I’m going to level with you: brand strategy can be a glossy, meaningless show used to extend engagements and distract from thoughtful visual design. Brand strategy should be succinct and correlate with business goals, and prepared in a way that can support visual design, yet well-meaning designers and clients can drift into a strategy-gloss trap.
Over the last decade or so, it's become increasingly common for graphic designers to sell “strategy”. Usually that's in the form of brand strategy, which is a service to create both a detailed conceptual description and the visual graphic elements which represent a brand. The strategic part, creating the conceptual description, can be delivered through working sessions and reports and should be a thorough rundown of the markets your business will engage with and how it will use branding to succeed. It sets the high level direction for the ways people will experience the brand, like logo, website, social media and things associated with the buying experience.
Doing this service is good for designers because it helps clarify what the client wants and is trying to achieve. It creates an agreed set of ideas to assess any visual design against, which is helpful because visual design can be very subjective.
The other reason designers now do brand strategy
Design studios and agencies have another reason to offer brand strategy. As described here, creative professionals have often worked with client marketing managers, while accountants and consultants have worked with the C-suite, higher up the corporate ladder. Over time those with C-suite access have morphed into strategic partners to business, and in so doing, crept their offer out to include web and now brand design services. Design and other creative professionals need access to the C-suite so they don’t lose their clients to those consultants, so are providing strategy as a whole business service.
Given examples like Apple and AirBnB, it’s about time that designers were included in the high level strategic decision making.
Agency brand strategy vs Studio brand strategy
In terms of Univers, we’re a “studio” rather than an “agency” meaning we’re smaller and we coordinate more with other creative people, to provide clients with very highly considered, useful outcomes. We can do all the same things as an agency but we do it differently and are more flexible. We create brand strategy with our clients which tend to be for single projects or campaigns, or for small to mid-size businesses who don’t have a heavy C-suite style hierarchy.
Instead of being our golden key to the top tier of management, a design studio’s strategies should be about defining the message and direction for the project and gaining a thorough understanding of the client’s business.
What to included in a brand strategy
To be helpful for a client, the brand strategy needs to be well scoped: if it’s too broad it becomes more like a business strategy, plan or canvas; if it’s too narrow it’s really just a simple brief for the design of certain items.
I’ve found that a good brand strategy prepared by a design studio needs to outline:
Who the end customers/buyers are
What they value from offerings in this category
The competitive landscape
Where the brand will sit in that landscape
The key messages and points of difference
Why will customers will choose this brand
What is to be created and the tone/style
Knowing and discussing these 7 points will set your strategy in the right direction — I have absolute confidence in their effectiveness. But, like every creative thing a design studio does, brand strategy format can and should vary to suit the client, the times or style of project.