Brands are complex creatures. Successful companies are the result of an intricate combination of thinking, talent, and tools—from leadership vision to service performance to digital ecosystems that turn prospects into customers into evangelists. Brand strategy makes sense of the intersection between these human and technology factors. It creates clarity by focusing on the core elements that together create something compelling, distinct, and relevant. The foundation of the brand’s public face, solid brand strategy starts with identifying the company, product, or service pillars: the non-debatable, non-subjective “truths” on which the brand’s messaging is built.
In 2004, I did the messaging strategy for Cisco’s Executive Briefing Center, a premiere product showcase responsible for $4 billion annually from visitors around the world (the first time I visited the EBC, the Welcome Board listed the CEO of Proctor and Gamble, The Russian Minister of Defense, and the Ambassador of Guatemala). But, the facility lacked a cohesive messaging strategy that drove brand expression on the walls and in eight new digital kiosks.
"Given the sheer volume of branded content coming at us each day, our 'B.S. meters' have never been higher."
I was struggling through piles of interview data and research until I suddenly realized something; all messaging, regardless of source or subject, is propaganda. The true purpose of messaging in any environment is to influence and present information that sways the reader. Its perspective is always biased and anyone exposed to marketing—whether on a website, in collateral, a presentation, a social post, or on the walls of an EBC—subconsciously knows this.
This is why we as consumers are trained to instantly filter all messages, it’s simple survival. Given the sheer volume of branded content coming at us each day, our “B.S. meters” have never been higher. Regardless of the offering, propaganda sells while truth educates and inspires. And EBC visitors—like most consumers—preferred to be educated and inspired rather than sold.
The solution was to go deeper. What could the company say about itself that wasn’t self-serving or debatable? What statements could it make—about its technology, people, experience, customers, philosophy, or a hundred different things—that its competitors couldn’t argue with? That were a result of the company’s ideals, values, and vision and could drive everything the customer experienced during their visit? Ultimately, I determined there were four.
Truth #1: Cisco was a key provider of enabling business systems. In 2004, they were helping companies to put the internet as a central component of their business strategy.
Truth #2: The company drove market innovation—its patents on video and data over IP technologies helped create multiple industries.
Truth #3: They were an industry visionary. At this time, they were one of the first brands to produce executive thought leadership as video-based content.
Truth #4: Cisco was a philanthropist—through significant investments in international education programs and non-profit sponsorships, the brand had established itself as a good global citizen.
Each of these ideas were brought to life through hardscape signage and interactive experiences—a Global Philanthropy Program kiosk, ExecNet Thought Leadership videos, a visual timeline that showed the company’s growth mirrored with the rise of IP around the world, an Inventors and Industry Firsts kiosk, and searchable Customer and Partner Case Study installations.
Everything the visitor saw, read, or heard expressed a “pillar truth” that defined the company’s value in a non-subjective way. This was the cornerstone of a strategic renovation that expanded the facility’s physical footprint and increased sales nearly 30%. The facility also won the World Class Award for Best New or Renovated Center from the Association of Briefing Program Managers.
Since that assignment, I’ve helped multiple brands in many different industries articulate and elevate their story and value. And in almost every case, it started with understanding their pillars—the simple but compelling truths at the heart of the brand and enable its promise and strategic position. While unique for every company, they always provide a solid foundation for messages and content. Because, while hype may sell, truth will always educate and inspire.