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Is Brand Strategy a Myth?

BrandStrategyThemeOn one side of the bookshelf, you have an ever growing pile of historic business best sellers, with promising titles like In Search of Excellence, 4 +2: What Really Works, Good to Great and Built to Last. Essentially, they’re all recipes for building a highly effective company. They are strategic blueprints for success.

On the other side of the bookshelf, you have books like Phil Rosenweig’s “The Halo Effect.” He trots out a couple of sobering facts: In a rigorous study conducted by Marianne Bertrand at the University of Chicago and Antoinette Schoar at MIT, they isolated and quantified the impact of a leader on the performance of a company. The answer, as it turned out, was 4%. That’s right, on the average, even if you have a Jack Welch at the helm, it will only make about 4% difference to the performance of your company. Four percent is not insignificant, but it’s hardly the earth shaking importance we tend to credit to leadership.

The other fact? What if you followed the instructions of a Jim Collins or Tom Peters? What if you transformed your company’s management practices to emulate those of the winning case studies in these books? Surely, that would make a difference? Well, yes – kind of. Here, the number is 10. In a study done by Nick Bloom of the London School of Economics and Stephen Dorgan at McKinsey, the goal was the test the association between specific management practices and company performance. There was an association. In fact, it explained about 10% of the total variation in company performance.

These are hard numbers for me to swallow. I’ve always been a huge believer in strategy. But I’m also a big believer in good research. Rosenweig’s entire book is dedicated to poking holes in much of the “exhaustive” research we’ve come to rely on as the canonical collection of sound business practices. He doesn’t disagree with many of the resulting findings. He goes as far as saying they “seem to make sense.” But he stops short of given them a scientific stamp of endorsement. The reality is, much of what we endorse as sound strategic thinking comes down to luck and the seizing of opportunities. Business is not conducted in a vacuum. It’s conducted in a highly dynamic, competitive environment. In such an environments, there are few absolutes. Everything is relative. And it’s these relative advantages that dictate success or failure.

Rosenweig’s other point is this: Saying that we just got lucky doesn’t make a very good corporate success story. Humans hate unknowns. We crave identifiable agents for outcomes. We like to assign credit or blame to something we understand. So, we make up stories. We create heroes. We identify villains. We rewrite history to fit into narrative arcs we can identify with. It doesn’t seem right to say that 90% of company performance is due to factors we have no control over. It’s much better to say it came from a well-executed strategy. This is the story that is told by business best sellers.

So, it caught my eye the other day when I saw that ad agencies might not be very good at creating and executing on brand strategies.

First of all, I’ve never believed that branding should be handled by an agency. Brands are the embodiment of the business. They have to live and breathe at the core of that business.

Secondly, brands are not “created” unilaterally – they emerge from that intersection point where the company and the market meet. We as marketers may go in with a predetermined idea of that brand, but ultimately the brand will become whatever the market interprets it to be. Like business in general, this is a highly dynamic and unpredictable environment.

I suspect that if we ever found a way to quantify the impact of brand strategy on the ultimate performance of the brand, we’d find that the number would be a lot lower than we thought it would be. Most of brand success, I suspect, will come down to luck and the seizing of opportunities when they arise.

I know. That’s probably not the story you wanted to hear.