Strategy, The Universe & Everything

What is strategy?

Well, one simple explanation is that it’s a synonym for a plan. And in every human endeavour, we need direction to help us reach our goal — whether it’s getting our first date, circumnavigating the world, or writing a strategy article. We need to plot out the key components. Failure of many endeavours could be the antithesis of strategy. Who would attempt to trek the North Pole without considering all the consequences, all the possible scenarios, and plan for these eventualities? Yet, in business, we stride out to achieve success without a solid strategy. Here are some odd-ball examples of how strategy is applied —


The strategy of prestige

So, let’s start with an obvious one. I have a few friends who invest in expensive watches — like Patek Philippe. They say “You never actually own a Patek Philippe. You merely look after it for the next generation,” — cute, right? — it’s a strategy of prestige. The same goes with Rolex — to be considered a serious buyer, you need to have spent at least a million dollars with them, beforehand.


The strategy of the lock-in

Apple is everywhere nowadays. In 1986, I first started using the Macintosh Plus. Back in 1991, when I got my first Powerbook, few people (outside the design industry) used Apple. It was in 2007, I got my first Apple iPhone. I loved Apple. It said that I was different. Their line was “Think differently.” And they did — using Apple products, you come to realise that Apple isn’t compatible with any other operating system. All their products were completely stand-alone. And once I started down this path, of iOS, iPod, iTunes, iWatch, iPad, and iCloud, I couldn’t simply switch anymore … It was a strategy of the lock-in.


The strategy of intimidation

Back in 675 BC, the Spartans were a furious foe. Not only were they the only “full-time” soldiers, trained from an early age in the rigours of battle, but they also dressed in 1 fearsome red. Their polished shields glimmered in the sun, as they all stood identically, straight and orderly in formation. Their enemies had lost the battle before it had even begun. Their mindsets were already in a state of panic. Their bravo would quickly vanish in the realisation that they never stood a chance. Intimidation was “the” strategy. Soften the enemy lines even before they feel your spear. Trigger their retreat and win the battle with minimal losses.


The strategy of elitism

Some years back, I was working for the Singapore Economic Development Board (EDB). They wanted a strategy for recruiting the best people — but, as only one of many government agencies, how were they to address this? My strategy started with a simple switch. Instead of saying come and join us, please — we asked the question — are you good enough to join our ranks? It was a significant shift in thinking. And today the EDB is seen as one of the most formable government agencies and the first choice of many of the brightest and most ambitious of graduates.


So, how do you create a simple and effective strategy?

“To boldly go where no man has gone before.”

Hopefully, from these simple examples, you can see that every business activity needs a strategy. So, how do you create it? My approach is called Brand DNA® — and just like human DNA, it begins the process of defining the what, how, who, and why, your business exists. Brand DNA® has five key pillars — Purpose, Positioning, Personality, Promise, and Platform — the 5Ps.

This is a simple approach to what your business aims to be or desires to be like. If the textbook definition of brand is “The management’s long-term plan for the protection and exploitation of intangible assets for commercial gain” — then the 5Ps, are the key components that are immutable and unique to your business.

Together, the 5Ps become your plan-on-a-page that maps out the future of your business — whether big or small, B2B or B2C, or even if you’re a not-for-profit, or a government agency. Let me share more about the 5Ps with you. Ready?


1. Purpose

“If you’re trying to be everything to everyone, you end up being nothing to no one.”


Define what it is that you bring to the world

What is it you want to achieve, beyond just financial gain? What do you think you are in the business of? Can you describe it in as few words as possible — that goes beyond just your business category?

For example: you could be in the healthy food sector — saying that your purpose is “to change what good health means” connects your business with a shifting view that the absence of illness does not define health, but a lifestyle that promotes well-being. It touches more than just a rudimentary sales process. It encapsulates changing something for the betterment of all. It works for customers, for suppliers, for partners, for employees, and shareholders. And health can also mean the “health” of the business. Why not!

It takes a while to get there. It means digging deeper. But it is worth it.


Prioritise your target audience

If you know your purpose, next you need to ask, who are you for? Who is the most important audience to talk to? Who should you focus on … customers, regulators, employees, shareholders, supply chain partners, potential employees, the communities in which you operate … or all of them?

Most businesses cannot focus on all, so try to think about prioritising them. Pick the most important three groups and work your brand strategy around them. It will inform you of the kinds of activities that you will need to do in moving forward.

“68% of customers leave because of poor employee attitude”

Your most important audience may be your own people. If they don’t believe in your brand, who else will? What about a town hall? Could the best method of inculcation be through workshops? Are your people incentivised around the right behaviours? What is your onboarding process like? An acid test for this is looking at what your past employees say about you on Glassdoor.


2. Positioning

“In real estate, they say location, location, location. In brand, we say differentiate, differentiate, differentiate.”

There is always competition — unless you have a monopoly. You need to fight for the right people and resources, for a better location, to develop better products — but, you also need an advantage, differentiating factors, and demand.

There are a few elements to this. The first is to understand who you’re competing with and how they go about their brand building. You need to compare. Have a look at their websites lately? What approach do they take to tell their story? What are their key messages? Are they a Spartan (do they intimate you)? What are they not saying?

Secondly, in positioning, you’re looking to occupy a unique space and have a unique way in which your brand operates. You can talk about what you have (infrastructure), how you do it (your recipe), who you are (biggest, fastest, etc), or why you do it (relevant aspirations or causes).

For example:

  • What you have — Visa says “Everywhere you want to be” — it’s about their ubiquitous merchant network — more merchants better coverage
  • How you do it — FedEx says “We live to deliver” — it’s about their technology and tracking — it’s about trusting their system
  • Who you are — HSBC says “The world’s most local bank” — meaning that they deliver international quality, but understand localisation
  • Why you do it — Harley-Davidson doesn’t make motorbikes — they say “We fulfill dreams” — it’s about unmet aspirations

Positioning is about selecting a conversation about the brand — the elevator pitch — the one thing that makes you unique and different … and is the opening line to your story.


3. Personality

“How you do anything, is how you do everything.”

On the surface, the word “personality” suggests something transient or even frivolous — however, if you think about it in terms of “what you stand for” it draws a deeper and more significant meaning. Like values, we use attributes to express these unique characteristics that define the brand experience — whether you’re a customer, employee, partner, or even the CEO.

The problem with “values” is that they are usually ubiquitous — everyone says the same old things — teamwork, innovation, integrity, customer focus, passion, trust, etc. These are all good, only they say nothing unique about you (and your culture).

I often use my personal attributes to illustrate what I mean here. I say that I am “gutsy, grounded, and curious”. These qualities make me who I am, and why I am suitable for the role of being a brand consultant. These attributes may not be the best if I were an accountant or a fireman. It should accurately reflect your “behaviour” and your “attitude”.

A great example of attribution gone “haywire” was Arthur Andersen — one of their attributes was “maverick” — and I guess they lived up to this, at the expense of their company, which no longer exists. What I am saying? Choose carefully. Find your three attributes. Yes, there will be three. One will be rational. One will be emotional. And the last will be relational. Make a long list first and select the best three that work together, not overlapping, but complementing each other.

For example — Prolink is a retailer of electronic gadgets, that exist, so you can “enjoy everyday simplicity” through technology. They promise to “connect your life” and their attributes are simple, fresh, and relevant.


4. Promise

“You can’t make an omelet without breaking some eggs.”

Every brand needs a story. If you have taken the time to develop your purpose, positioning, and personality — then your promise is an emotional narrative of this. Sometimes I refer to a promise as a “compelling truth” — meaning, that a promise must be both “compelling” and “true”.

No point in having a promise that is “underwhelming”. I think of an Australian company that used the promise of being “The quiet achiever” … so quiet, I have even forgotten who they were! Don’t undercook it. Your promise needs to be on-point, relevant, and differentiated from your competitors. The same goes for being “true” to your promise — don’t overpromise and under-deliver.

And I should say that your brand must keep this promise, everyday, for every customer without reservation — or, it’s simply not a promise at all.

For example —for Sembcorp, an industrial company with over 500 subsidiaries, we created the promise of “Vital Partners. Essential Solutions.” — as it described, not only who they were, but how they did it. Four words. Maybe you can do it in less?


5. Platform

“Ships are safe in the harbour. But that’s not what ships are for.”

We have arrived at the last of the 5Ps. Congratulations! If you have managed to define your purpose, positioning, personality, and promise — then you’re ready to correctly name your business, design your identity, create your branded environment, define how you are structured (to deliver on your promise), and how you will go to market.


Nomenclature and identity

This is a huge subject. We’ll pick up on this one in another post. But picking the right name is essential. In some instances, you may already have a name — does it still fit with where you are going? The same is true about your identity. That doesn’t mean just your logo. It refers to a broader meaning of how you are seen, visually and verbally. Are they consistent with your new Brand DNA® — if not, it might be the right time to change.


Go-2-market communications

We’re ready. No point having a nice shiny rocket ship sitting on the launch pad — it needs to go somewhere, right? Communicating the brand becomes easier and more consistent with the creation of your Brand DNA® — are you on-brand or off-brand? If you are ECCO shoes and you promise “All day comfort, timeless style” you cannot be creating “fast fashion” or have shoes that fall apart. Or do they?

Think of it as a process. Going to market isn’t just about “push communications” these days. Selecting a hotel on “Trip Advisor” means the opinions of your previous guests carry more weight than your glossy website. Maybe the strategy involves engaging the guests and inviting them to post good comments or being connected with events and activities that create interesting stories on Instagram.



“It’s not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is most adaptable to change.”

Love your new Brand DNA®

Your new Brand DNA® has identified your purpose, position, personality, and platform for your customers, employees, partners, and yourself. Remember, everyone sees everything these days. Social media makes it very transparent. As I mentioned previously — what your employees say about you on Glassdoor is read by your potential employees. How the CEO conducts his/her personal life, also reflects on his/her ability to lead your brand.


Everything counts

We need to align what we say with what we do. The brand experience is not just the food served at the restaurant or the unboxing video for your new phone. It’s a complete package. If you say you’re the largest — make sure you are. If you say, you’re the fastest — make you you can maintain the momentum. Define your universe — it’s a journey from awareness to interest, from consideration to trial, and then hopefully to loyalty … Yes, even “complaints” are an opportunity to be on-brand (use the feedback to make you stronger). Everything counts.


About the writer

Colin Anderson is a brand consultant with 30 years of experience. He has worked in over 20 countries for brands as varied as MNCs to SMEs. Brand, to him, is not a “thing” — it’s a “process” and strategy is not an intellectual exercise, it’s your “reason for being”.