction for your brand equity is set.

However, I recommend an additional step. Because targeting and positioning are internal documents written in clear, strategic language, it’s sometimes difficult for team members to imagine how the strategy really comes to life in execution.

For example, the language used in an internal brand positioning document is not intended to be consumer-facing language. A creative team working on a campaign would come up with the consumer-facing creative layer.

So to help bring to life how the brand might appear in-market, I like my teams to have two additional documents outlined in the rest of this guide: the Brand Story, and the Brand Message Map.

BRAND STORY

Confession: I previously didn’t see much value in having a “brand story,” because as a brand manager, a brand story was too similar to a brand’s positioning and I thought it was confusing to have two documents that communicated the same thing.

However, the more I’ve worked on brands, the more I’ve come to realize that a brand story is actually quite useful as long as you clearly communicate to your teams the purpose and appropriate use of each document. Here’s why:

  • It can be difficult to translate the theoretical strategy into something more actionable, and a brand story (sometimes referred to as a “manifesto”) helps translate the brand’s positioning into something a little more customer- or consumer-facing.
  • Marketing team members, agency partners, and key stakeholders often need an example of how the brand comes to life in practice.
  • You have an opportunity to further leverage and reinforce the key tensions or desires behind the positioning strategy.
  • The brand story can help get across the entire reason your brand exists, but in a more inspirational way.

There are a few different ways I’ve seen brands write their stories. And one simple, yet effective framework flows like this on a single page:

  • It should start with an accepted belief that the target audience would relate to and/or agree with.
  • It should have a tension or desire that’s highly relevant, true to the audience and preferably unique (the core insight of the brand).
  • It should then lay out the benefit that the brand provides, taken from your positioning statement and re-articulated in a new way. (This is what the audience receives as a result of the brand addressing their tension or desire.)
  • It states how the brand does it and offers details that reinforce the benefit.

Here’s an example of a brand story written for the video game God of War. This is my interpretation of what their brand story (or manifesto) could have looked like. Note that it follows the flow mentioned above from accepted belief to tension/desire to brand/product benefit to supporting details. And it’s all done using consumer-facing language.

MESSAGE MAP

I like message maps for many of the same reasons I like a good brand story. A message map takes you from a strategic brand positioning (a concise internal statement) to the things you can/should now say in the market about your brand.

The message map serves as a bridge to execution and lays out the approved language that reflects and ties back to or supports the positioning strategy.

Why should you create a message map?

  • It translates positioning into a collection of messages that can be used in execution, a brand messaging strategy.
  • It gives you a range, or menu, of pre-approved messaging and language that is on-strategy.
  • It’s something you can frequently use in PR, but can also be leveraged by marketing, sales, and agency teams.
  • It keeps the brand messaging consistent, no matter who’s telling your story or where.
  • It can be adapted into shorter or longer formats.

How should you create a message map?

First off, you should start with a positioning (or a benefit) idea. From there, you’ll write down as many supporting ideas (benefits/RTBs) that all tie back and support the brand positioning. Essentially you are plotting some of your positioning points onto the map to get started.

Then, look for other RTB/proof/example/insight ideas that build out from the supporting ideas and add those to the message map, too.

Positioning (Benefit) -> Supporting Ideas (benefit/RTB) -> RTB/proof/example/insight

Here’s an example of what that might look like for a fictitious brand called AMP hotels:

WHAT TO DO NEXT FOR YOUR BRAND STRATEGY

And those, my friends, are the core components of brand strategy, and how it all fits under the umbrella of branding.

I hope you’ve gotten some tips and a framework or two from this guide that you can put to use right away. I know that creating these strategic documents is sometimes easier said than done.

If you need help defining your brand strategy or you’d like more in-depth training, here are a few options to take things further:

  1. Subscribe directly to my email list to be notified when I post newsletters, brand management articles and frameworks. As a thank you, you’ll immediately get our welcome guide: The Marketing Executive’s Guide to Brand Team Building.
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  4. Check out our menu of in-depth brand management training workshops, our all-inclusive Brand Management Accelerator program, or our 1:1 brand leadership coaching program.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Hi, I’m Kevin! I’m the founder and CEO of the Gurulocity Brand Management Institute, a consumer marketing education company that trains and consults for notable brand teams including Kimberly-Clark, Scotts Miracle-Gro, Bolthouse Farms, Ancestry.com, Johnson & Johnson, Sephora and Gorilla Brands.

I’m also a featured instructor for the American Marketing Association, lecture at the IU Kelley School of Business, and have been featured in Ad Age, Forbes, Fast Company, Business Insider and the CMO Council. I previously worked for 20 years in the corporate and agency world growing notable consumer brands.

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Kevin Namaky

Marketing strategist and educator, Founder of @Gurulocity Brand Management Institute. Super-dad by night. http://gurulocity.com