Why Strategic Branding Matters in Today's Market: An Interview with Marc Wood and Travis O'Neill

Experts Marc Wood and Travis O’Neill will tackle key branding questions before their strategic branding workshop in Prague. Marc, a seasoned Creative Director and lecturer from Central Saint Martins, London, and Travis, a Brand DNA Explorer with over 15 years of experience now with Prague’s FLO BX team, bring a wealth of experience to this insightful session.

Why is strategic branding important for businesses today?

Marc: With an ever more intelligent and perceptive customer base—and not only Gen Z, Millennials and Alpha but Boomers too—that can see through unauthenticity and ‘brandwashing’, it is so important to create a genuinely unique, authentic and thoroughly thought-through strategic foundation for brands. Original and unique, genuine and coherent strategic brand definition and positioning to help brands rise above the competition and stand out and connect with and engage audiences in a meaningful and relevant way. 

Uniqueness in the brand’s offering, core values, vision, and tone of voice that underpins a strong and highly distinctive personality, expressed through well-aligned visual and verbal brand expression and activated through well-orchestrated touchpoints and positive customer experiences, will create salience and, importantly with time, foster an emotional resonance and bonding attachment in the audiences’ minds and hearts. And as we know, the more this brand equity grows, the more businesses can expand.

Travis: Marc is absolutely on point. Strategic branding is essential for businesses as it differentiates them in a crowded market, establishes a consistent identity, and cultivates a loyal customer base. A strong brand strategy boosts recognition and builds trust, which are crucial for long-term success. By crafting an original, unique, genuine, and coherent brand definition and positioning, brands can surpass the competition, stand out, and connect with audiences in a meaningful and relevant way.

What is a common misconception about Branding?

Travis: One common misconception is that branding is just about logos and aesthetics. In reality, strategic branding encompasses much more—it involves understanding your audience, defining your brand's personality, and consistently communicating your core values and promises across all touchpoints. Another misconception is that branding is a one-time effort rather than an ongoing process that evolves with the market and consumer expectations.

Marc: Well, it depends on who is misconceiving. People who do not know much about strategy or branding often think that branding is just the visual identity around it, not realising that in “strategic” branding, these design choices are reflections and creative expressions of the many facets of a deeper, intellectual brand entity, with strategically defined personality, core values, vision and promise. 

Others who are a bit more informed might think it has to do with specially targeted brand communications, for instance, on social media, which, of course, it is, but it’s also a lot more than that. It is always looking at the big (moving) picture and the moving parts (of the marketplace, audience, society, culture, technology, etc.) and managing to stay constantly agile, relevant and creative in brand expression and communication, not only to achieve but exceed businesses’ (or institutions) objectives.

"People who do not know much about strategy or branding often think that branding is just the visual identity around it."

Marc Wood

How important is storytelling in strategic branding, and how do you incorporate it?

Marc: Storytelling is an age-old, ancient human way to capture and immerse people’s attention and, importantly, trigger thoughts and emotional responses in the audience. It is a powerful way for brands to weave in their core values, beliefs, main purpose and overarching vision through the stories’ goal(s) and characters. Storytelling is a much more emotive-connective communication technique than brand messaging. Brand storytelling takes various forms, short and long, textual or audio-visual, and uses physical, digital and experiential touchpoints. However, the overall brand story and narrative will synthesise all the stories told, which needs to be strategically considered and orchestrated.

Travis: Storytelling is vital in strategic branding as it connects emotionally with audiences, making your brand memorable and relatable. Incorporating storytelling involves crafting narratives that resonate with your target market, highlighting your brand's values and experiences. This can be done through marketing campaigns, content creation, and interactive customer experiences that articulate the brand's journey and vision.

An example of an outdoor campaign we used to promote the Imprint/Insight Strategic Branding workshop.

How has the digital era changed the approach to strategic branding?

Marc: Massively. When I started working with ‘brands’, they were not often called brands but companies. Branding as such didn’t exist as a concept. You had marketing and marcomms on one side, and then what used to be called ‘corporate identity’. I think the word ‘corporate’ says it all. Branding was a set of prescriptive guidelines outlining ways of badging with the logo, brand colours and typefaces.

With the emergence of social media, dialogue and conversation were born between audiences and brands, forming much deeper relationships. Pre-digital, traditional media were limited to print, TV, radio, promotional mail, and outdoor media, which were more easily coordinated. It used to be much more ‘us and them’ communication; brand messages were more ‘push’ than ‘pull’.

This open-ended conversation and the huge expansion of media, channels, platforms, and touchpoints the digital era has brought require thoughtful tactical planning, curating, and managing content creation with sustained relevance to foster continuous engagement.

How do you ensure a brand’s strategy remains relevant in a rapidly changing market?

Travis: Staying informed about industry trends and customer preferences is crucial for keeping a brand strategy relevant. Regular market research, customer feedback, and competitive analysis are essential. Adapting quickly to changes, whether they involve emerging technologies or shifts in consumer expectations, helps maintain brand relevance and competitiveness.

"Regular market research, customer feedback, and competitive analysis are essential."

Travis O'Neill

How do you balance tradition and innovation when working with heritage brands?

Marc: Heritage brands' legacy and rich history and tradition(s) are all important parts of their overall brand equity and appeal. Unique heritage informs what brands do today and shapes how they think of the future. Their ‘origin story’ is a facet of their overall brand story. Think about Veuve Cliquot (founded in 1772) or Ferrari. But of course, brands, however old, must forever stay culturally and visually relevant, desirable and easily accessible to their audience. So, heritage brands need to embrace innovation, evolving technologies and culture and adapt to new ways of communication whilst staying true to their unique brand legacy. This makes it interesting and challenging to work with heritage brands, such as modernising a brand marque and its surrounding visual branding language. Keeping the beauty of the past and mixing in hopes of the future.

Travis: I love that answer, Marc. I agree that balancing tradition and innovation requires respecting and preserving the brand's legacy while embracing change that meets consumer expectations. This balance can be achieved by retaining core values and elements that define the brand's heritage while innovating through product offerings, marketing strategies, and customer engagement practices.

Another example of an outdoor campaign we used to promote the Imprint/Insight Strategic Branding workshop.

In your opinion, what is the future of branding, and how should brands prepare?

Travis: The future of branding lies in personalisation, sustainability, and technology-driven strategies. Brands should prepare by investing in data analytics to understand and predict customer behaviour more accurately, adopting sustainable practices to meet growing consumer demand for eco-friendly products, and leveraging emerging technologies like AI and AR to create unique customer experiences.

Marc: In the same way, that branding practice evolved hugely with the advent of the internet, smartphones and social media, today’s advanced technologies and AI, the use of AR and VR, and new platforms have already been disrupting current branding practices with an array of sophisticated research analytics, planning and creation tools (e.g., ChatGPT, Midjourney, Zapier, Google Trends, Cortex, etc.), with amazing text to image creation, intelligent modelling, deep dives and automated planning. 

So, it’s crucial that brand strategists and designers not only keep up with advanced technologies but also experiment with them and sometimes challenge them. Evaluating potentials, contextual parameters, and ethical codes around their usage. Brand strategists and designers should situate themselves as co-creators of this future. Brand agencies and internal brand teams should offer this ongoing learning and empower creative, tech-savvy strategists and designers to oversee this evolution. 

And, of course, the other thing is the urgent need for brands to proactively work together towards creating a more sustainable future and participating in a more circular economy. That theme and societal purpose is, and will become, increasingly vital for all brands.

"The future of branding lies in personalisation, sustainability, and technology-driven strategies."

Travis O'Neill

Finally, what advice would you give to companies looking to develop a strong brand strategy in today's competitive landscape?

Travis: Companies should focus on deeply understanding their target audience and defining a unique value proposition to stand out in an already saturated crowd. This is essential to creating a cohesive brand identity and experience across all channels. Additionally, being adaptable and responsive to market changes while focusing on long-term brand values and mission will help companies stand out and build a resilient brand.

Marc: I think Travis says most of it already. It is also important for these companies to realise that investing time and money in developing a strong and focused brand strategy, defining a unique brand value proposition and creating engaging visual branding and communication will generate a significant ROI in the brand’s performance and market position. But to make it work, brands must go beyond words, messages and storytelling and turn their brand strategy, core values and vision into action. They must ‘live their brand’ with concrete action, not just words. Patagonia is a good example of this. The other advice would always be to use both the left/right sides of the brain when applying the brand strategy: mixing rational and emotive aspects to create strong audience resonance, e.g., advance data analytics nourishing intuitive, responsive UX/UI design.

Secure your tickets for the "One-Day Strategic Workshop" live in Prague for a more in-depth exploration.
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