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Think Big: Understanding the Value of Strategic Ambiguity

Whether we’re working on corporate identity, positioning strategy or naming, there’s a term we often use in our work with most clients: Strategic Ambiguity.

Whether we’re working on corporate identity, positioning strategy or naming, there’s a term we often use in our work with most clients: Strategic Ambiguity. It helps clients understand the need to find balance between being highly specific or overly vague in what it is they stand for and how they want to be perceived.

Strategic ambiguity, as organizational communication expert Eric Eisenberg defines it, enables a company to express itself—its mission and goals—in a way that allows “the freedom to alter operations which have become maladaptive over time.”

By being strategically ambiguous, companies who encounter turbulent times in the future can maintain a firm grasp on their identity and goals while embracing change. For our clients, this is key to staying relevant.

How Does Strategic Ambiguity Work?
Eisenberg notes that when air travel replaced sea travel from the United States to Europe, cruise lines survived only because they rebranded themselves as entertainment and hospitality facilities. This broader self-identifier allowed companies to provide new services, such as pleasure cruises and activities on boats that never even leave the dock. Because the cruise industry didn’t pigeonhole itself as a method of transportation, it survived and has since flourished.

In another industry affected by technological change, at least one company failed to identify the opportunity that strategic ambiguity allowed it. At its heart, Eastman Kodak was a chemical company in the business of making and selling film. As technologies changed and digital transformed how we create and consume images, Kodak didn’t evolve to think of itself more broadly. Had Kodak zoomed out and seen itself as a leader in the imaging industry, its future (and current unfortunate reality) may have looked very different.

Taking advantage of strategic ambiguity isn’t a matter of creating a formula, and it takes work. Finding the right balance is a step we help many clients take, and it’s part of what I love about our work. We help our clients make sometimes difficult choices and develop consensus on where their organizations are headed.

Achieving the Best Results
Three tips for applying strategic ambiguity:

  • Know the difference between being ambiguous and being strategic about your ambiguity. When naming and/or positioning your company, you can’t say, “Well, we don’t want to limit ourselves, so we’re going to try to be all things to all people.” You are not all things to all people—and you won’t succeed if you try to be.
  • Make choices. Strategic ambiguity is about drawing lines, and it requires a strong identity strategy. It’s more about who you are and why you matter than about what you’re doing right now. If you can commit to what you stand for, that commitment will actually allow for more flexibility when you’re confronted with change.
  • Think about the possibilities. Find ways to explore what you do now in different contexts and from new perspectives. This will help prepare you to make decisions about where and how you’ll allow yourself to grow and evolve over time.

If you hang your hat on what you do best right now, understand that people will continue to perceive you that way—a year, five years or 10 years from now.

So think big. Just not too big.

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If They Know What You Stand For, Your Consumers Will Love You (and Your Brand)

HeartIn the news last month were the results of a recent study that reveals the world’s 100 most loved companies. The top three brands? The Walt Disney Company, Yahoo! and Google. The study surveyed 70,000 people in 15 countries and measured individuals’ emotional feelings toward a brand. While we’re happy to see several of our past clients on the list, the study poses a great question: How can a company establish enough emotional connectivity to create familiarity and favorability among its audiences?

A company can’t be familiar to, or loved by its customer base if it isn’t true to itself. If familiarity breeds favorability, this might make a good argument to push for a higher marketing spend. But a more fundamental (and less expensive) way to improve and sustain familiarity is to be coherent and consistent in how you tell your story. Customers are people. People trust what they know.

Creating a Trustworthy, Intriguing Brand
Three steps to becoming a familiar and favored brand:

  1. Know who you are. Build a strong identity strategy and you will have a clear mission. Your employees will understand what they’re a part of and your customers will be able to identify with the choices you make. Our founder and CEO Philip Durbrow points out that everyone from the gardeners to the guy who plays Goofy could give a solid yes or no on whether something’s really “Disney” or not.
  2. Walk the talk. If there is a disconnect between what you proclaim yourself to be and how your customers experience you, your brand will cease to be appealing or trustworthy. All the marketing dollars in the world won’t solve this problem.
  3. Find the balance. Once you have an established following, you have to decide how to walk the line of remaining familiar while innovating and evolving as an organization. One of our recent SlideShare presentations, “How to Create a Valuable Company,” demonstrates that a company can be both solid and reliable and dynamic and innovative.

Seeing Success
Many brands struggle to connect with their customers and create favorability because they never take the time to assess what they stand for. One study points out that, more than familiarity just leading to favorability, it leads to behaviors that support companies’ strategic goals. Word-of-mouth marketing, investment referrals—these help companies grow and succeed, and they are more likely to happen for organizations that tell a clear and honest story about who they are.

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In the Face of Stiff Competition, Focus on Differentiation

applesAs companies merge, grow and gain global status, our job as branding experts is to preserve their relevant differentiation, keeping their brand unique.

There is a strong tendency for two competitors engaged in a long-time battle to begin to adopt the other’s tactics, appearance or behavior. This is called the Iron Law of Emulation. Look at Avis and Hertz, Chevron and Shell, Coke and Pepsi, and United and American. Doing competitive analysis is one thing, but doing it so much that you begin to resemble your competitor—that’s when your brand can run into trouble.

Setting Yourself Apart
There are a few questions that we ask as we begin working with clients who fall in this category:

  • What is your company’s vision for the future?
  • What role does your company want to play in that future?
  • What is your company best at?
  • What does your company really care about?
  • If your company didn’t exist, what would the world lose?

These questions provide ways to help a company focus on its unique identity and purpose. If a company can’t answer these questions clearly, they risk becoming just a commodity that can only compete on price.

When I was just starting out in this business years ago, Edwin Land, the co-founder of the Polaroid Corporation, sat in on a presentation I gave on differentiating yourself in the marketplace. Afterward, Mr. Land said to me that my presentation wasn’t relevant to him or his business, because at that time, Polaroid was the only place that provided instant photography—if you wanted instant photography, you had to choose Polaroid. Polaroid’s differentiator was that it was the only provider of instant photography. Eventually, Mr. Land and I ended up working together on his company’s packaging and display presence around the world. Even though he felt Polaroid didn’t have competition to worry about, he wanted his brand to be presented powerfully and consistently worldwide. He wanted people to understand how his brand was differentiated from all other traditional cameras and film.

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What I Learned About Branding From Aristotle Onassis

Aristotle OnassisIn 1975, I had the enjoyable experience of being the guest of Jackie and Aristotle Onassis at the El Morocco club in New York City. It was New Year’s Eve, and while I had worked with Jackie previously, I was meeting Mr. Onassis for the first time. I explained my profession in corporate branding to him, and his subsequent advice surprised me. It was completely related to image; not a word he said dealt with financial or investment advice.

“Drink where the rich drink, even if it means sipping one drink,” he said. “Live at an upscale address, even if it is the worst accommodations in the neighborhood. Exercise. Stay tan, even if you use a tanning lamp.” To me, his advice was this: To be successful, act successful and network with successful people. This is good advice for building your personal brand.

Using Your Personal Brand to Engage Others

But Mr. Onassis’s advice relates to more than just your personal brand or image. It also relates to how successful you are at reaching your intended audience—both within your organization and externally. When you think about what your personal image is, it’s really a combination of four things:

  1. Appearance: How are you dressed? Do you have good posture?
  2. Personality: How well do you communicate? Is it apparent that you have a good attitude?
  3. Competencies: Can you easily fulfill what’s required of you?
  4. Differentiation: What traits or skills separate you from everyone else?

These elements must be suited to your audience and the milieu you—and your organization—operate in.

Over the course of my career I’ve spent time in Hollywood, New York, Washington DC and Silicon Valley. Each place thinks it’s the center of the world and each has its own values, styles and characteristics. If you went down to Google’s headquarters wearing a three-piece suit, you’d be rejected. So just as you need to think about the signals you’re putting out with your personal image, you need to do the same when it comes to your audience. You need to understand, attract, and engage your audience.

If you’re going to operate across these different arenas you need to be sensitive to each audience and understand what resonates with them. Only then will you be successful.

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