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Finding Your Brand’s True North Star

July 8, 2019

North Star copyWe once surveyed Boardwalk’s clients to find out what was the one, most valuable thing they gained from working with us. The answer? Clarity. They could see their businesses, for the first time, through the eyes of their customers and clients. They understood, finally, how their markets wanted to relate to them, how their businesses were expected to behave. This clarity afforded them a singular vision of what each business could – should – be. In turn, that vision could be shared with everyone in the company. “This is the ideal us. This is who we aim to be everyday. This is our North Star.” In this sense, a clear brand strategy is a powerful management tool. It gives everyone in the business a quick and easy-to-grasp concept of what the company’s purpose and mission is. Everyone gets the company’s positioning. Everyone starts rowing in the same direction. But the brand strategy is not solely an inward-facing tool. Customers, suppliers, financiers – every constituency in your market – all see the same North Star and how your business is striving toward it. They judge your brand by its choice of North Star and by how devoted your company is to following it.

Legacy brands like Coca-Cola, Target, Nike, Apple and FedEx all know precisely the kinds of companies they should be. They are clear on it because they’ve all formalized their brand strategies and have settled into following their unique North Stars. Younger, but still powerful, brands like Tesla, Uber and Facebook also have brand strategies in place. They know what they should be too. But, being younger, they are experiencing growing pains as they try to stick to their courses. It will be interesting to see which of them, ultimately, are able to achieve legacy status.

This “following your North Star” idea is also sometimes called using the Brand Lens. It means viewing every business decision or, at least every important business decision, through it. When choosing between options A or B, which one keeps us aiming for our North Star? Which option moves us off course? Obviously, the smart decision is the one that keeps you on track, the one that keeps you delivering on your brand promise.

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But why is this so obvious? Maybe there’s an opportunity for a windfall somewhere. Wouldn’t it be worth it to veer off course for a while, grab a little cash, then get back to being the best company you can be? This is how businesses with no brand strategies behave. And they quickly learn that it is a pennywise but pound foolish attitude.

A brand strategy is not some arbitrary North Star. You don’t pull it out of a hat. It’s not something you guess at or read in a book. You have to go through a process to find out what your true North Star ought to be. That process is called a brand strategy exploration. That exploration engages the market and talks to your customers. Through the brand strategy exploration, your market will actually tell you what it wants of you. That is the clarity that’s so valuable. Stray away from that at your own peril.

Brands that are perceived to flip-flop, or to pursue any objective at all, are not valued very highly by the market. These kinds of businesses find their sales efforts struggle because the market is unclear of its purpose for them. So, yes, you can go off-brand to make a quick buck. But, when you return to course, you’ll find yourself in a weaker market position. Your long-term prospects will have suffered.

People often call having a brand strategy, or following a North Star, or using the Brand Lens – however you want to think of it – as future-proofing your business. When you view important decisions through the Brand Lens, when you always stick to your North Star, you never make a bad strategic move. Barring unforeseen circumstances, long-term success is all but guaranteed.

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