Very often as marketers, we are called upon by our clients or fellow business stakeholders to solve complex issues or chart new paths with new products or markets. There is a natural tendency to immediately immerse oneself into the numbers and assorted details pertaining to the objective, as if the answer is hiding in plain sight on column G, row four of the spreadsheet in front of you.

Don’t misunderstand. In no way am I dismissing the importance of the numbers and analysis when it comes to determining new strategy. But that’s only part of the picture. They don’t mean anything without the context that the Big Picture brings. The stats, percentages and graphs will quantify trends, performance, and share, but they can never reveal the soul, essence and passion of a brand or for a brand.

Am I running the risk of overstating the obvious? Yes. But, someone needs to in this overly analyzed, accountable and tracked marketing culture. Tragically, we all want to dash to the right formula that we forget the ingredients.

How do you see the Big Picture? When we begin a new client relationship, we begin the process of Discovery. For many agencies and consultants, this will involve a look at historical data, sales figures, past marketing efforts, competitive assessments, current plans, social media performance, and so on. This is all worthwhile, of course, because often a fresh set of eyes from an outside perspective can easily spot where a problem or an opportunity may manifest itself. What’s missing the story.

Every brand has a story. Brands have a creator—a human being. And brands are “owned” by their customers—also human beings. So without knowing what motivated the creation of the brand or the loyalty to it, you simply cannot see, experience and appreciate the true story behind it. Discovery must probe and challenge clients for the “why” a brand exists and what, if anything, would happen if it never existed at all. You’ll never get this from a S.W.O.T. exercise. As my friend and partner Derrick Daye has often quipped, brands must be “put on trial for their lives” in order to fully understand them. Without that understanding, how can you possibly market them effectively?

Brand stories are built on decision, upon decision. By asking the right questions, you’ll learn why and how brands are the way they are. You may ask:

  • What was the reason the brand was created in the first place?
  • What problem was intended to be solved?
  • What challenges were overcome along the way?
  • Where did the inspiration come from?
  • Who was instrumental in its creation or innovation and what were they like?
  • Why did the brand go down THAT road?

You get the idea.

Don’t be judgmental. Brands find themselves where they are for any number of reasons. If they’re being challenged, it most often is due to:

  • Under-funding growth and competitiveness
  • Lack of marketing investment
  • No or weak innovation
  • Cultural irrelevancy or tone-deafness
  • Ill-advised extensions
  • Sales vs. Management Wars
  • Brand identity tinkering or inconsistency
  • Disregarding the customer
  • Bad press due to a self-inflicted mistake

And so on. Remember, you are being called upon to overcome these parts of the brand’s story, not exacerbate it.

The story is the foundation. It is vitally important to explore the brand story to ascertain the course of corrective action or exploitation of opportunity. “Getting to the roots” of a brand may yield its most valuable asset—the story itself: the protagonist and antagonist, the struggle and the victory. And always the articulation of the differentiating Big Idea along with the Big Picture.

Editor’s note: Originally published in Branding Strategy Insider