Why "Thinking Outside The Box" Is A Lousy Brand Strategy

While it runs counter to the cliché, both Nike and ESPN kept their thinking inside the box. Here's how convention can be on your side.

For the purposes of this article, the box is the strategy, which makes "thinking outside the box" the most misdirected object of admiration in the marketing profession.

The truth is, any idiot can think outside the box. You can make noise there, but it's irrelevant. To be fair, the most unimaginative manager can easily stay in the middle of the box. It may be relevant, but it's awfully quiet in there. The real challenge is to punch the hell out of the edges of that box—from the inside, because that's the only way to change the shape of that box and make it larger.

Sometimes you have the wrong box and have to build a new one, but most of the time you're trying to evolve the shape and size of your box. Make your box stronger, more useful, more attractive than the boxes owned by your competition. You spent a lot of time building that box, so why abandon it now? Spend too much time outside the box and everyone gets confused, within your company and among your audience. In the end, while going outside the box is almost always presented as brilliant rebellion, it is, in fact, the easier road to take and a recipe for failure.

Of course, executing from the center of the box can be just as harmful. The center is obvious. The center is boring and expected. More important, playing around in the center of the box doesn't make any noise—no one notices—and it certainly doesn't change the size or shape of the box.

Moving from strategy to execution, it's always interesting to review creative work inside a communications agency. You sit there with the creative strategy in hand (the box) and, too often, see brilliant, creative ideas that are completely disconnected from that strategy. When these ideas make it on air we're left scratching our heads. You also see ideas that you could have written yourself (i.e., on strategy but nonetheless lame). When they make it on air you simply don't notice.

In my experience, creative ideas are easy to come by and linear strategic ideas are the all-too-common, safe fallback. Meanwhile, ideas that deliver the strategy in a highly creative, intriguing way are few and far between—and all the more valuable because of their rarity.

Again, your task is to create innovative and fresh ways to punch the edges of that box from the inside out. Hit those edges hard. This is the only way to make that box bigger, the only way to actually change its shape. After all, who says it needs to be a box in the first place?

Take Nike and ESPN, two powerful and highly differentiated brands in related markets. As defined by results, their architects were geniuses. Over time they have moved from strength to strength, and many layers of business and meaning have been added to the original brand and business definitions. In other words, although they never left their boxes, they have continued to push their own boundaries, dramatically changing the size and shape of those boxes.

In general, the boxes for these two companies are well understood. You might argue (and I certainly would) that their future successes will be determined by execution rather than big positioning considerations. Because they are already so successful, neither faces competitors that can beat them head-to-head, but both face smaller attacks from a multitude of more tightly focused niche competitors. In addition, these two boxes are particularly well maintained and remain flexible as the two companies continue to live with the questions that surround them as they move forward. Both are also served by an agency that "gets them," an agency that understands their boxes and how to make lots of noise at the edges. In fact, the agency for both companies is Wieden-Kennedy. Coincidence?

That leads me to another point: there are noisy boxes and quiet boxes. In other words, there are noisy strategies and quiet strategies.

Noisy strategies grow out of positioning that is inherently provocative. Positioning that contains a point of view, an attitude, and an edge. You could write a provocative white paper based on a noisy strategy. Think of the Dove "Real Beauty" strategy, built by the Dove brand team working with Sterling Brands, then brilliantly executed by Ogilvy & Mather. In a marketplace filled with thin, beautiful models, Dove dared to use real women to talk to real women. They told us that real beauty comes from within. At about the same time, and also within Unilever, a very different group of rebels was creating a very, very loud strategy for Axe.

In contrast, quiet strategies don't make you think. They don't provoke. They don't inspire. And therefore, they don't get noticed. Quiet strategies place all of the onus on execution. They are akin to asking your marketing tactics to work with their hands tied behind their back.

The volume of a strategy isn't about how loud the stimulus is, it's about how loud the marketplace response is. Sometimes the noisiest strategy is to be quiet. You gain attention precisely because everyone else is yelling so loudly. When you are confident that you have something really important to say, you might actually get more attention by whispering. In a beer market filled with action and noise, Corona slowed everything down and quietly took us to the beach.

Many marketers don't seem to want to be strategically loud. They don't want to become famous, and I'm not sure why. They may lack the ability to pull back and objectively assess the "volume" of their strategy. Maybe "loud" just isn't the way to go within their company. Perhaps their reticence stems from the fact that the creation of a noisy strategic box is a very real intellectual and creative challenge.

Part of the trick is being ruthlessly honest with yourself. The other is truly understanding how hard it is to get noticed by busy, usually uninterested people. Is the basic idea around which the strategy is built compelling? Does it have creative energy? It's only a great strategy if it makes for great tactics, so test the strategy by developing a set of tactical applications. Was it easy? Was it a fun exercise? Were lots of options created by the team? If the answers are yes, yes and yes, you might just be ready to make some noise. If it was a real struggle to create those noisy tactical applications, consider going back to your box and turning up the volume.



Austin McGhie is president of the Strategy Group at Sterling Brands and author of Brand is a Four Letter Word.

[Image: Flickr user Adam Swank]

Add New Comment


  • brand now

    A unique contrarian take -- I like your stance against far-flung innovation that isn't rooted in the reality of the brand.  It seems like Innovation (with a capital 'I') these days is obsessed with the revolutionary, but you're talking about evolution not revolution.  Thanks for a sober take on strategy that a CMO can sink her teeth into.

  • Annie

    I hear Paul's point that at times a more dramatic shift is needed - especially in the technology space where staying "too close to the center of the box" may result in your brand becoming irrelevant.  That said, I think the key takeaway here is to never lose site of the essence of your brand - which likely created relevance with the consumer in the first place.  It's finding a way to innovate without losing site of who you are and what you stand for. 

  • Stephanie

    I think the winning point here is that not all companies need to find something "outrageous" to grow their brands. Too often we see companies try be daring or distinct by taking a course of action that makes very little sense to their core personality. Some companies might need to play up a bit of a shock factor to regain relevancy when their brand has faded. But for a lot of companies, there's a reason their core competencies are the way they are- and it's all too easy to forget that in a world where companies are consistently updating their goods, image, advertising, etc. 

    It sort of reminds of me of the social media trap: a lot of companies push their company onto every platform possible just because they think they should. But very few people at those companies bother to think through what makes sense for the brand they've already curated. It's important to keep an eye on what's already working. 

  • brandgeek_SF

    A refreshing perspective on the importance of strategic focus in a world that values the next "shiny object" (whether product, creative approach, or other) just for it's provocativeness rather than taking on the harder task of innovating within a defined strategy and achieving the value of consistency and creativity that is "on strategy".

  • MJ

    A solid commentary on both the right way – and wrong way – to capture consumers' attention,  which it would appear most marketers woefully underestimate. Making noise is easy; creating a disruption that causes consumers to connect with your brand (and importantly, buy into it) is a bigger challenge. That requires a strategy, and a consistent execution against that strategy. Nike and ESPN are great examples of brands that used their box to grow their business – rather than feel limited by it. 

  • eagle_nyc

    This is quality advice to any business owner or marketer who seeks to make their strategy speak to people well beyond the dollar-figure of the advertising & promotion budget. Love the ethos here. In response to Carlton Hoyt - not sure what you're referring to by way of jargon. I thought it quite free of jargon. Was it the word "box"?

  • Paul Sloane

    An interesting and provocative piece.  If you have a great strategy then punch the edges of the box.  But what if the strategy is not working?  Or you just want to be highly innovative?  It could be argued that Kodak stayed well inside its box and much good it did. OTOH Apple moved outside its box from computers to music services. Branson's Virgin Group regularly tries things far outside its box in any conventional sense.

  • comradity

     Yep. Strategic focus is key to good execution.  But when strategic
    thinking starts with the perspective that the status is quo, it
    shouldn't be surprising that nothing changes (except unexpected
    downturns when the competition does anticipate change).  Start with the
    perspective that change will happen and the strategy will be more
    effective at growing the business.

  • Gemma Bryant

    Good point, Paul. Though the point about Apple and Virgin depends on how one defines their "box."  One might also argue that those particular boxes are much bigger than what they sell. That their strategies - their boxes - are innovative and inspiring enough to allow for this kind of creative extension of the business itself, and thus allow the box to change shape and grow in dramatically different ways. And isn't that the kind of "box" we all want to work with?

  • Mike

    Thanks to Mr. McGhie, I'm going to advise marketing folks in my company: think outside of the box = be really creative, but remember the box sits in a bigger box called "the brand," and our job as brand managers is to "punch the hell out of the edges of the box" to set the passion and the essence of the brand free .