I love debating strategy and branding. Over my 30-plus-year fresh produce career, it’s the C-suite debates and challenging status quo thinking on strategy and branding that delight me the most. My observation is that for many executive-level managers, branding is seen as costly, low priority and something to be delegated down to marketing teams to deal with and manage.
If you are a C-suite executive reading this, then I encourage you to finish this article. If you are a marketer, this article is for you too. It will give you the insight you need to ensure your brand strategy and direction are elevated to their rightful place in the organization.
Why should brand discussions be elevated to strategy? Because branding has changed over the last decade. Think back ten years. The primary way a consumer was exposed to your brand was on a retail shelf. Your brand’s placement on the shelf and the branded product range offered were controlled by a buyer whose interest was in their success, not yours.
Yes, your external brand marketing efforts mattered. But when it came to a shopper actually buying your product, availability and proximity mattered more because options were limited. Decisions were made at point-of-sale based on what brands were available. When standing in an aisle and deciding what to buy, impactful packaging, brand awareness, or in the absence of both, price determined the purchase. Fast forward ten years.
Today, the brand is everything. Shoppers no longer need a retail outlet to buy your product. They can simply go online to Amazon, Instacart, or any number of other websites to make a purchase. For companies with their own B2C websites, shoppers now buy your brand directly.
With more B2C channels operating than ever before, your brand can appear in front of thousands of shoppers with one product search. With more tools to directly advertise and influence purchasing right at the ‘add to cart’ decision, your brand and what it stands for matters more now than ever.
Never have brands had such a stage to perform on — but this comes with a tradeoff. In the past, the company controlled the brand. Today, the shopper controls your brand. This is why discussions around brand and brand management must be elevated.
Let’s look back again. Ten years ago, if a consumer had a bad experience with your brand, what were their options? If they wanted to complain, maybe they looked on your packaging to find a phone number or email. Maybe they tried to take it back to the store, often without a receipt, to get a refund. In the past, it was hard to be a dissatisfied and disgruntled consumer. Now it is so much easier, and this shifts the balance of power.
Today, if a shopper wants to ‘diss’ your product and brand and give you a 1-star review laden with how ‘disappointed’ they are with your product, they have multiple social channels and endless customer review opportunities for their voice to be heard.
Let’s face it, with so many thousands of reviews, we’ve trained ourselves to read the 1-star reviews first. Bad reviews are bad for the brand. And bad reviews are really bad for the brand if there is no brand strategy in place to ride out the bad publicity. This is where strategy and brand must become linked.
At its highest level, company strategy establishes the foundation for why a brand exists via robust debates to determine a company’s Purpose, Vision, Mission and Values. These core strategic pillars are not just words to be word-smithed — they are the pulsing heart of the brand and why it exists. Get your purpose, vision, mission and values right, and your brand becomes resilient and able to withstand the storms. Get them wrong and you risk everything.
I recently heard Driscoll’s then-CEO Miles Reiter speak. Driscoll’s is a produce industry role model brand and Miles credited much of their success to the strength and foresight of their Vision, Mission and Values. Their Vision Statement, “To become the world’s berry company, enriching the lives of everyone we touch,” is compelling. Their Mission Statement, “To continually delight berry consumers through alignment with our customers and our berry growers,” leaves no doubt as to where their focus is. Strong strategic foundations build strong brands.
I recently encountered another company in a downward spiral. Multiple acquisitions and CEO leadership changes have resulted in the company losing its way. The sad fact is they are taking a once esteemed brand down with it. Weak strategic foundations destroy brands.
Strategy vs brand. Brand vs strategy. For a company to thrive in today’s hyperconnected world where the brand is more important than ever, you need to link and prioritize both.
• Lisa Cork is the chief executive of Fresh Produce Marketing Ltd and Adjunct Professor of Produce Marketing at Cal Poly State University in California.