10. Scratching

There is a subject that we haven’t properly engaged with in brand strategy journey.

In part, this is because I have been shying away from it, talking about everything else that I can rather than grapple with this subject. Thousands and thousands of words serving as a procrastination exercise so that I don’t have to face up to something.

And that is, what do you actually do when face with a creating a new brand strategy?

I have talked a lot about the ‘what’ of things, like ‘what’ a brand is and ‘what’ a brand strategy is. And I have talked a lot about techniques for making your brand strategy better, so that it is sharper, more useful and more likely to help your business. I’ve even covered the right type of notebook and pen to use!

But I haven’t really engaged with how you go about it. The great tyranny of the blank sheet of paper, the blank brand framework, the emptiness and potential at the beginning of a project. So I am going to try and express how this works for me. And believe me it isn’t pretty.

Twyla Tharp is one of the greatest choreographers in the world, creating over 130 dances for herself alongside work for Paris Opera Ballet, The American Ballet Theatre and the Royal Ballet. Believe me I am rather obsessed with Twyla Tharp.

Her work is celebrated for pushing dancers to the very limits of what their bodies can achieve. But at the beginning of the process all she has is a bare room and possibly a group of dancers. She has absolutely nothing in place but from this starting point, a few weeks later, she will need to deliver a performance that lives up to her reputation and that of the dancers and collaborators she is working with. Something extraordinary.

To help she has two tools up her sleeve, scratching and improvisation. And I like them a lot. They speak to me and help me describe what I think I am doing when it comes to creating brand strategy. Before I stumbled upon these cocepts I really couldn’t articulate what I do, the process that I employ. But what I now realise is that I do some scratching followed by a period of improvisation. And in this conversation I want to talk about scratching.

Scratching is the process of searching around for a starting point. You could call it research, reading, analysis or immersion but I love the idea of scratching. Like a chicken in a coop scratching the dirt for worms, you are just trying to find something, anything to help you to get going.

Scratching is how a brand idea starts.

You scratch here, you scratch there, you scratch away at everything you can just to get a first thought or germ of an idea. It’s a hideous period of time because you don’t really know if and when you are going to find something. You just have to trust that you have in the past and so you probably will today.

To be really frank I’m pretty sure that all those trademarked strategy processes so beloved of consultants and brand strategy agencies are simply there to mask the fact that what they are really doing at the beginning is just scratching around, but imagine selling a project to a client where you actually come clean about this?

I honestly wish you could say to a client, give me some time and a few resources and I will do some scratching until I come up with something good. But unfortunately this doesn’t seem to cut it with most clients, who need to beable to buy a ‘process’ and sincerely believe the bigger and better that process the more likely they are to get a great answer. This is of course absolute nonsense. I’m blessed that right now I do have a handful of clients who know that I just need to go scratching and they will get something good, but they are rare people indeed.

So, often you need to disguise this period as something like ‘immersion’ or ‘discovery’, a initial period that gives you space and latitude to simply scratch away in as many places as you see fit. If you run a team you may have different people scratch in different places and then bring them all together to share their scratching and see where they can build on what each other have found. This in turn might inspire another round of scratching itself.

Perhaps you have a set of places that you always like to scratch. You might like talking to experts, analysing customer data, running a quant survey, undertaking some qualitative research, reading everything that has been written on the subject but it’s all just scratching.

Personally I’m a huge fan of the good old stakeholder interview. If you want to understand the soul of an organisation a few hours spent listening, really listening to a handful of those on the inside at every level and tenure is invaluable for scratching. They will reveal so much about the values and focus of the brand with three little questions – what is the business world class at? What are the people in it fascinated by right now? And what are the non-negotiatable beliefs in the place. Great stuff for scratching.

That said, I worked with a brand strategist once that went past the organisation itself and straight to the cultural studies part of the library. This was on the basis that he was never going to be able to understand a subject through his own research better than someone that had been plugging away at it for a couple of decades in academia. I admired that approach to scratching.

Another planner once told me that every time they flew or took the train they would go to a newsagent and buy a totally unfamiliar magazine on a random subject and use it partly to see into another world but also for raw material for scratching. There is nothing like mashing up two really different worlds to give you a starting point for something fresh.

And one idea that I have adopted only recently is to appoint a ‘hero’ book for your project. A book that you will read alongside your endeavour and that will coach you on the solution or elements of the solution. Hero books should not be about the subject you are exploring directly but slightly off at a tangent. It’s job is not to give you the answer but to give you injections of energy and inspiration, little bits of grit that you can use. No surprises that the hero book for this project is Tharp’s own The Creative Habit.

It really doesn’t matter as long as it gives you a foothold, a few ideas or thoughts that you can build off. All you really need is a germ of an idea to work with. Or in my book a bunch of maybe six ideas you can shape and mould and manipulate into promising territories.

So, scratch away until you find something you can start getting you teeth into, that you can focus your efforts upon and coalesce your thinking around. And recognise that whatever your agency or company calls that bit of the process, whatever tool they insit you use, it’s all just scratching.

And then you can start to improvise, which is another conversation altogether.

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