• 07.25.12

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.

Why “Thinking Outside The Box” Is A Lousy Brand Strategy

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.

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]