2024's Marketing Strategy Is No Longer About Brand DNA

The brand genome is the central strategic tool leaders have at their command

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The last 12 months have been eventful for brands and those who create, build and nurture them. Some hits and some misses, though the misses have been on unexpectedly large scales.

A few questions are on the table as we look toward next year: Is the CMO role obsolete? What about the CBO? Can they be replaced with digital experts, a direction some companies have taken? Is it all about creating experience? How can brands stand out in the year ahead?

CMOs and CBOs have been forced to take on a broader remit, with continual pressure to demonstrate ROI performance almost in real time, driving them to become more tactical and transactional. This has led to more short-term solutions (influencers, short shelf-life digital content or timely sponsorships) that are less strategic.

This approach has put brands and their leaders at considerable risk. One is the loss of clarity of their core customers, as reflected in the Bud Light debacle. Another is loss of brand control, as evidenced by the recent misstep of Apple’s Black History Month challenge. There are other examples not limited to U.S. shores.

How should brand leaders regroup in 2024, with strategies and executions that are distinctive and successful in competitive categories and a noisy world? The answer and the confidence to be bold can be found in unlocking the powerful guidance and control mechanism at the heart of every brand.

We’re not talking about a brand’s DNA. As helpful as that construct has been, it doesn’t go deep enough to unlock a brand’s true power. Leaders would be better served—and find themselves making a greater contribution to their company’s overall efforts—by thinking in terms of their brand’s genome.

Mine the brand genome

Here’s the difference: Brand DNA is a “gene pool” of brand truths. Its genome is the essence of that DNA, distilled to a point of disciplined single-minded clarity about the most valuable wins the brand can provide to the widest possible range of potential customers.

The benefits of having control of a brand’s genome are considerable. It becomes the central strategic tool brand leaders have at their command, a lens through which to not only shape and guide campaigns, programs and all creative, but also to help other functions express “brand” in the most impactful and effective possible ways.

The brand genome is a key reference for product and service development, and the roadmap for culture development and evolution. And, perhaps most importantly, it is of central importance and value to brand leaders as a strategic compass through which to navigate the continually expanding universe of outreach options, whether digital or analog, making decisions with the best odds for achieving ambitious objectives and having each dollar of their budgets work as hard as possible.

With the brand’s genome in hand, it becomes exponentially easier for brand leaders and their teams to identify the opportunities for optimum fit, enabling them to be smarter, bigger and bolder, while still authentic. The result is the potential to maximize tactical effectiveness and short-, medium- and long-term work to differentiate the brand, engage stakeholders, grow share of voice and mind, and drive both growth and profitability.

Beyond storytelling to brand expression

Brand leaders, working with their agencies and consultants, have become adept storytellers on different platforms, even on what can be a fact-based subject like a company’s ESG commitment.

Unlocking the brand genome enables brands to take storytelling further and deeper to bind customers to them. Here’s an example:

A dimension of human warmth, catalyzed by freshly baked bread and other forms of baking that customers could viscerally experience, was identified as the highest benefit contained in Panera Bread’s brand genome. While “warmth” was present in Panera’s DNA, the genome process enabled a deeper understanding that set the entire enterprise on a course of multi-dimensional expressions of warmth internally through changes in training, recruiting and operations, and programs like the Warmth Huddle.

Externally, warmth was expressed through the installation of fireplaces in almost every Panera store. Ovens were brought within sight and smell of customers. A sustained communications effort ensured the company culture manifested warmth at company headquarters. The franchisees, who understood the journey the brand was on, embraced the expression and interpreted it locally without dilution.

Interestingly, and a wonderful example of the power of brand genome control, is that marketing was only a relatively small part of the mix; decisions and actions were taken across the company—from executive profiles to public relations. The result is seen in the remarkable differentiation and success of Panera’s solidified and increased positioning year over year.

Getting the process underway

Doing the brand genome work is the same irrespective of company or brand scale. Consider the following factors:

The brand’s competitive position

There are many tipping points in a brand’s lifecycle where unlocking the brand genome can be a critical differentiator. One is when the brand’s competitive position has become weakened either by the entry of a particularly strong competitor or an issue (e.g. manufacturing problem, availability, adverse event) that has impacted the way stakeholders consider or interact with the brand.

Additional situations that spark the need for brand genome work include a significant cultural change or when there is the sense the brand has dimmed, which can occur for a range of reasons.

The internal team

Precise identification and articulation of a brand’s genome is done with a cross-functional team, including stakeholders at different levels of the organization. The point person is the individual with day-to-day responsibility for brand strategy who has the support of outsider consultants experienced in this process.

Research

This is typically two-step: first, interviews with a selected group of internal stakeholders, and second, qualitative research with existing and potential external stakeholders. We’ve seen the pride and sense of purpose in the brand experienced among company employees, from the C-suite to sales to administrative staff, that results from brand genome work, which is often as valuable as business growth.

Timelines for ideation and planning

Whether it is to burnish the reputation of a leading biopharma’s R&D or growing a restaurant chain, it is best to start with three key elements in place: a target end date of the brand genome unlocking process, an articulation of what success looks like, and an ideation and planning kickoff phase across disciplines (i.e.: marketing, public relations, internal comms, sales) and platforms.

The courage to be bold

Unlocking a brand’s genome offers a competitive advantage. It yields fresh insights and a core component of the overall strategy. It delivers a depth of understanding that transcends cultural trends, channels and geographies.

The result is a roadmap leading to bold ideas and new possibilities. Brand leaders can experiment and take calculated risks in ways not previously available. When unlocked, the brand genome can be expressed with conviction and clarity that boosts confidence across an organization and empowers the extended team. For global brands, it enables local markets to interpret the brand expression without comprising authenticity.

Brand leaders who decode and bring to life their brand’s genome will dramatically shape much more than marketing and revenue. They’ll also guide the company’s potential to contribute to the world around us—what all ambitious brands and their shepherds aim to achieve.