At The Creative Alchemist we talk alot about strategy, and in a branding agency such as ours, it’s no big surprise that our focus is largely on creating and delivering brand and marketing strategies for companies. In this article, we wanted to explore some of the ways that we’ve seen companies employ very high level strategy as a real catalyst for brand growth, as well as some examples of when we’ve seen ‘strategy’ just flat.

All pull together

It’s not difficult for a company to come up with, and start to implement growth strategies. However the problem often is, that even in a fairly small organisation, strategies are often developed in isolation. The person (or team) responsible for marketing will have a strategy, the sales team will have a strategy for closing more deals, the operational teams might have strategies to work more efficiently and so on and so forth.

Here’s the problem that most companies we speak to, and even just observe from afar struggle with. If we were to ask a companies team why they are wanting to develop strategies, we bet we’d quite often hear the same thing. More growth. More money.

The big question is though… What actually is growth?

Is it the same to different companies? We don’t think so. Some companies will have a vision of staying small and nimble, others might want a big team of people working all over the country and indeed the world. Others might have a vision of being a cheaper value brand, while others might want to aim for premium.

Consider for a moment, that half of the strategies in your company are pulling in one direction, and half of them are pulling in another. If you were, as a whole company going against the grain of the rest of your industry (the old while everyone else goes zig you go zag adage), you could be absolutely onto a winner here in terms of standing out.

Where it could all go wrong however is, if your operations and staff are going for high end premium, while your marketing team have been tasked with positioning you as a budget option.

Take EasyJet for example - when they first came into the market their brand was so bold, and so different that you couldn’t help but be attracted to it and get taken aback. The brand was clear from day one that their airline was no frills - they’ll get you from A, to B in relative comfort and for less than other airlines charge.

Their teams who managed the customer experience had people genuinely surprised when they would board their planes to find that there was no hot meal, no horrible TV screens flopping down from the ceilings and, worse no free drinks. The teams who plan and buy their aircraft have largely, always made the decision to operate only one type of aircraft, rather than many different shapes, sizes and makes. This has helped them reduce their overheads and allow them to pass the saving onto the consumer. 

All in all, the entire company was pulling towards the company's mission of bringing low cost air travel to the masses. People saw this, and they liked it. They liked the consistency of messaging, they liked that an airline was doing what it needed to, i.e. get them from A to B. People on the whole don’t really care if lunch was a prepackaged sandwich or a 3 course meal served to you on a school dinner tray.

Their mission was clear, and their entire company wide strategies were all in harmony with this. This enabled their marketing teams to develop a marketing and communications strategy that people could really, really buy into.

You’ll rarely see an EasyJet poster of the inside of a cabin as you would with the likes of British Airways who really go for the customer experience. What you would see in contrast is people enjoying themselves on a beach or by a pool - the reason why you actually get on a plane!

Imagine for a second however, if the marketing teams had been tasked with marketing a low budget airline, that offered something simple like two different classes. Or one where the customer experience team still wanted to have an executive lounge.

On one hand your company will be marketing itself as a low cost airline, and on the other it would be still doing the ‘nice’ things, which naturally will result in higher ticket prices. The two just wouldn’t work together.

While some people, and brands, might look at this kind strategic thinking as being nothing to do with the marketing plan, we think it is absolutely pivotal to success. All that a marketing team can do, is get more eyes and attention on what it is that you, as a company has created. If that’s a budget, no frills airline, then people will buy into this and your brand story will be carried through everything from an initial touch, right through be becoming a customer and raving fan.

Market opportunities & threats

It goes without saying that a company's strategy must consider what is going on in the world around them. This could be social, political or economic shifts that are happening; but still would affect the viability of a company's strategy and marketing.

Let’s consider companies who have very strong ethical values running through their marketing, such as Pret. Pret has always been a very socially aware company, be this championing fair trade or fighting against food waste (they give nearly all of their uneaten food to homelessness charities).  

Throughout 2017, there has been an increasing concern about the amount of plastic going into the ocean. As bigger news outlets such as Sky began to release programming, such as their documentaries The Plastic Whale and Plastic Ocean**, there was genuine public concern. There has been debates in UK’s parliament as well as governments around the world discussing what can be done to stem the flow, and overuse of (for example) disposable plastic bottles and straws.

The marketing strategy of these companies will have to change. The general public will, over time, become less and less accepting of disposable cups and bottles. This shift in public opinion has to be one of the biggest threats to this industry - that after all, relies heavily on people taking away food and drinks in disposable packaging!

Brands such as Pret could have buried their heads in the sand and decided to continue as if nothing was happening here, but they haven’t. Their company leadership have identified that a shift is happening, and have taken steps to adjust their strategy accordingly.

They’ve quickly made moves to launch a marketing campaign to introduce reusable chilli bottles ( and are currently running a trial in over 70 stores (many located in London and Manchester) where people can fill water bottles for free.

On the face of it, this might look like they were effectively enabling people to come into their stores, and get a free drink. Well, they are! Here’s the thing though, how often would you go into a coffee shop like Pret and just grab a bottle of water? You just don’t. You’d get a salad, panini, maybe even a cake. Your bottle of water is normally just something to stick in your bag for the afternoon that you might buy as a little extra.

Pret is experimenting with a marketing strategy, that is going to really appeal to the environmentally, and ethically conscious coffee shop goers they already attract, while addressing one of the biggest threats to their industry - the anti-plastic movement that is taking hold the world over.

Another example of a high street chain doing this is Starbucks. They introduced really cheap reusable takeaway coffee cups, and are actually rewarding customers for using their reusable cups by taking up to 30p off the cost of a takeaway coffee.

Two high street chains, taking steps to leverage a risk, as a marketing strategy while at the same time working to shield themselves from been on the back foot when the inevitable happens and governments start to legislate.

Budgeting & marketing holding its own

Gone are the days where marketing managers would be given a ‘pot to play with’ for the year, and left to get on with their ideas. Marketing now, more than ever is seen as a key business function that, just the same as we might look at a sales person on a phone, it has to stack up.

If you're investing in marketing, and this could be anything from a rebrand through to spending a little money on Facebook advertising or a good old fashioned leaflet drop, it has to make financial sense. We’ve been having these conversations with people for years, but more and more we’re finding companies are coming to us, asking for things such as a social media campaign, a press release or even copywriting and then asking what difference/what return it’s going to make.

While some might shy away from these conversations, we’re actually excited that the marketing world as a whole is starting to face up to the numbers. Some ideas work amazingly, and some don’t. The important thing is that there is some accountability for pounds spent on marketing, and the return coming back to the company or organisation.

Naturally, as we’re an agency, we’re completely used to the need to justify our worth to a client. After all, if a client isn't seeing benefits to working with us, why would they continue to do so? At the end of an agreed period, we will sit down with a client, review the impact we’ve made and what we would recommend as next steps.

Zero Based Budgeting

There is a business budgeting methodology known as Zero Based Budgeting (there's a good introductory article here - which is the practice where departmental budgets are, at agreed principles reset to zero. Departments are then asked to provide a budget as to what they need to what they need in order to achieve their business function.

The traditional approach would have been for a company to say to a department (or indeed an external agency), “you’ve got £X, and we need Y to happen”. This isn’t always the most effective way to work, some projects and departments might end up been lavishly over funded while others might be left falling short.

Let’s consider that part of your growth ambition is to increase sales by 25%. In order to do this you estimate that your sales team will need 50% more leads coming in, which are purely generated by the marketing team. The marketing budget in the previous year has been £2500, so you increase this by £500 a month.

This is taking the approach of saying We want a £6000 annual increase to result in a uplift of leads of 50%. The Zero Based Budgeting approach would have said to the marketing department “this is what we need to happen, how would we do this, and what would it cost”.

This takes the approach what is the objective/what will it cost. Rather than guessing an amount of money is enough to do a particular job.

Applying this to a project

Last year, we were approached by a local company, ERW Joinery who were originally looking for a new brand identity. Once we sat down with ERW, we uncovered that the main reason they were actually looking for a fresher identity, was to help underpin their ambitious growth plans.

After a workshop with them, we quickly identified that their budget and indeed, their scope of project to cover an identity redesign would have simply not resulted in them achieving their end goal (which as a percentage increase in turnover). Once we all had a clear idea of what we were working towards, we were in a position to propose an annual marketing plan with a scope much, much bigger than first thought required.

This plan involved the ‘standard’ list of deliverables to position ERW where they needed to be to compete and grow. A new visual identity, tone of voice definition, website, photography and video. We then however went further and drew up a full 12 month marketing plan; it is this plan along with the various component deliverables that as a whole would help them achieve their results.

We were only able to arrive at the point we did, because of all the parties been absolutely crystal clear as to what was being worked towards. 

Your brand is what allows you to gain competitive advantage, define a robust brand communications strategy and above all increase your reach and widen your target audience.