The most important (and least frequently asked) question in any brand journey

Branding tends to be viewed by non-marketers as a rather vague and abstract process, principally concerned with the way things look.

We have only ourselves to blame. Marketers, as a species, are some of the most frustratingly vague people you will meet, using an ever expanding array of terms interchangeably and inappropriately. Above all, we spend WAY too long talking about the aesthetics and other peripheral aspects of brand (tone of voice, personality, etc) and almost zero time talking about the thing that carries 97% of the value.

That thing is – what does the business actually do?

There doesn’t seem to be an agreed term for this thing but the term I subscribe to is core competence.

Nothing is more important than establishing one’s core competence. Everything else is a consequence of this singularly important decision.

Why is it so important for the brand?

External clarity

Clarity (or lack of) for what it is a business actually does, will feed into every piece of marketing that company communicates. If the business isn’t sure what it does, the customer definitely won’t be.

Delivering a marketing strategy for a company that truly knows itself is at least 150 times easier than doing so for one that doesn’t. There is a consistency of story and message, that allows each tweet, blog and email to add up to a real asset over time.

Internal clarity

No organisation can function without clarity of accountability, particularly among senior management. This is especially true for start-ups, where lots of talented, hard working people have their efforts undermined by fuzzy job descriptions and ever-fluid remits. Some of this is unavoidable – things move quickly in a start-up – but mostly it’s because the business does not actually know what it does, and therefore cannot allocate responsibility clearly among its senior leadership team.

Less excusably, the same issue regularly exists among large, established organisations, where any boundaries that once existed have now crept so far that the organisation is just one enormous corporate lump without any clear position or identity.

The rare company that avoids these temptations and maintains focus, even when it means sacrificing market share, enjoys clarity through every rank and function. Each system of the business can be designed to execute its one thing beautifully and repeatedly.

Remember, most companies fail not because they failed to say yes to the right things, but because they failed to say no to the wrong things.

How many competencies can a business have?

The simple answer is lots. Take a Big 4 accountancy firm, for example; they’ve extended their corporate tentacles into so many business domains that it’s quite difficult to find a professional service they don’t consider a core competence.

For most companies though, particularly small businesses, the answer should be “as few as possible”.

For those that have the luxury of having just one, there is absolute laser focus. The customer understands what they’re all about, as do the employees, and every system within the organisation is designed to deliver on this one promise. There are downsides, however…

Limiting yourself to one core competence is likely to mean either lack of scalability, or, if the market for this one thing is huge, then tonnes of competition. For example, if I were to run a web development agency that possessed no other significant skill other than web development, then unless I go ultra niche (development for a particular industry or coding language) I’m going to be up against tens of thousands of other development agencies globally with no significant way of differentiating myself.

And then comes the fragility. If my competence is a very particular technology and one day that technology becomes obsolete, I have no other means through which to maintain my relationship with my audience.

This is why, for most companies, the answer is probably more than one but still less than half a dozen. While they may not have absolute laser focus, what they do have is the ability to marry these multiple competencies in a way that provides a distinct position in the market. The example I always use is that of my cousin, a doctor. He is quick to admit that he’s not the greatest surgeon in the world, and while he’s a very successful academic there are people on a similar level, but where he’s in a league of his own is that he’s BOTH a highly successful academic and also very credible surgeon. It’s the marriage of those two skills that sets him apart.

Furthermore by having multiple competencies it also affords greater stability as even if one became less valuable, you still have other ways through which to deliver value. The challenge is that you allow it to creep as distractions disguised as opportunities emerge. Two competencies becomes three. Three becomes six. And soon they’re not actually core competencies any more. Just things you say yes to.