Do you need a business, brand or experience strategist? Don’t doom your project to failure by picking the wrong one

Strategists have a tough job. Yes, what we do can be challenging, but demonstrating value to our more pragmatic colleagues and to our more tactically-minded clients is another challenge altogether. It’s our own fault; we often don’t make the bounds of what we do clear enough, dooming projects and ourselves to failure through a lack of expectation management. Considering that one of our responsibilities is creating a measurement framework, it’s a poor outcome that we can’t make our individual success measures clearer.

All strategists follow a pretty straightforward process

  1. We uncover insights
  2. We find opportunities
  3. We plan how to turn opportunities into reality
  4. We determine how to measure success

It all comes undone when organisations match the wrong strategist to the wrong problem. When they do that, the chances of disappointment are very high.

Three primary types of strategists exist within the digital sphere: business, brand and experience (content, social etc strategists are delivery specific and sit under brand or experience, so I will not be covering their outputs here). We have different outputs, methods and motives through all four stages. Yes, we all exist to make a business money in the long run, but we all go about it a different way. Although there are definite overlaps, our primary activities differentiate us. If you aren’t familiar with what to expect you are likely to promise inaccurate outcomes, sabotaging any opportunity for your project to be successful in the eyes of your company.

Phase one: insights

  • Business strategists are primarily looking for consumer, operational and sales insights
  • Brand strategists are primarily looking for cultural and media trends
  • Experience strategists are primarily looking for insights on user behaviour, not consumer behaviour, and anything that influences the way a product or service could be experienced

Phase two: opportunities

  • Business strategists are primarily surfacing untapped markets and operational oversights
  • Brand strategists are primarily surfacing awareness gaps and unexploited sentiment
  • Experience strategists are primarily surfacing potential products and services that aren’t being considered or optimised

Phase three: planning

  • Business strategists are primarily responsible for commercial planning
  • Brand strategists are primarily responsible for campaign planning
  • Experience strategists are primarily responsible for service and product mapping

Phase four: measurements

  • Business strategists are capable of setting educated and specific ROI and sales targets
  • Brand strategists are capable of estimating increases in engagement
  • Experience strategists are capable of setting usability and customer satisfaction targets

When we skip or brush over any of these phases, strategy is at risk. But when we align the wrong strategists to the wrong activity, or commit to the wrong metrics, we won’t meet expectations. For example, don’t expect hard sales targets from brand strategists, don’t expect business strategists to know how users will engage with a product or service, don’t expect experience strategists to plan campaigns for you or to guarantee conversion rates if they can’t control the full experience.

Overlapping skills and limitations

These days, it’s difficult to be any kind of a strategist without being user centred, so saying that only experience strategists understand user behaviour is not entirely fair. In addition, in order to work in a commercial sphere we all have to have some understanding of commercial objectives and measures and you can’t really work in advertising or marketing without understanding brand engagement. That’s where we all somewhat overlap.

However, we also need to collaborate because our skills have their limitations too. Service design, for example, sits under the experience strategy remit. It is research heavy, in both depth and breadth, providing transformative benefits to customers of large-scale service offerings (transport, education, health and finance in particular). But it is also a very expensive process, one which can take a long time to show any financial return. Experience strategists can tell you what the user benefits are, why they need the improvements and how to design and implement them, but we can’t predict a specific increase in revenue on the back of our activities or the exact operational cost to implement the changes. For that we need a business strategist to support us.

Business strategists can tell you which operational and sales models work and which products are showing promise within a specific market, as well as the financial trends worth observing but they often can’t provoke the creativity required to innovate entirely new products or even understand how to go about building them. They are motivated by business-centric needs, with an academic understanding of user-centricity only. They need both experience and brand strategists to help them engage with real consumers.

Brand strategists are tremendous at understanding how to take advantage of contemporary cultural sentiment and how to engage an audience with the right message in the right channel, but they can struggle to articulate the requirements and the far-reaching impacts of developing a product or service, being reliant on both experience and business strategists to help them. As increasing numbers of advertising agencies are looking for product design opportunities instead of campaigns as a way to engage a new breed of audience — and as they traditionally hire brand strategists — they are finding themselves out of their depth.

How to ensure success

Firstly, don’t skip any phases. If the insights are not gathered with care, opportunities will be missed. If the wrong opportunities are presented, the plan will not work. If the plan is not clear enough, the success measures won’t be specific or reliable enough.

Secondly, either allow your strategists to work in teams based on a diversity of needs from the business or be singular in your goals, engaging one type of strategist. Although generalists exist in the strategy sphere as they do in any discipline, they are rarer than you would think. Most can perform one type of strategy exceptionally well, a second reasonably well and a third at a surface level only.

So don’t undermine the foundations of your project by stretching your strategists too thin. Be clear on your objectives and choose wisely.

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