The Brilliant David Aaker Strategic Brand Planning Model – An Overview

We’ve all been there. Some smart ass asks you to explain your target audience, USP or value proposition and it seems that no matter what you say they shoot you down – “It’s too generic. You need to be clearer. You’re trying to cater to too many people. Your USP isn’t really a USP at all….

The trouble is, they’re probably right.

These seemingly simple questions are some of the most important you will ever have to answer. Unfortunately, they’re also some of the hardest.

You don’t have time to read 35 branding books and study a part time degree in marketing. Thankfully, if you did, you would realise that all these books and theories boiled down to a small number of central themes. Even more fortunate is the fact that these themes were captured with brilliant simplicity 25 years by a chap called David Aaker, in a chart he called his Brand Identity Planning Model.


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A lot has changed since this model first appeared – in fact the world is barely recognisable – and yet somehow, Aaker’s model feels as true today as it was in the 1990’s. So if you’re struggling to answer those questions with absolute clarity and conviction, then keep things simple and follow this process


Step 1 – strategic brand analysis

This is your research phase. Aaker splits it into:
Customers – who are your customers? What are their unmet needs? How can you group them into different segments?
Competitors – who is your competition? What can you do to learn from them? See my previous post for more on stealing ideas from your competitors.
You – what defines your business today? What do you want to define you in the future? What are your values?

This is the grunt work and therefore the bit that’s most often skipped over. The trouble is, without it everything else is going to end up either being generic or just plain wrong.


Step 2 – your core identity

Next, Aaker asks that you identify the absolute core of the brand. What is that one thing that defines you above all else? Ideally this will be unique to your market, but if it’s not then you must be doing it better than anybody else. Not 5% better but 500% better. All of your future strategy decisions MUST be aligned to this one thing.


Step 3 – your extended identity

Whilst your core provides your focus, your extended identity gives you rich and complex detail that makes it harder for competitors to copy. It also provides the framework for how your business should operate day to day.

Aaker recommends breaking it down into 4 areas:

  • Brand as product
  • Brand as person
  • Brand as organisation
  • Brand as symbol

Product – this is what companies generally focus on as they’re tangible and easy to understand. What is the product made of? What does it do? How much does it cost? Is it of higher quality than the competition? These questions are really important, but they are only the beginning.

Person – if your brand was a person, who would that person be? Identify their age, gender, interests, attributes, likes and dislikes. Your ability to move beyond product attributes and develop this brand personality is essential if you are to be able to build a strong emotional relationship with your audience.

Organisation – what are your company values? What do you stand for? What’s your culture?

Symbol – are their any logos, images, mascots or visual symbols of any kind that represent the brand? A picture paints a thousand words, so having imagery that encapsulates your brand is a fast and effective way of communicating your key messages.


Step 4 – your value proposition

How does the core and extended brand identity come together to create a compelling value proposition? In order to do so it needs to speak clearly to a specific target audience whilst effectively differentiating itself from the competition. This can be really difficult, which is why those brands that target narrower, niche markets are often more successful than those that try to appeal to everyone.

Your value proposition will be made up of a combination of functional, emotional and self expressive benefits. Functional benefits come from the brand as product part and tend to be the things that companies focus on as they’re tangible and easy to explain. Unfortunately they are also easy to copy and assume a rational decision maker. That’s fine in some markets (such as B2B) but in most consumer markets people are driven more by emotional factors, such as fear or excitement, as well as the desire to express something about themselves and their identity. What could those emotional and self expressive factors be for your brand?


Step 5 – credibility

Just because you have a compelling proposition, why should people believe it? I could promise to send people on weekend getaways to the moon for £99, but if nobody believes me then I don’t have a business. How do you ensure that people believe your promise? Is it through the history and heritage of the brand, is it through customer testimonials or celebrity/expert endorsements?


Step 6 – the brand-customer relationship

Now that the relationship has been initiated by the value proposition, it needs to be maintained. This may come directly from the value proposition (they have such a great experience that they can’t help but come back for more), but it may also come directly from the brand identity. For example, it may be based on the relationship the individual develops with the brand as organisation or brand as person. This is one of the many reasons why it’s so important to explore the brand identity beyond mere product factors.


Step 7 – brand positioning

Of course brands often target multiple audiences and the way the brand therefore positions itself will vary. For one audience segment it may need to prioritise slightly different elements of the brand identity and value proposition over others. For example, if part of your brand identity relates to energy and wellbeing and you are running a campaign targeting the fitness market, then that is part of your identity that you would almost certainly wish to magnify within that context.


Step 8 – execution

After all this planning and preparation you can now begin implementation with confidence. The one major change that has taken place in the last 20 years is that due to the internet a lot of companies have entered into the implementation phase a little earlier as you can iterate fast and cheaply, particularly as a small business. That said, you don’t want to pushing out conflicting messages either, and sometimes I think companies now underestimate the importance of robust planning and instead leap into execution while thinking that they can use the data to iterate their way out of trouble. Do your homework first.


Step 9 – tracking

Never before has tracking been so simple, accurate and important. With all the digital analytics now available we can (and must!) evolve our campaigns rapidly based on what we can see to be succeeding.


So there it is. As valid today as it was 25 years ago. If you can complete this model for your business, you will be in the small minority that actually understand why they exist and how they can continue to do so in an ever growing sea of competition.


– Source of photo –
Building strong brands

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