Over the years, I’ve encountered dozens (maybe hundreds) of different models that are used by marketing teams to explain their brand strategy to colleagues and agency partners. I’ve worked with pyramids, wheels, onions, ladders, bridges, temples, footprints, keys, hourglasses, diamonds, keystones and matrices. But while superficial differences exist, many of these models share common underlying characteristics. And every model reflects the prevailing mindset of its parent organisation and its marketing leaders.

It’s difficult to pinpoint a ‘ground zero’ of brand models. When I started working at Interbrand in 1999, brand models were already a well-established mechanism for capturing a brand positioning or strategy on a single page (we used the term ‘brand platform’). Many online articles credit the Bates Agency for creating the Brand Essence Wheel in 1995, but I very much doubt this is where the story starts. For one thing, brand consultancies tend to feel about advertising agencies the same way that cats feel about dogs and wouldn’t be caught dead using any framework that an ad agency had created (at least, not knowingly).

For another thing, companies like Procter & Gamble had pioneered brand-centric management practices as far back as the 1930s: Harvard College Graduate Neil McElroy had proposed in 1931 that P&G should assign responsibility for each brand to a specific person: what we now call a ‘brand manager’. The brand manager’s role wasn’t just to outcompete rival brands: it was to prevent P&G brands competing with other P&G brands in the same category.

So, as far back as the 1930s, P&G brand managers would have been required to clarify which unique combination of consumers, needs, product qualities and image attributes their brands were targeting. And it would have been in the company’s interests to develop a proforma model for comparing brands to ensure overlaps could easily be identified and minimised. The Bates wheel almost certainly draws inspiration from the brand planning system pioneered by P&G, which I suspect predates it by more than half a century:

There’s a (sort of) logic to the way the wheel has been constructed: the outer rings contain the more superficial aspects of the brand: its attributes (how a person might describe the brand and what it does) and its advantages (how it makes people look and feel). The middle layer houses the underlying brand characteristics (what we might now refer to as Distinctive Brand Assets) and personality attributes. And at the centre of the wheel is the brand’s essence (or purpose, or promise, or proposition, or positioning). Fans of the Golden Circle will recognise obvious similarities.

The Bates Equity Wheel isn’t the definitive brand model, but it is fairly typical of the equity wheels I’ve encountered. The logic is a little weird: many would argue that a ‘symbol’ is more superficial than a benefit, which is why alternative brand equity wheels adopt an alternative (and, to my mind, more straightforward) logic:

If wheels aren’t your thing, Marketing Professor Kevin Lane Keller introduced the ‘Brand Resonance Pyramid’ in his 1997 book, ‘Strategic Brand Management’. Rather than building an ‘inside-out’ model that travels from an inward ‘core’ to outwardly perceived attributes, Kevin Lane Keller’s logic is based on a four-step process for establishing a relationship between a brand and a person:

  1. IDENTITY: establishing the brand’s logo, symbols and other key signifiers in people’s minds and connecting these to relevant occasions and situations (in modern parlance, establishing Mental Availability through Distinctive Brand Assets and relevant Category Entry Points).
  2. MEANING: firmly establishing desired associations with the brand in people’s minds, so they can understand what makes your brand different and desirable
  3. RESPONSE: being clear about the response you want these associations to elicit amongst your target audience: what do you want them to think and feel as a result of interacting with your brand?
  4. RELATIONSHIP: the level of resonance a brand achieves with its desired audience, defined in terms of behavioural loyalty, attitudinal attachment, sense of community and active engagement.

The resulting Brand Resonance Pyramid is intended to be a master framework for helping any brand owner or manager to plan their ideal relationship with a target audience and to measure their progress against the plan. The basic premise of the model is that the true measure of success in branding lies in how a target audience thinks, feels and acts towards the brand (and not just what the brand in question does ‘for’ them or ‘to’ them). It’s relationship-driven rather than brand-centric:

For some marketers, such relationship-driven models don’t go nearly far enough: they are a degree more customer-centric than ‘brand essence’ wheels but fall short of being truly customer-centric. The idea here is that truly great brands (and, by extension, truly great brand models) should have an ‘insight’ or a ‘universal human truth’ at their core. In 2011, Boston Consulting Group proposed the idea of a ‘brand benefit ladder’ to ensure brand positioning builds on a rigorous understanding of customer needs, before connecting this to a brand’s technical advantages over its competitors:

BCG’s brand benefit ladder is designed to encourage brand managers to quantify emotional benefits sought by a defined customer group in a market space, then work backwards to identify the most relevant functional benefits, and then the (unique) technical attributes that correspond to the prioritised emotional and functional benefits. The diagram above shows BCG’s top-line analysis of Starbucks. It’s a convoluted picture and I’ve rarely seen this type of framework in practice (apart from some fairly hardcore structural equation modelling I was involved in a long time ago). But I have seen the idea of a brand ladder expanded and used as a tool for developing insight-led positioning:

OK. The result is more of a staircase than a ladder, but the idea is to develop in-depth insight into what a target customer (or consumer) needs (not just functionally and emotionally, but also socially) and then to build on this understanding in two ways:

  1. Firstly, by establishing a relationship between these needs and the technical attributes that the brand is capable of delivering (climbing down the ladder).
  2. Secondly, by elevating the desired emotional and social benefits into a transformational benefit, marketers can establish an insight-led brand purpose: not based on their own desires or vision for the future, but based on a rigorous insight into their target audience and its needs (climbing up the ladder).

In this way, brand ladders reverse the logic of the traditional brand equity wheel by anchoring the brand model around an ‘insight’ rather than an ‘idea’. They also offer a comforting linearity: Dove soap contains ¼ moisturising cream, which means it keeps skin soft, which helps people feel self-confident, which boosts social confidence, which means they feel empowered to challenge dogmatic notions of beauty, which supports a purpose rooted in redefining beauty standards and helping everyone experience beauty and body image positively.

Because it’s a linear model, the brand ladder above follows a much simpler logic than the Brand Resonance Pyramid and the Bates Brand Equity Wheel. But this simplicity comes at a cost: there’s no room for brand assets or signifiers, such as logo, imagery, or colour palette. There’s no room for brand imagery, values or personality. These might not matter to an insight professional, but they are important to branding professionals, particularly given our current obsession with Distinctive Brand Assets.

There’s another important element that the models discussed so far tend to gloss over or overlook completely: the competitive element. Marketers tend to care a lot about this aspect of their jobs: understanding what makes their brand unique, or different, or better. It’s not enough to define a target audience and identify the unmet (or under-met) functional and emotional needs that their brand is capable of delivering: marketers are charged with the further responsibility of convincing people that their brand is able to deliver on these needs in a way that competing brands can’t (or don’t). In other words: it’s not enough for a brand to be relevant; it should also be unique. This missing element suggests that the issue with equity wheels and pyramids is not that they are too complex, but that they aren’t detailed enough. Step forward the Unilever Brand Key:  

Depending on your point of view, the Unilever Brand Key is either the Swiss Army Knife or the Frankenstein’s monster of brand models. There are all sorts of things going on here. Underlying product attributes. Uniqueness. Relevance to a defined target. Insights to guide execution. Clearly defined functional, emotional, social and sensory benefits. Desired meaning. Proof to substantiate this meaning. Discriminating attributes and assets. And an essence to act as shorthand for all of this:

Dirt is Good!

Unilever’s key is possibly the most famous multi-dimensional brand model, but others are available. Heinz’s model, for example, is (or at least was) in the shape of its iconic ‘keystone’.

Brand models generally reflect the cultural and structural idiosyncrasies of their parent organisations. Ladders tend to be used in insight-oriented companies. Detailed multidimensional models are favoured in low trust organisations that prefer tightly defined and controlled brands. Simpler wheels and circles (including the Golden Circle) tend to be most effective in high trust cultures that are comfortable with keeping strategy broad-brush and giving teams enough autonomy to fill in executional details for themselves.

You can tell a lot about an organisation and its culture simply by looking at the tools they use to define their brands.

This is one reason why I groan inside when I encounter a B2B organisation stealing brand models developed in the B2C space and attempting to apply them without alteration. This is also why I’m deeply suspicious of gurus, consultants and consultancies who try to convince the world that their particular model or system for brand-building is the ideal go-to model for any situation. On the positive side, this means that marketers don’t need to worry about whose model is best: it’s a matter of picking the right tool for the job.

So, how do you know you’ve got the right model for your specific situation?

Start with a use case (or several)   The first set of questions I ask when I see a client’s brand model (or the template they would like me to work with) are:

  • Who is this for?
  • In what situation(s) are they supposed to use it?
  • How is it supposed to help them do their job better?
  • And is a brand model the best way to achieve this?

Often, there is more than one intended audience, and more than one need the model is expected to fulfil, for example:

  1. To give different brand teams a common template for defining their brands and their roles in the overall brand portfolio.
  2. To give agency partners a way to understand what’s on-brand or off-brand.
  3. To help the wider organisation understand what the brand stands for.

Of the three examples given above, I’d argue that only (1) can be adequately satisfied by a brand model: use case (2) is better met through a set of guiding principles, while a video or a book or an event would be a more compelling way to respond to use case (3). In my experience, brand models are often created because they are considered the ‘done thing’ rather than the most compelling way to share thinking about a brand in a given context. This is why so many models are used so rarely, despite requiring significant investment to develop. Colleagues tend to assume they are the navel at which the marketing team gazes. Agencies tend to ignore them. And quite rightly: they are often developed with little empathy or thought for the people who will be using them.

A brand model is an OK way to structure thought, a poor way to communicate, and a downright lousy way to inspire. Only create a brand model if there’s no better way to bring your brand thinking to life.

Watch your language

It’s also worth contemplating your audience’s tolerance for marketing language: will they understand what a brand essence is? Are they likely to know (or care) about the difference between brand values and brand personality? The broader the audience for a brand model, the better it is to exchange marketing terms for vernacular statements:

  • Why do we exist?
  • Why should anyone believe us?
  • What matters to us?
  • How would we like people to describe us?

Even if your model is purely for the use of marketers, it’s still worth sticking to vernacular language. Marketing language is frustratingly, enduringly vague, so using plain language is likely to result in fewer misunderstandings and arguments.

If you put an ‘insight’ in the middle of your brand model, then be prepared to suffer interminable debates about what an insight actually is. Terms like ‘purpose’, ‘promise’, ‘vision’, ‘mission’, ‘personality’ and ‘values’ are no less controversial. Better to frame the model using language your granny and grandad would understand.

Start simple (and keep it simple)

I’m a big fan of starting with a small, simple set of elements and then adding to these at a later point if people feel there are important gaps to be filled. Go back to the use case: what’s absolutely essential for the person in question? Do they really need nine different types of information (as the Unilever Brand Key suggests), or are there three basic things they need to know to do their job better (as the Golden Circle suggests)?

If you’re having trouble prioritising, ask your intended users what they feel they need to know, or ask them to rank the elements you’re thinking about including. And then once your model is ‘live’, ask the same people to provide a critique: what’s most helpful? What’s least helpful? What’s missing?

It absolutely fair to evolve the model based on the feedback you get. If you work in a culture that values detail then people will no doubt ask for more, but at least you’ll know all that detail you’re delivering is actually valued.

This might sound like a faff, compared to simply using an existing off-the-rack brand model, but making sure you’ve got the simplest brand model possible will save you time and effort. If you work in a culture that prefers simplicity, then you’ll have successfully avoided creating a tonne of content that nobody pays attention to. And an inclusive approach to model design will dramatically improve the chances that people will use the model and work with you to improve it over time.

Beware of box-ticking

The moment you give people boxes to fill in, you create a box-filling mindset.

Quality becomes a secondary consideration: most important is that every box in the model is completed in the correct way. Adherence to the framework is prioritised over quality of strategy. And this problem increases exponentially with the number of boxes people are required to fill, because it becomes much easier to hide mundane thinking in plain sight. In Unilever’s Brand Key, it doesn’t really matter if your description of the target is a little vague, or if your values are a little generic, because there are so many other boxes of content to distract attention.

The output isn’t just worse: so is the process of developing strategy. Filling boxes is a dull, uninspiring process. It damps the spirit and dulls the mind. When I worked with a team at Diageo to reposition Guinness, we agreed from the outset to ignore the Diageo Way of Brand Building (DWBB, or ‘Dweeb’) and to focus instead on developing an idea we thought would unlock the greatest opportunity for the brand. We agreed that our standard of excellence would be a strategy we could fit on a beer mat, rather than in the fussy brand wheel prescribed by DWBB. Only once we arrived at an idea we were confident in did we go through the torture of trying to fill out all the required boxes.

How do you avoid falling into the box-filling trap?   It’s easy: instead of giving people boxes to fill in, give them challenging questions to answer.

So, rather than something like this…  

  … You could instead establish a set of ‘golden questions’ brand teams should be able to answer compellingly about their customer and their brand:  

Our customer:

  • And given all this, what’s our greatest opportunity to create meaningful, long-term value for our community?

Our brand:

  • And what aspects of our offer will we need to improve to deliver on our promise?

Challenging people with an interesting set of questions dramatically improves the likelihood that they will respond with an intelligent set of answers. It’s also easier to identify missing questions than missing boxes (there’s a gaping commercial hole in the set of questions above). I see very little point in forcing people to provide their responses in a pro forma model or template: they should be given the freedom to respond in the most intelligent, imaginative way they can. For organisations with multiple brands, teams should be encouraged to critique each other’s responses and to compete for who can develop the best response. The aim should be to inspire a race to the top, rather than to embed a box-filling mindset and a regression to the mediocre.

Where brand strategy is concerned, standards matter more than standardisation.

Don’t forget brand portfolio strategy

Most brands don’t sell a single product or service to a single audience, although you couldn’t tell this by looking at most brand models. The point of portfolio strategy is to enable a brand to stretch across multiple categories, customer segments, occasions and needs, to take on multiple competitors and to offer a breadth of products, services and features. It makes no sense for a brand model to pinpoint a single customer segment, or to anchor the brand in a specific functional or emotional benefit, if that brand is applied to ranges that deliver different benefits to different groups of people.

A brand model should focus on elements that are common and enduring across the entirety of that brand’s activities: higher-level aspects like purpose, values and personality. Aspects that vary between products and ranges should be reserved for the portfolio strategy: who are they targeted at? What benefits do they deliver? On which occasions? Through which channels? This is one of the reasons why I tend to prefer simpler models.

As you’ve almost certainly surmised, I try to avoid brand models like the plague. In my experience, their ubiquity is inversely proportional to their utility. If the aim is to encourage brand teams to apply a common logic to brand strategy, then a considered set of thought-provoking questions is far more likely to yield a quality response. If the aim is to provide an engaging way to introduce the wider organisation or agency partners to your brand strategy, then a bespoke visual, video, microsite or booklet is far more likely to quicken the pulse. And this is where the ubiquity of these models can actually become a benefit: any marketer interesting and imaginative enough to avoid presenting their ideas in the form of a brand model will stand out a mile.  

Don’t do the expected thing.  

Do the exceptional thing.

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