I will outline the five elements of smart strategic thinking. Strategy starts with having a vision of the future. This sets up questions, that outline the major issues in the way of the vision. From there, you must allocate resources against your strategic programs that fill an identified focused opportunity you see in the marketplace. When successful, the strategy must generate a market impact that can be leveraged into a performance result, making the brand more powerful or more profitable.
I always joke that strategic people share similar traits to those we might consider lazy, cheap, or conniving. Rather than just dive into work, strategic people will spend an extraordinary amount of time thinking of all the possible ways for them to get more out of something, while exerting the least possible effort or wasting their own money. After thinking of every possible option, they have this unique talent to make a firm decision on the best way forward. They are great at debate because it appears they already know the other options you might raise. They already know why that option will not work as well. .
Are you naturally Strategic or Instinctual?
I see a big difference between strategic thinking and intuitive leaders. Smart strategic thinkers see the right questions before they look for answers. Instinctual thinkers see answers before they even know the right question.
Strategic thinkers see “what-if” type questions before they look for potential solutions. Have you ever been a meeting and heard someone say, “That’s a good question”? This is usually a sign someone has asked an interruptive question designed to slow everyone’s brain down. They take the time to reflect and plan before they act, to force them to move in a focused and efficient way. Strategy is the thinking side of marketing, both logical and imaginative. Strategic people are able to map out a range of decision trees that intersect, to imagine how events will play out in the future. The risk is that if they think too long, they just spiral around, unable to decide. They miss the opportunity window.
On the other hand, instinctual thinkers just jump in quickly to find answers before they even know the right question. Their brains move fast; they use emotional impulse and intuitive gut feel. These people want action now and get easily frustrated by delays. They believe it is better to do something than sit and wait around. They see strategic people as stuck running around in circles, as they try to figure out the right question. Instead, these instinctual leaders choose emotion over logic.
This “make it happen” attitude gets things done, but if they go too fast, their great actions may solve the wrong problem. Without proper thinking and focus, an action-first approach might just spread the brand’s limited resources randomly across too many projects. Instinctual leaders can be a creative mess and find themselves with a long to-do list, unable to prioritize or focus.
Changing brain speeds
Brand leaders must learn to change brain speeds. Go slowly when faced with difficult strategy and quickly with their best instincts on execution. A brand leader’s brain should operate like a racecar driver, slow in the difficult corners and fast on the straightaway. You must slow down to think strategically. Did you ever think that the job might get in the way of thinking about how to do your job better? With wall-to-wall meetings, constant deadlines, and sales pushes, you have to create your own thinking time.
You should block off a few hours each week, put your feet up on the desk, and force yourself to ask really difficult questions. Pick one problem topic for each meeting you book and even invite a peer to set up a potential debate. The goal is not to brainstorm a solution, but to come up with the best possible question that will challenge the team. Go for walks at lunch or a drive somewhere just to get away from it all. My best thinking never came at my desk in front of my computer. If you have your head down in the numbers you will miss the obvious opportunities and threats that are right on the horizon. To be more strategic, you should assess the situation, frame questions that challenge your thinking, and consider every element that could have an impact on your brand.
How to slow your brain down and think strategically
- Find your own thinking time. Go for walks at lunch or a drive somewhere to get away from it all. Block hour-long “thinking meetings” with yourself.
- Organize your week to fit your thinking pace. For instance, maybe talk “big ideas” on a Friday morning so you can take the weekend to think. Schedule quick updates on Monday afternoon that clears your mind for the week.
- Do the deep thinking before the decision time comes? Always be digging deep into the analytics to stay aware, prepare yourself, no matter your level.
- Next time in a meeting, spend your energy asking the best questions. Too many leaders try to impress everyone with the best answers. Next time stump the room with the best questions that slow down the team so they think.
- Proactively meet your partner team. Get to know their needs, rather than wait for a problem or conflict. Come to them proactively with possible solutions so you both win.
Five elements of smart strategic thinking
Everyone says they are a strategic thinker, but not many Marketers really are. Early in my career, I confess that I was more of an instinctual marketer. So, I know the effort and discipline it takes to slow the brain down and evolve into a strategic thinker. Here are four elements of strategic thinking to help slow your brain down.
1. Always set a vision of what you want for your brand
A strategic thinker thinks about the future to map out a vision for five or ten years from now. A vision sets aspirational stretch goals for the future, linked to a well-defined end result or purpose. Within the vision, you should focus on finding ways to create a bond with your consumers that will lead to a power and profit beyond what the product alone could achieve. With every vision, you should write the statement in a way that should scare you a little, but excite you a lot.
The vision should steer everyone who works on the brand. In fact, I believe every little project should have its own little vision that is closely linked to the overall brand vision to help determine what success looks like on that project. As Yogi Berra famously said, “If you do not know where you are going, how will you know if you get there?”
To be a visionary, you must be able to visualize the future. Imagine that it is five or ten years from now. You wake up in the most amazing mood. Think about your personal life and your business, and start to imagine the ideal of what you want. Start to write down the things that have you in such a great mood. Visualize your perfect future and write down the most important things you want to achieve, and begin brainstorming a vision for the future. Even think about language that will inspire, lead and steer your team towards that vision.
Always ask questions
To challenge how to make your vision happen, you must ask interruptive questions of what is the way of you achieving your vision. As the definition of strategic thinking talks about asking questions, the smart strategy must ask questions that frame the issues that are in the way of what you want to achieve. Look to come up with an interruptive type question that will make everyone on the brand stop and think. The brainstorm I use is to list out everything in the way of the vision—trying to come up with at least 20; then narrow down to the three biggest issues you see, and frame it as a big question for the team to solve.
2. Deployment of your brand’s available strategic options
A brand has options to build programs behind the brand’s core strength, build the consumer relationship with one of the five consumer touch-points, battle competitors on positioning, address situational opportunities and engage consumers as you go to market.
3. Focus your brand’s resources against an identified opportunity
The biggest myth of marketing is to believe that a bigger target market is the path to becoming a bigger brand. Too many marketers target anyone. It is better to be loved by a few than tolerated by many. You have to create a tight bond with a core base of brand lovers, and then use that base of lovers to expand the following.
The second myth is to believe that if you stand for everything, it will make your brand stronger. There are brands that say they are faster, longer lasting, better tasting, stronger, cheaper, and have a better experience. They mistakenly think that whatever the competitor does best, they will try to do it better. They will say everything possible with the hope the consumer hears something. Hope is never a strategy. To be loved by consumers, a brand must stand for something with a backbone and conviction that it will never go against what it states. Trying to be everything to anyone just ends up becoming nothing to everyone.
The third myth is to try to be everywhere, whether that means in every channel of distribution or on every possible media option. The worst marketers lack focus because of their fear of missing out on someone or something. By trying to be everywhere, the brand will drain itself and eventually end up being nowhere.
Focus your limited resources
Every brand is constrained by limited resources, whether financial, time, people, or partnership resources. Yet marketers always face the temptation of an unlimited array of choices, whether those choices are in the possible target market, brand messages, strategies, or tactics. The smartest brand leaders are able to limit their choices to match up to their limited resources. They focus on those choices that will deliver the greatest return.
The best brand leaders never divide and conquer. They force themselves to focus and conquer with the confidence of strategic thinking. The smartest brand leaders use the word “or” more often than they use the word “and.” If you come to a decision point, and you try to rationalize in your own brain that it is okay to do a little of both, then you are not strategic.
For a strategy to work, brands must see an opportunity, to find an opening in the marketplace based on a change in consumer needs, new technology, competitive opening, or new channels. In today’s electronic world, everyone has access to the same information and in turn can see the same opportunities. You must use speed to seize the opportunity before others can react or else the opportunity will be gone.
4. Leverage the breakthrough to create an impact in the marketplace
Many underestimate the need for an early win. I see this as a crucial breakthrough point where you start to see a small shift in momentum towards the vision. There are always doubters to every strategy. The results of the early win are crucial proof to show everyone the strategy will work. This helps change the minds of the doubters—or at least keep them quiet—so that everyone can stay focused on this breakthrough point.
The magic of strategy happens through leverage, where you can use the early win as an opening or a tipping point where you start to see a transformational power that allows you to get more or achieve more results in the marketplace than you put into the strategy.
5. Performance result that pays back and opens a gateway for more growth
The final element of smart strategic thinking is the gateway opening that a marketplace win allows the brand to achieve more growth for the brand. There has to be a shift in positional power in the marketplace that allows you to achieve your vision, drive business results and make gains in terms of a future pathway to even more consumer connection, power and profit for the brand.
For a brand, the end result must either be more power or more profit. In terms of power, a brand can become powerful versus the consumers they serve, the competitors they battle, the channels they sell through, the suppliers who make the products or ingredients, influencers in the market, any media choices and the employees who work for the brand. In terms of profit, there are eight ways a brand can add to their profitability. Those are through premium pricing or trading consumers up on price, through lower cost of goods or lower sales and marketing costs, through stealing competitive users or getting loyal users to use more and by entering new markets or finding new uses for the brand.
As a strategy must pay back to the brand, you should know which power and profit driver your strategy is focused against. Jack Welch, former CEO of GE was notorious for asking employees he would meet, “So how do you add value?” Do you know how you add value? You should.
How Apple re-built their brand around ‘simplicity’
In 1996, the Apple brand was bordering on bankruptcy. They were basically just another computer company, without any real point of difference. Years of overlooked opportunities, flip-flop strategies, and a mind-boggling disregard for market realities caught up with Apple, Windows 95 has seriously eroded the Mac’s technology edge. Apple was rapidly becoming a minor player in the computer business with shrinking market shares, price cuts and declining profits.
Apple looked like it would not survive.
This was the year before even contemplating the return of Steve Jobs. This really showcases how badly Apple was run through the 1990s. They were making bad decisions with inconsistent strategies and most importantly, there was no big idea for what Apple stood for. After Steve Jobs came into Apple in 1997, everything he did was built around the big idea of “making technology so simple that everyone can be part of the future.” He took a consumer first approach in a market that was all about the gadgets, bits and bytes.
Apple’s Smart Strategic Thinking
Here are the five elements of smart strategic thinking that allowed Apple to complete their turnaround plan.
- Vision of what you want for your brand: Apple wants everyone to be part of technology in the future. The challenging question for Apple: how can we strengthen and leverage our bond with our most loyal Apple users to help the brand grow.
- Deployment of your brand’s available strategic options: Apple needed to drive the ‘simplicity’ big idea into the mass market by using their brand love to influence others. Every brand message, product innovation, consumer experience, purchase moment must drive home ‘simplicity’
- Focus of your brand’s resources against an identified opportunity: Focus on a “consumer first” mentality that transforms leading-edge technology into “consumer accessible technology”. Apple has been able to capitalize on consumer frustration with technology that has prevented the mass consumers from experiencing everything that technology can offer. The famous “I’m a Mac and I’m a PC” ads brilliantly focused on the antagonist consumer enemy of “frustration” to which Apple’s simplicity is the solution.
- Leverage the breakthrough to create a market impact: Take a fast follower stance on, making technology easy to use, with consumer-friendly laptops, phones and tablets. High profile launch hype to generate excitement, transforming early adopters into vocal Apple activists to spread the word.
- Performance result that pays back and opens a gateway for more growth: Apple created a consumer bond around the Big Idea of “making technology simple” leveraging tight connection with their brand fans to enter new categories. Apple is now the most beloved consumer-driven brand, with premium prices, stronger market share, sales and profits.
The impact on Apple’s Performance Results
Apple has used brand love to help drive a remarkable 40x revenue growth over 10 years, going from 5.7 in 2005 billion up to $240 billion in 2015. This type of rapid growth helps cover costs of Advertising and R&D, giving Apple very healthy operating margins that are up over 35%. All this has increased Apple’s market capitalization to over $500 Billion.
Apple’s Revenue and Profit Growth (2005-2015)
Strategic Thinking Workshop
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Beloved Brands: Who are we?
At Beloved Brands, our purpose is to help brands find a new pathway to growth. We believe that the more love your brand can generate with your most cherished consumers, the more power, growth and profitability you will realize in the future.
The best solutions are likely inside you already, but struggle to come out. Our unique engagement tools are the backbone of our strategy workshops. These tools will force you to think differently so you can freely generate many new ideas. At Beloved Brands, we bring our challenging voice to help you make decisions and refine every potential idea.
We help brands find growth
We start by defining a brand positioning statement, outlining the desired target, consumer benefits and support points the brand will stand behind. And then, we build a big idea that is simple and unique enough to stand out in the clutter of the market, motivating enough to get consumers to engage, buy and build a loyal following with your brand. Finally, the big idea must influence employees to personally deliver an outstanding consumer experience, to help move consumers along the journey to loving your brand.
We will help you write a strategic brand plan for the future, to get everyone in your organization to follow. It starts with an inspiring vision that pushes your team to imagine a brighter future. We use our strategic thinking tools to help you make strategic choices on where to allocate your brand’s limited resources. We work with your team to build out project plans, creative briefs and provide advice on marketing execution.
To learn more about our coaching, click on this link: Beloved Brands Strategic Coaching
We make Brand Leaders smarter
We believe that investing in your marketing people will pay off. With smarter people behind your brands will drive higher revenue growth and profits. With our brand management training program, you will see smarter strategic thinking, more focused brand plans, brand positioning, better creative briefs that steer your agencies, improved decision-making on marketing execution, smarter analytical skills to assess your brand’s performance and a better management of the profitability of the brand.
To learn more about our training programs, click on this link: Beloved Brands Training
If you need our help, email me at email@example.com or call me at 416 885 3911