300-page Branding Statements?! A Plea for Simplicity.

A colleague relayed the following story about a conversation with the chief marketing officer of an international retail chain. This CMO was grousing about having paid a big-name agency $500,000 for a branding statement.

But it wasn’t the price that bothered him – it was the fact that the statement was 300 pages long (not a typo), and he doubted whether anyone, himself included, would read it. He went on to say that what he had read was far too open to interpretation to suit him.

In fact, the document was so unwieldy that the chain had taken the extraordinary step of hiring a second big-name agency and paying it $125,000 to boil the 300-page branding statement down to a tenth of its original size. And still, the marketing guy was wondering if anyone would read those 30 pages.

He recited some of the language from the original document. And while it sounded lofty and noble and aspirational, I wasn’t sure what the words meant. Or what they had to do with branding the retail chain. I was left with the feeling that 500 grand is an awful lot of jack for something you can’t use.

To be fair, quite a few of those 300 pages were filled with research findings and justifications for the branding statement proper. But the marketing guy was clear that the actual statement went on for pages and pages. And pages.

I wish this was an isolated incident, but I’ve come across this kind of corporate excess too many times. For example, I’ve worked with a 90-person company whose president once presented, at a company meeting, a strategic plan with 19 key platforms. Nineteen!

I also know a local entrepreneur who tried to launch a product that had, in his view, no fewer than eight benefits. He planned to push all eight. He rationalized that, with this many benefits, he couldn’t fail – there would be, as he said, “something for everybody.”

People can’t remember a 300-page branding statement, or 19 strategic platforms, or eight “primary” benefits. And if they can’t remember them, they certainly can’t act on them.

Your employees won’t have the guidance they need to make good decisions, and your customers will be too confused and overwhelmed to buy.

I’m making a plea for simplicity. When it comes to matters of brand guidance – positioning statements, core strategies, and the like – less is definitely more. In my experience, if you can’t express your core brand idea (“overall equity,” in some circles) in seven words or less, you still have work to do. That’s right, no more than seven words. Think Crest (“healthy, beautiful smiles for life”) or Starbucks (“the third place”).

Similarly, if your product or service delivers multiple benefits, I challenge you to establish a single primary benefit, plus no more than two secondary benefits. And if you’re drafting your core strategies – those few things your organization needs to execute to achieve your brand and business objectives – shoot for three, with five as an absolute maximum. If your organization can truly execute three strategies over the planning horizon, life is pretty good.

To reach this level of simplicity, you’ll have to make some tough choices about what you want to stand for and how you’re going to get there. And you’ll have to articulate those choices clearly. That’s a good thing. You have limited resources of time, people and money, so clear choices are your ally. And the people that bring your brand to life – your employees and customers – will appreciate the clarity.

If simplicity has eluded you thus far, it’s not too late to take action. Make the decision today: within six months, bring your brand strategy to a higher level of clarity.

A version of this post appeared in the Cincinnati Business Courier on November 30, 2007, in the column “That Branding Thing.” Originally co-written with David Wecker.

About Matthew Fenton: Matthew helps challenger brands to focus, grow and win.  Since founding his consultancy, Three Deuce Branding, in 1997, he’s helped hundreds of brands to achieve “brand clarity.”  His consulting services and speaking engagements help brands to focus on what matters through positioning, strategy and ideation.  Contact Matthew here.  He calls Chicago home.

Copyright 2007 – Matthew Fenton.  All Rights Reserved.  You may reprint this article with the original, unedited text intact, including the About Matthew Fenton section.