Future-Proof Your Brand: Strategic Planning To Stay Ahead of Your Competitors

03.12.19 / David Lemley

Many better-for-you brands conduct strategic planning at two inflection points: In the startup stage, they map out the brand’s mission and vision, and when they hit a business crisis, they dig in to chart a path forward.

We advise doubling down on your brand strategy at a different time, though, when everything is going well. When you’re reaching the right fans with the right products through the right channels. Competition is modest and sales are strong. You’re not in crisis mode.

We call this “future-proofing” your brand, and it involves defining a brand story that transcends your product offerings, your flavors, and your ingredient claims. Honing your brand strategy when business is humming keeps it on the front edge of the needs and beliefs your consumers hold.

In the BFY space, a constant influx of competition means that as brands mature, business gets tougher. Perhaps your brand has grown into a position of category leadership, but profits are still weak. Perhaps you’re on solid ground, but you’re seeing that the aspects of the brand that you used to shout from the rooftops are resonating less because they sound like others in your category. Perhaps you own a single channel that isn’t enough to sustain growth.

If your category has any viability at all, your products will be copied and other brands will erode your market share over time.

Great brands future-proof themselves by developing a strategy that enrolls employees, buyers, and customers. The best time to build a future for your brand is while it’s in good shape. You’ll be free to make confident, informed choices with a goal of reaching five to 10 years into the future.

How to Future-Proof Your Brand

The best way to evolve your already successful brand for the future is to envision scenarios that could put it at risk. It’s difficult for owners and executives to project three to five years down the road, let alone to imagine the worst things that could happen to the business. Data provides the evidence.

We help marketing leaders and owners gaze forward using trend analysis to create a picture of the future audience and their needs. We develop a deep understanding of the current consumer using customer research to identify who she is, what her life is like, what she buys, and how she uses it. We look at the brand’s historic demographic data to determine audience segments, plus hard-hitting insights like shopping cart data that reveals what else consumers buy and what price points they tend to favor.

This kind of analysis synthesizes consumer data from multiple sources — past, current, and future — and evaluates it through your brand’s lens. It can answer bigger questions than what products should be in your pipeline. It’s about looking at what’s going on in the world around you and asking, what would it take to make our brand irrelevant? How could we die? Is our biggest threat a competitor? Or megatrends changing the way consumers think about and use our product? Or something operational, like difficulty sourcing a signature ingredient?

Then we work to develop a plan — now, before these issues fully arise — to solve problems in this almost-certain future.

Moving Your Brand’s Finish Line

Becoming complacent and content to rest on your laurels is a sure path toward crisis; when it inevitably happens, it will be of your own making. Companies that continually reinvest in brand strategy avoid these pitfalls.

The BFY market changes so quickly that in 12 months it could be totally different. A strong brand — and we define brand as your core promise and the way you keep it — has a five-year lifespan. But around year three or four, you need to start evaluating your brand with an eye to what’s next. You have to keep moving forward.

Look at the flexitarian trend: 10 years ago that was a new concept, but today more than 50% of consumers self-identify as flexitarian. Not long ago, if you were a plant-based brand, you were talking to vegetarians and vegans in a very specific way. But a brand that was using strategy and research to stay ahead of trends could pivot to address these new, not-quite-vegetarian eaters. For example, we helped Hilary’s Eat Well — a veggie burger brand favored among vegans — to reach a broader audience of non-vegan foodies by speaking about the product’s culinary aspects. Within two years after our repositioning work, Hilary’s sales had more than quadrupled.

Companies that are winning are those that embrace the concept that a brand evolves and invest in that evolution. Every business has a finish line — a natural lifespan — and success comes not from reaching the finish line but in constantly advancing the line forward so that you never hit it. As you deepen the meaning of the brand, improve the product, and reach new customers, you’ll never be done. And the rest of the market can’t ever catch up to you.

Billion-dollar, multinational brands understand how to evolve to survive. PepsiCo is a great example; you might instinctively think of Pepsi Cola, the foundational product, but if you look at Pepsi’s full portfolio, they’re constantly expanding into new categories. Bubly, their recent foray into the booming flavored fizzy water category, is a great addition that keeps them relevant.

If you’re competing in the BFY race, to continue our finish line metaphor, better-funded entrants will threaten to fly past you and changing consumer whims will start to hold you back. We can help you evolve, moving that finish line so you’ll always be a step ahead.

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