Stop Talking Brand. Start Talking Business.

  • A brand strategy is nothing without a business strategy that can back it up and bring it to life
  • When brand is valued over business, prepare for an epic collapse – just look at WeWork as an example
  • Brand messaging needs something concrete to communicate about … communications alone will never go far enough

Heresy! Heresy, you say! The branding firm just put out a subject line proclaiming its very own product to be of less importance than business itself. Oh my.

While it’s not exactly a Pythagorean equation (whatever that is), the idea of “business > brand” is actually a very, very important point: True brand strategy – the kind that advances your business light years ahead of your competition – goes far beyond look, feel, messaging and marketing.

True brand strategy needs to articulate a true business strategy.

What does that mean? Well, here are two great brands that were built through business – not through marketing – along with one complete failure that got brand and business all mixed up, losing tens of billions of dollars in value in the process:


 All tectonic shifts within the asset management industry aside, Vanguard has a clear brand position: They’re the low-cost provider. But the key for Vanguard is they don’t just say they are the low-cost provider, they bake low cost into every component of their business. From their products, to their company ownership model, to how they sell through intermediaries, everything is engineered around delivering the lowest cost to customers. The result? They’ve created a structural advantage which has enabled them to own their positioning (until, perhaps, recently) and accrue over $5 trillion dollars in assets under management. Yow.


 T-Mobile earns its second consecutive mention in PHL Branding e-newsletters – must be a world record.

T-Mobile branded themselves the Un-Carrier. Okay, actually, they had a vision to disrupt the telecom industry, named that vision the “Un-Carrier, and then brought that vision to life anywhere and everywhere. They stopped locking customers in to contracts. Then they offered an upgrade plan that didn’t force you to wait two years. Then they got rid of roaming fees and data caps. They started paying for early contract termination fees from other carriers, offered unlimited free music…the list goes on and on, to the tune of 13 different initiatives that drive home their business and brand strategy.

That business strategy is what allowed T-Mobile to own the “Un-Carrier” brand – to the tune of huge growth that outpaced the industry and led T-Mobile out of 4th place in the wireless space.

WeWork: What Happens When Brand Is Valued Over Business

Anyone who worked in a WeWork before the company’s meltdown could have told you that complete and utter failure was forthcoming. From employees coming in to work hungover after wildly expensive guest Snoop Dogg appearances at company retreats, to a coworking company thinking it could teach kids, to a fundamentally bogus real estate business model, the company has, quite simply, always been unfocused from a business standpoint.

WeWork is a good case study for this article for all the wrong reasons. It actually built a great brand – clean, clear, inspirational, bold, brash and culture-driven. But, that brand was a cloak that masked a foundation of pure idiocy and arrogance (say how you really feel). The result? When that foundation crumbled to the tune of tens of billions of dollars in lost value, we witnessed a brand become completely tarnished simply because it had no business plan to prop it up.

What You Can Do

While great brands are built on top of great businesses, not all businesses are inherently great. But, a brand strategy can help a business get there. By determining a differentiated positioning, businesses can unlock huge potential value – the opportunity for a more focused, effective corporate strategy that can build on a true point of differentiation.

That’s the easy(-ish) part, though. The hard part – and this is where a business and brand can separate itself from the pack – is getting every single operational area and every single employee focused on building the brand in a unique way. That’s why the best brand strategies start from the inside out.

Ultimately, it’s people who will make the brand real through the business and customer experience, not through marketing.

So, where can you start?

  • Sharpen the saw: If your brand positioning doesn’t force you to say “our business should be doing this” and “it shouldn’t be doing this” – sharpen it. The more your brand positioning draws a line in the sand around who you are and who you aren’t, the more effectively you can make a brand strategy into a true business strategy.
  • Make it concrete. Messaging, visual ID, advertising, marketing – these are communication vehicles, not business offerings. Make your brand strategy concrete by thinking about aspects of the customer experience, the product you create or the services you offer that make your brand an authentic part of your business. Bring those to life and voila! – your communication vehicles can actually point to something tangible that makes your brand real.
  • Simplify the problem. One of the major issues in a focused brand strategy is its existence in an unfocused organization. You can make a brand transition into the business more effectively by starting somewhere simpler – choose one area, one department, or even one leader where the brand is ripe to be brought to life. Start there, show some success in the model, and then begin rolling out further from there.