Strategy is a specialist skill

On the face of it, business owners and marketers have access to all the strategy they could possibly imagine. It seems like every ad agency, design house, communications company, public relations firm, media booking house and more is offering to give brand owners and managers access to strategy as part of their service.

Ironically, the word itself has become undifferentiated – a synonym for everything from self-serving tactics to information-gathering. Often used, but seldom meant, and difficult to depend on if you’re looking for true insights about where your brand goes next.

Voice was founded in 1994 expressly as a strategy company on the principle that brand is directly aligned with business direction and vision. That idea still permeates everything the company does. Unlike many of the latecomers to the strategy party, they were there and doing it pretty much before anyone else. As a result, the Voice team say they have gathered some important viewpoints as to what truly constitutes strategy and why brands should take the time to find a firm with specialist strategic skills.

Real strategy is about identifying what a company needs to change. In a world full of generalists, there are times when you need specialisation and the focused skills that
come with it.

Jonathan Sagar, Principal

Strategy is the business case for the future of the brand. It’s the business plan made visible. “Strategy is about challenging the future of the business, not just asking whether it needs an identity facelift,” says Jonathan Sagar, Principal, Voice Brand Agency, Melbourne. “Doing this properly requires a deep belief in the potential of the business, and a willingness to engage in brave conversations to ensure the business is doing justice to its brand, and vice versa. You have to be a partner in these situations: an advocate for what’s possible. We do that by building trust, by making sure we know as much as we can and by drawing on our experience to add value however we can.

“Design is an element that needs to be considered. But it sits within a broader and bolder context. We’re currently doing work for a major resources company that operates on both sides of the Tasman. The strategy we have been working on for them fundamentally redefines the future they see for themselves. At some stage that will be expressed in a logotype. But the work we’ve done with the management team up until now has redefined the very premise for how that company operates.”

Strategy is about cultivating and then prioritising choices and options. It’s about considering the avenues open to a brand and making deliberate and informed decisions about which option will best serve the brand’s customers and the needs of stakeholders. Sagar says that when Voice worked on the Vodafone brand, the company was massive globally but had a much smaller presence in the Australian and New Zealand markets. “We said to them, you can’t just roll out more of what you do there, because you don’t yet have the scale in this part of the world for that to work. The way we see it you can go this way – or that. Here are the advantages of each.”

A robust strategy is a response to market expectations and market dynamics. As such it requires a strong understanding of the norms and opportunities in each particular sector. Sagar says one of the advantages of being a brand strategy company for so long is that the company has worked in a huge range of sectors and industries. “We were there at the outset, working through the strategy for the 100% Pure New Zealand programme, but we’ve also done work with KPMG, Air New Zealand, Shotover Jet, NAB, the Farmers retail chain and so many more. We take the time to really understand the forces at play in the sectors our clients work on … You don’t get that from just doing a visual audit or analysing a company’s social media feeds.”

Strategy is aligned with where the board and the senior management teams see value going forward. More and more Voice finds itself working not just with marketers but with business owners and boards. “They’re often surprised by the level of detail we want around their business plans,” says Jonathan. A brand is an asset that needs careful and long-term nurturing if it is to achieve its full potential. Sagar says recently the Melbourne team worked closely with Traveller’s Aid to help them revitalise their brand. “In this case, you had a company that was now 100 years old looking ahead and asking what it needed to represent to still be here and of service for the decades ahead in the fiercely competitive NGO sector.”

Critical to getting that right is having a deep interest in people and in the importance of conversations. “We invest a lot of time and effort in talking to individuals, teams, boards, communities and other groups” says Sagar, “because brands are powered by people. Listening to them and being able to see beyond what you are being told to the wider implications of those attitudes and statements is all about analysing the subtexts and biases in what people tell you,” he says.

“Over many years, we’ve learned to do this very effectively and to use the experience we have gained in a range of sectors to compare and contrast what people in one sector are saying with what we may have heard elsewhere. As a result, our clients remark that our interviews are less about fact-finding and much more about seeking out truth and questioning what has gone unquestioned, sometimes for years.”

Convergences between sectors for example are both an opportunity and a threat. “Brands often believe they are operating in a sector, and must operate within the ‘rules’ of that sector, when in fact that may not be the business they are in at all. Technology and customer expectations can change assumptions very quickly. Think about how apps for example have completely changed how some services are ordered and delivered. A big threat to restaurants now is Uber through its Uber Eats programme. The brands that miss these shifts will find themselves under siege. Those that see what is happening and adapt to meet and embrace what shoppers now want are the ones that prosper. It’s those kinds of things that we question in our bid to get the most out of every brand we work on.”

Strategy can be complicated and it’s an area filled with theories and layers of language that can be confusing to leaders. “We challenge ourselves to keep things as simple as possible. Decision-makers like the way we make everything clearer, that we don’t use jargon and that we don’t just focus on one particular magic potion – like digital marketing or content or graphics. If a company is only looking at what it can do for a brand through a singular lens, they are not providing strategy in our view, because they simply cannot have considered enough factors deeply enough to have added strategic value. It’s fake strategy.

“Real strategy is about identifying what a company needs to change. In a world full of generalists, there are times when you need specialisation and the focused skills that come with it. The advantage of dealing with a strategy specialist like Voice is that our advice extends beyond marketing. A strong strategy influences, references and benefits the whole business, not just a corner of modern-day marketing.”

Co-authored between Jonathan Sagar and Mark Di Somma

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