You don’t need a time machine for brand strategy

Unless you really screw everything up

Growth is looking really good.

In addition to hiring employee #100, you’ve outgrown two offices. Sales are even better than expected. You have a full-time HR person. Customer reviews remain outstanding. Your business, launched with a spare bedroom and a cashed-in 401k, is succeeding.

As you ride this trajectory, you’re worried about everything: competition, market trends, security, litigation, acquiring (and keeping) talent, maintaining growth, getting enough sleep. Not fucking everything up.

You want this upward trend to continue, and your reflexive instinct is offense. Sales. Biz devs. Demand generation. Growth hackers. Revenue rocketeers. Profit pirates. Tacticians executing tactics to maximize tactical results.

But brand strategy?

Branding, you think, is not my problem today. Your brand is solid! Your logo looks awesome on the t-shirt you’re wearing. You have a mission statement somewhere, and that agency you hired last year to re-do the website put together something about values. What does it matter? I have numbers that need to be solved before the end of the quarter.

You, burgeoning start-up founder, glance at “brand strategy” and smirk: what a luxury.

But what if 100 employees grows to 10,000?

In a bigger company, everything changes.

Your product expands to a portfolio and your office grows into a campus. Customer reviews are eclipsed by investor skepticism. Your business plan grinds to the slow lane as it’s reviewed in a board meeting in a boardroom with board members who are not your friends. Double-digits fall to single-digits and worry coagulates into pressure.

At 100x scale, there will be no shortage of threats. Customers will jettison to some hot young competitor, and analysts will publicly question your business strategy. Your product naming will scatter all over the map, and squabbling dissension from the teams of acquired companies will unglue strategic cohesion. Marketing assets will lag. Sales will scream for “a new story to tell” and you will schedule interviews for your fourth CMO in five years.

One day, trapped in the trough of flagging confidence, you will think: Customers know us. The market hears about us all the time. We have great name recognition — maybe a rebrand will jumpstart the business.

Here is the problem: legacy name recognition is not equal to long-term brand viability. Visibility is a surface game. Mindshare is fickle and fragile. Betting on brand coverage when your problem is brand depth is a great way to lose a big stack of money. Just ask the Fortune 500 of 50 years ago. Today, almost 90% are gone.

Still, you eye that heap of business challenges. The more problems you find, the more they all start to look like a nail that could be solved by one hammer. My company needs a goddamned rebrand. Let’s fire up a project.

You’ll consider your tactics.

Newly hired CMO #4 could blow their agency whistle and a half-dozen account reps will happily zoom by to drop a proposal at your door. Upside: good agencies do amazing work you can brag about. Downside: good agencies cost a fortune. Upside: if it gets all fucked up, you have someone else to blame and no one internally is held accountable. Downside: you’ll end up diluting their vision into something palatable for committee approval anyway. Upside: everyone will agree. Downside: it will suck.

Alternatively, you could call a leadership roundtable and internally workshop your way to a plausible solution. That always go well.

Or you could delegate this whole problem to a VP, who passes it to the new marketing program manager, who misinterprets the “project” as a logo redesign, and who subsequently tosses it to a product designer, where it smolders like uranium 235, slowly boring a hole to the bottom of her inbox because what the hell can be done with a pile of problems and no strategy and budget to actually fix them?

Or you could lie down, have a cookie, and accept an inconvenient truth: reinventing, renewing and repositioning a brand for the long run is not a one-time project. You cannot fix broken limbs with band-aids and makeup. A brand is a complex, living thing that needs to be nurtured as such.

In fact, a brand is not a logo, mission statement, website, nor app interface. It’s not marketing, sales, nor product design. It’s not what you think, what I think, nor even what your spouse thinks.

A brand is all of that, and more. It is the experiential composite of every touchpoint with every constituent — employees, customers, media, investors, prospects, the world at large — compressed into a pea of an impression. Your brand brings baggage everywhere it goes. It’s the market’s mental record of everything you’ve put into it.

But brand strategy can course-correct and lighten that baggage.

By establishing relevant values and principals — ideas that every individual can not just aspire to but actually implement down in the most pedantic, tactical, day-to-day responsibility — brand opens the door to strategic alignment. Common compass points we all see and follow.

Alignment is not top-down instruction. It’s equal communication up and down the hierarchy. Brand, as a system of guiding principals, serves as a higher religion, enabling questions like “is this on-brand?” to blossom into fruitful conversation.

When brand strategy offers bearings upon which to march, you have the tools and permission to face business challenges head-on and untangle organizational, operational and perception issues. Not that that’s easy. Alignment requires steely-nerved managers to surface problems, and even more steely-nerved CEOs to rip out those problems from the roots.

The best brand strategists are business strategists. Trusted consultants. Adapting and learning. Always seeking opportunities for alignment across people, portfolio and promotion.

So. Before you reach the point where the easiest way to fix your brand is to invent a time machine to return to the days when you were only 100 employees and everything was swell, remind yourself that while tactical execution is mandatory, long-term brand strategy is best seeded in the fertile years before what-if-we-could atrophies into that’s-how-it’s-always-been.

No time machine necessary.

But here you are! You don’t need a time machine yet! You aren't burdened with the pressures of a 10,000-person organization. You’re still a thriving small business of 100 hard-working folks with a brand that’s zinging along in the market.

Take advantage of this crucial early stage, and offer brand strategy a seat at the table. Establishing healthy patterns now is far more cost-effective than assuming what’s working today will work tomorrow.

Don’t you have a #101 to go hire?