“I learned to recognise the thorough and primitive duality of man; I saw that of the two natures that contended in the field of my consciousness, even if I could be said rightly to be either, it was because I was radically both”
The strange case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, Robert Louis Stevenson.
Great strategy of any description is a blend of logical steps and lateral leaps.
The brand idea that you create will owe its life to the latter, to the leaps of faith that you make that take your brand into a new space in people’s lives and minds. A place where the red thread that leads you back to its starting point is clear in retrospect, like the dropped stones leading Hansel and Gretel out of the forest. But where the gravity of logic, will have been left behind for a lateral leap to be made.
In future conversations we will spend much time thinking about lateral thinking and how you can place your mind in the right space to loose the ties that bind it and set it free. This is all to come.
However, the duality of a great strategist must also embrace pure logic. And the ability to switch from mode to mode with ease is a key characteristic for success.
If the brand idea is a product of your lateral mind, then the strategy to win, what we might call the strategic spine, will be the preserve of your logical mind. Logic that grounds your thinking and makes sure that when you leap you are leaping from solid and certain foundations.
You must hone your prowess in logical thinking, in the binary world of alternatives and clear decisions. Be mindful being logical is not the same thing as being rational. Rational means making decisions based on observed evidence. Logic is the process of understanding the decisions open to you as a consequence of decisions already taken and the precursor to the decisions that will be open to you in the future.
I make this distinction only because there is a tendency to see people that are good at analytical thinking as logical, but I don’t think this is always or even often the case. Logic is a discipline of reasoning that few possess. The ability not only to see that every course of action is defined by previous actions but also to ruthlessly enforce those decisions once they have been made. This is important because the tendency we all have is to fudge decisions, to maintain that two binary alternatives are complementary.
For a strategist that is obsessed with the lateral, and even illiogical solutions the truth is that I absolutely love those parts of the strategic process that call for pure, cold, clinical logic. The if this then that, of strategy. I love getting almost irritatingly logical, by which I mean complete pain-in-the arse, totally intransigent, binary as hell. I split hairs, I become utterly pedantic, I slow the process right down to everyone’s anoyance like a lawyer constantly interupting proceedings with objections. And critically I hold people accountable to the decision that have been made at every stage in that process.
When in other parts of the strategic journey people may thrill to the output of your mind, the truth is that if you are doing your job right, they will hate it and hate you at this stage. Pecisely because you refuse to accept the fudge, the compromise, the group think or the workshop conclusion. I assure you; you need to be an arsehole.
And you need to force the world around you to see the way ahead in binary terms. The adman and writer Dave Trott is legendary for his approach to binary briefing and the clarity it brings. He says “Binary is a way of simplifying things down to their most basic. This or that. Black or white. On or off. No subtleties, just powerful, simple clarity.”
You see, when you are building your basic strategic spine, you are making a series of binary strategic decisions and by and large the options ahead of you are dependent on the decisions you have already made. This is how you build the spine, step by step, decision by decision until you have a plan and hopefully a plan to win. Starting with the objective you have set and unfolding from there.
A great strategic spine will work like a decision tree. And that’s the best way to think it through. To lay out the binary options on the table at each stage and the decisions that will follow on from this.
It’s a bit like choosing from a restaurant menu. Maybe because you have chosen a seafood starter you opt against the fish for your main course and choose the lamb and because you chose the lamb you select a red wine from the list. In that way your meal is built and the overwhelming decision making that an average menu involves, with many possible combinations, is made effortlessly simple.
Similarly, the overwhelming task ahead of you in shaping your brand in peoples’ minds becomes more manageable if you break down the basic decisions that you need to make and order them according to their dependencies. Of course, the critical thing is starting in the right place, and that is always the problem that you are trying to solve.
That’s why you need to switch out of lateral thinking into logical mode. There is no room here for flights of fancy or fascinating digressions, only rigour and intellectual honesty. This is your Dr Henry Jekyll at play.
So how does it work?
A meat free example
I recently worked on a new meat free brand that offers delicious meat free sausages, burgers and mince in the burgeoning meat free section of the supermarket, that is full of old staples like Quorn and Linda McCartney and new entrants like Impossible and Meatless Farm.
The strategic idea we created was about a meat free brand made by chefs and not scientists, that puts food first in a sector obsessed with lab grown meat, burgers that bleed and strange ingredients that are ‘plant based’ in some way, shape or form.
That was the strategic idea. But it only existed, because of the strategic spine that preceded it. The fact that we were hunting in this territory was down to a cold logical journey.
It started with recognising that this is a hugely crowded category of largely weak brands all clamouring for attention and all saying the same thing. Something to do with the environmental or health benefits of going meat free.
In doing this they are attempting to grow the category. There is no other explanation for their approach.
We wanted to launch and launch in such a way that we could leave the ‘mosh pit’ of also ran brands behind and challenge the might of Quorn and Linda McC.
So, the first decision was, do we want to grow the category or grow our share of the category?
This is a pretty standard decision that features in most strategic spines. I see it a lot in financial services where for instance you might be making a decision between getting more people to invest or stealing share of wallet amongst people already investing. And virtually every time this decision has to be made colleagues and clients will want to fudge the answer, claiming they want both, since both are desirable. This is where your have to be the arsehole – we did.
It seemed to us that the established players and most of the new brands were making the case for going meat free. Not to mention the enormous amount of media coverage and cultural conversation about meat reduction. We could easily join the crowd and talk about the benefits of meat free but why bother since there is enormous natural growth for this sector. Plus, we were a market entrant with growth ambitions that could be satisfied by taking existing volume from the market. So, we decided to be far more selfish and grown our share by stealing from the others.
The next decision was new customers or existing customers?
Obviously as a new entrant we needed new customers of our own, that’s obvious. But in reality, this question was about whether we were wanted people that were new to meat free as the category exploded or we wanted to win over people familiar with the category and looking for a better option. Because of the way we answered the first question the decision we needed to make was clear. We were stealing share, so we needed to convince existing meat free customers to come over to our brand, or at least try it. They needed to think it might be better.
The next decision was how to create a sense of superiority.
If you are going to steal market share from meat free brands you can take either a proximity approach or a superiority approach. A proximity approach is about positioning your meat free brand against meat. You say your brand is as close to meat as possible without being meat and you steal share because you are taste more like meat than the other meat free brands. It’s a totally legitimate option, all of these choices are.
A superiority approach would be to tell people that your meat free brand tastes better than all the others. Forget how much like meat it is or isn’t. In fact, never mention meat at all
To me this option was try and join the bleeding burger brigade or simply cut to the chase and say, now you have tried all the others try the one that actually tastes good.
We chose a superiority strategy to grow our share of the category and so the next task was to figure out how to convince people that our brand tasted better than anyone else, hence the chefs. But in a way the hard work had been done. The basic logic joinery had been laid down, decisions had been made and sacrifices too. No one was allowed to talk about the rainforests or heart health, no one was allowed to talk about growing the category or how much like meat the products seemed.
Of course, this sort of binary approach makes people feel uncomfortable because they don’t like deciding against things. In this case it was hard for people to accept that we were not trying to grow the category since that sounds desirable. But at this stage you need absolute clarity about what you are and are not doing so that you build a solid strategy to win. And the truth is that armed with a brilliant brand idea that takes share off the competition, you can’t help but win a few fresh converts to the category.
So set out your binary choices and the implications of those decisions.
I find it helpful to think about the game that the category is playing and whether you think you can win playing that game. Figure out what every brand seems to be about in your category and decide whether you can beat them at this dominant game or need to change the rules to win.
Direct Line couldn’t win playing the price at the point of purchase game the insurance category loves but it could win playing the performance at the point of need game. So we repositioned the entire brand in this manner as a insurance brand that performs when things go wrong. ‘The fixer’ brand idea was the lateral leap that we created for Direct Line but it never would or could have existed without that basic logical steps that underpinned it.
Similarly, BT broadband couldn’t win playing the speed game that Virgin Media owned and wanted everyone to compete in since it knew it had an advantage. So, we decided that BT would compete on reliability. Others might be faster when they worked but BT would promise not to let you down at any time and line up products and promises to back this up. Our brand idea was ‘unbreakable’ but this wouldn’t have existed without the logic of the original strategic spine.
So, in that first phase of building your brand, the brand strategy, get super logical and binary. Line up the choices you have and be a pain in the arse about making those choices and focusing people on the implications.
Then step back. What you should have is a strategy to win. The basic building blocks of how you intend to establish your brand and beat your competition laid out infront of you. With a series of binary decisions that you have made and that, if executed well, should succeed.
And you will have a set of solid foundations upon which you can unleash the other side your strategic duality, that part of your mind that is instinctive, emotional, and lateral, your Edward Hyde.