Collaborating with a Brand Strategy Agency

Your agency partners know how to build your brand — and tell you what you might not want to hear.
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Successful brands start with honest self-assessment — which may be hard to come by in a large company or an entrenched corporate culture. Enlisting the aid of an outside brand strategist can help, providing a clear-eyed window into the company’s strengths and weaknesses and offering agnostic, professional solutions.

But as in any relationship, the client-strategist partnership can succeed or fail due to issues ranging from internal resistance to a lack of coherent goals. Here are several key ways to help an agency relationship succeed.

How do you know when you need a brand strategy agency?

One good reason: your in-house team is already stretched in capacity or capabilities. “A company needs to consider: What is our current talent, and do they really have the goods to get this done?” Leland says. An added benefit: taking on an outside partner for a one-time strategic push can be invigorating and empowering for a marketing group.

If the company is a start-up, it may not have built out the depth of internal marketing needed to develop a cohesive brand strategy. Karen Tiber Leland, author of The Brand Mapping Strategy, has experience in this situation. “One software startup I’ve worked with was trying to create a brand,” Leland recalls. “They just kept throwing money at it. ‘Let’s try a Facebook ad.’ And, well, that didn’t work. Then, ‘Let’s do a Twitter campaign.” And, no, that didn’t work. Then, ‘Okay, let’s advertise on these sites.’ Okay, that didn’t work. The problem was it was all based on a reactive model. But that’s not the same as a carefully researched project where you actually test your assumptions, look at them, hold them up against the market, and see what’s actually going on. A brand strategy agency can be really helpful if you tried a bunch of stuff and none of it has really produced what you want.”

Speaking truth to power

Another indicator that you need a brand strategy agency: you know you need branding help, but the decision-makers at the top don’t see it that way.

Salah Hassan, professor of marketing and brand management at the George Washington University School of Business, recalls the time a CMO approached him to talk about his branding ambitions for his company. “He told me, ‘I’d like to bring you over and tell this to our CEO,’” says Hassan, who also directs the school’s graduate certificate program in marketing and brand management. “I said, ‘Why don’t you say that to your CEO?’ He said, ‘I wouldn’t dare say that. He’s the type who just wants us to march to his orders. And please don’t mention my name.’”

Hassan did meet with the CEO, at one point asking him, “‘Who are your competitors?’ He gave me the dirtiest look. He said, ‘We have no competitors.’” Presented with ads from companies providing the same service, the CEO responded, “That’s why we don’t do ads.” Hassan then explained, “‘If you don’t control and manage your brand, you’re letting somebody else do it for you.’” And that, Hassan insists, is why companies need brand consulting agencies. “They’ll say what needs to be said in the right way.”

Get everyone on board with bringing in a brand strategy agency

Bringing in an outside strategist may be seen as a rebuke to the status quo. So it’s important that everyone understand why the agency is being brought on. Take, for instance, one common point of contention: the “we’ve always done it this way” stance. This, says Leland, “is the certainty on the client’s part that they know who their customer is, what they want, and what the brand is” — and thus have no reason to change. “At this point, I generally ask them, ‘Well, has it been working?’” says Leland. “‘Has it been producing the results you want?’ And if their answer is ‘no,’ I say, ‘Okay, we might want to try something else.’”

Pick the right brand strategy partner

It’s easy for anyone to hang a “brand strategist” shingle. And even the established strategy agencies may assign you second-stringers, rather than the senior management you need. Take the time to research and interview several recommended agencies. Don’t be afraid to ask to meet the team members you’ll be working with. And consider selecting an agency whose experience is outside your own industry. You might find that a fresh perspective leads to thoughtful, creative work. (More about hiring the right brand strategy agency.)

Great expectations

Once you hire an agency, clear expectations must be set. Most important: understand what the brand strategy can do for you. “The brand strategy is the bridge-builder,” Hassan says. “It’s the connector between corporate strategy and marketing action programs. Without the brand strategy, you are shooting in the dark.”

You’ll also need to picture the endgame. “All brand strategies should begin with clear goals,” Wheeler says. “I can’t tell you how many start without them. Know what success will look like.”

“The agency brings a disciplined process to the table,” notes Alina Wheeler, a branding consultant, speaker, and author of the book Designing Brand Identity. “They bring process with key benchmarks, and can help the organization imagine success.

Expect the agency to immerse itself in research and testing, exploring issues like how to reach and sell to your target audiences. A good brand strategy firm evaluates how well the current brand fares in competition, creates a roadmap for brand messaging, and determines needs for visual identity and brand expression applications.

The brand strategy agency, meanwhile, also has expectations. “I ask, ‘What’s your budget?’” says Leland. “And they may say, ‘We don’t know’ — I run into this a lot. And I say, ‘I can give you branding for a $4 million budget. And I can give you branding for $100,000. There’s always a gold, silver, and bronze version of a branding strategy,” Leland notes.

Brand strategy success starts at the top

The brand strategy agency also needs the C-suite to be involved in — and understand — the branding process. “A lot of leadership teams don’t even understand what brand strategy is,” Wheeler says. “The CMO does. But you’ve got all those other leadership people who don’t.” A good brand strategist can educate the C-suite, ensuring that they are engaged and on board with the new brand strategy.

“The best brand strategy agencies bring a tremendous amount of business acumen and creative prowess,” says Wheeler. “But more than anything, they give the leadership team the courage to make changes.”

Keeping the project on track

Once you bring in the agency, it and your company must follow some ground rules to keep the process humming.

First, you’ll need to agree on deliverables. And your company will need to follow a pre-determined decision-making process. That means deciding which players will be on the ground — working directly with the agency at all times — and which others will need to weigh in at regular intervals. And it’s important to keep the C-suite informed and involved. “You don’t want to have a situation where everyone decides, then brings the final results to the CEO,” Wheeler says. Because by that point, the CEO may just want to tear up the strategy and send everyone back to the drawing board.

As the agency gets to work, your company will need to provide strategists all the data and information they need to get the job done — along with access to the people who have it. That may include input from the sales force, client relationship managers, tech teams, HR and others. And most critical: if possible, they’ll need to interview (or at least survey) clients to get that honest assessment so critical to success.

Expect the agency to create a timeline for everything from processes to benchmarks. Both partners need to stick this timeline. But keep in mind, “No matter how buttoned up of the process is, something is going to happen that no one anticipates,” Wheeler says. “It always does.”

Don’t forget why you hired the brand strategy agency

As the strategy crystalizes, there may be conflicts and disagreements, even cold feet. Your company may be inclined to default back to its “we’ve-always-done-it-this-way” stance. Just remember why you hired the agency in the first place — and don’t be afraid to remind everyone of this.

You went to an outside agency because you wanted their expertise and independent thought. “I tell clients, “I am your off-premises CMO,” says Hassan. “They better listen to me — or why have me?”

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