Decoding Brand Confusion: Aligning Agency Expertise with Executive Vision

We’re often brought into branding projects when things have gone wrong, or a previous branding project has run out of steam.

And I’m always surprised when I hear that the previous agency didn’t necessarily have the domain expertise, but they gave the brand a shot. This phenomenon occurs when agencies, desperately vying for projects, claim expertise in everything from design and advertising to PR and digital. As industries fragment, the confusion deepens, making it harder for clients to distinguish between agencies and their core competencies. But for me it also raises questions about the esteem in which ‘brand’ is held, even within marketing circles.

Differing Perspectives

In my view the crux of the issue lies in differing perspectives on brand. While some view brand as an executional opportunity for designing logos and creating communications; others can see it as a strategic function intricately tied to a commercial plan. I know this is the case in the agency world – it’s where the generalist v’s specialist positioning comes from. And I’ve been involved in enough client conversations to know that it’s probably true on that side of the fence too.

The key point, I suppose, is that you’re not going to ‘design’ your way to a more profitable business unless you’re very clear on the strategic context it’s within. And first things first, branding as a discipline, should seek to understand its impact on a business's bottom line. It requires delving deep into the commercial context, engaging with sales teams to uncover selling challenges, and asking the fundamental question: How will spending money on a client's brand either make them money or save them money?

Short Termism’s A Problem

Everything nowadays is wanted instantly, and this in the inherent challenge with branding. It just takes time, and its returns are probabilistic in nature, rather than deterministic. Unlike the short-term gains promised by performance marketing, brand investments yield results over years, not months or weeks. The business landscape's increasing short-term focus hinders the willingness to invest time in building a brand properly.

I believe that this short-termism also pushes more generalist agencies into execution, accepting the self-diagnosed brief at face value to secure short-term revenue. And this devalues the discipline because it’s about execution rather than value creation. The client isn’t always right and it’s the role of brand strategy experts to use their objectivity to step back and trace the problem back to its source, addressing the root cause rather than the symptom. It’s a longer and harder path, but probably the right one.

It all starts with Strong Foundations

Our enduring belief is that strong brands are built on solid foundations - vision, mission, and values which are simple, coherent, and easily understood across the business. Too often you see these types of documents written in a pompous or patronising tone, using high minded language and management speak, to make them seem important or esoteric. Simplicity should drive the communication here. Only then can clear-headed brand communications be built.

Then Understand the Customer

Once the brand is defined, understanding the customer becomes paramount. Many briefs are based on received wisdom, an outdated, sanitised customer profile - or worse, a persona that bears no resemblance to reality. This doesn’t necessarily mean commissioning expensive and lengthy research; but it means taking a bit of time out to think about the customers, how they buy, who they’re competing with and how you can affect them. Again, these areas are of interest to brand specialists, but may be overlooked by the generalist.

Beware the Bandwagon

Another risk in the agency world is the bandwagon effect, and there are plenty to jump on. Trends such as purpose, sustainability, and stand-alone employer brands can be counter-productive to brands that are not well defined at their core, leading to fragmentation and confusion. These philosophies are not one-size-fits-all and should align with the brand's true identity.

Similarly, the enduring obsession with tools like social media, programmatic, and AI distract from enduring principles around customer behaviour. Jeff Bezos got it right when he said that customer expectations don’t change over the long term, and this is where brands should put their effort.

The cumulative effect of bad advice, accepting client briefs at face value, and chasing trends creates confusion and waste. Agencies must be clear about their discipline and domain expertise, and clients, in turn, should be discerning about who they hire for specific tasks.

Successful branding requires a common-sense approach, avoiding fads and trends. It boils down to defining the brand, understanding the customer journey, creating a brand strategy aligned with the business strategy, and focusing on the value returned or saved. Branding, like anything else, is a simple business made complicated by those who don't truly understand it. It's time to cut through the noise and get back to the basics.