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The case for slow(er) brand strategy

It started with the news cycle. In the early 90s.

What was once a drip feed of information was radically altered by the arrival of TV. The era of the 24-hour news cycle arrived, and real-time coverage, opinion, and reportage fused instantaneously to deliver an intoxicating mix of infotainment.

Today, we live in always-on times, where the news hunts us down, rather than us finding it. The metabolism of media is set at the speed of culture and its velocity these days can be disorientating for brands and people alike.

Neuroscientists are seeing our brains light up when our device lights up as our biochemistry has been rewired to react to the slightest social stimulus.

Arguably, we’ve moved from being users of technology to being locked in symbiosis with it: we’re devoted to our devices, each one is a little dopamine dispenser.


But as P&G recently announced in scaling back its investment in paid-digital, the pace and range of digital don't always translate to growth. Indeed, a lot of snake oil has been sold over the last decade regarding the transformative power of digital. Brands find themselves at an interesting juncture – their customers’ lives are increasingly mediated by digital experiences, but digital advertising continues to under deliver and underwhelm.

Perhaps brand-owners are just as hooked on the same reactive dopamine hit that digitally gives – I mean, they’re people too, right.

This writer has said it already (see the August issue of IMJ), what many consider brand strategy is actually a combination of a continuous line of tactics, reacting to the culture rather than taking a stake in shaping a ‘long narrative’ for a brand or business.

Brand strategy has become reactive, it’s defined by ‘pop-up’ thinking, driven by social metric chasing approaches. This is important but we shouldn’t confuse it with brand strategy. The uncomfortable truth is that being ‘always-on’ doesn’t equate to being relevant. And that’s the trap for many strategists and planners, in the hunt for the immediate impact we sacrifice long-term growth.


What’s the solution to this short-termism loop that we seem to be stuck in?

It starts at the start, funnily enough. The fundamental question is not ‘Why are we here?’ but ‘Where are we headed’?

Brands and agencies have to separate the thinking from the doing. Too many insights aren’t really all that insightful, they are observations of behaviour that can be parlayed into short-term propositions rather than a deep emotional understanding of the motivation that shapes brand position and value exchange.

Too many strategies aren’t really all that strategic. They live and die against a content calendar or a campaign plan, and as I’ve said before, this isn’t the way forward for strategy.

And finally, too many ideas are big (in the sense that they are trumpeted and invested in at scale by brands), but they are not broad enough to carry the weight of expectation and experience beyond themselves.

Solutions are often counter-intuitive such as to create more meaningful creative we need more data, or to get more data conversely we need more creativity to unlock opt-ins and trigger behaviour. These paradoxes are only increasing.

For brands obsessed with the pace of change the solution to hacking growth is too slow down.

To think evolution rather than revolution.


To take the time to ask the big existential questions.

To really understand where a brand wants to go to rather than how fast it should travel.

Pick up this month’s issue of IMJ to read more of James’ thoughts on the state of planning and brand strategy.