Define Your Brand DNA With Strategy Tools (W Peter Wilken)

Mr. Peter Wilken, is a brand strategy veteran with serious chops and the author of Dim Sum Strategy: Bite-Size Tools to Build Stronger Brands.

He is the real deal when it comes to branding, and he’s been in the branding game at the very, very top.

He’s led global agency giants such as BBDOLeo Burnett, and Ogilvy to name just a few. 

He’s also worked with the biggest brands in the world, including KochMcDonald’sDisneyPepsi, and BMW as well, and he’s the winner of the coveted Cannes Golden Lion Award, also known as the Oscars of advertising. 

Peter shares his wisdom on

What Brand DNA Is

Top Methods To Help Clients Find Their DNA

Favourite Brand Strategy Tools

So if you want to learn applicable techniques and tools used by an industry veteran for the world’s biggest, then stick around for this article.

Define Your Brand DNA With Strategy Tools (W Peter Wilken)


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What Is Brand Strategy In Brand DNA?

Stephen Houraghan

The thing that stuck out the most to me was, the idea of this superficial level branding versus substance level branding and that’s, a concept that just immediately speaks to me because that’s also something that is super important to me.

I came across many years ago when I was looking at how I could do different things differently, what real branding was and the way you’ve articulated it there, although there they were different words in terms of superficial branding versus substance branding.

It is the same thing to me which is the visual brand versus the strategy.

So many people get sucked into the visuals of the brand because of the things that we’re so familiar with within our lives.

The Nike logo, the Apple logo, and the visual identities these visual cues and assets that we see in the contour bottle of Coke.

These are visual cues are all the surface level and beneath that, you have the strategy.

So why don’t you talk to us about what strategy or that substance that you call it means to you?

Peter Wilken

I would just want to before all your incredibly talented graphic designers and people who were doing these logos and ideas turn off and say, â€śWho is this guy?”

I don’t mean supervision in a derogatory way at all. Rather mean it was being back to front, so clients would say,

We need to rebrand and we do what they would kind of mean was that we think we need the tangible side of a new logo. 

They don’t know where their money is going, but they can touch a logo in a redesign and it’s hugely important we feel to bring creative ideas to life and express and drive them but it should come at the end of the process, not at the beginning. 

Understanding who you are and what you stand for and why, and really being able to identify the insight and the opportunity for your brand should come way before the clothes that you wear and what you know. 

I could walk into a room with my brand new kind of suit that my wife would’ve picked from me and say, Look at me, I’m Peter, I’m stylish. and people were saying, No, we know you Peter you’re British and you’re not stylish, you’re not, get away with it.

So you play to who you are. 

Stephen Houraghan

I love that, and that’s something that I talk about often, which is the human brand philosophy, that we’re building an entity to connect with other humans. 

In doing that you need to make your brand as relatable as possible and I like the analogy that you’ve just used there.

If you wanna address the part, then you have to know the context of the room that you’re walking into because if you walk into a beautiful suit on, then you’re going to only going to be received based on the people that are in there. 

If you walk into a room full of bikes with tattoos, then you’re not part of their tribe and you’re not going to appeal to them.

So that superficial stuff is only based on the substance of the meaning that you want to represent to your audience. 

Peter Wilken

I was gonna illustrate, you mentioned a couple of thing, Nike Swoosh and the Coke contour bottle.

When a good design comes in becomes an integral part of your brand as well you may not have know, or people may know the story that Phil Knight famously rejected the swoosh when it first came out. 

It was, he hated it.

He thought it was too simplistic and didn’t like it kinda cause he was penny-pinching and of course now it’s absolutely symbolic of the positive attitude and spirit, what Nike stands for. 

It’s an integral part of it. I’m old enough to have gone right back to the days when Coke was still primarily distributed in beautiful glass recycled bottles. 

When they were faced with this dilemma because, they wanted to get out of it, but they had this iconic contour shape, which everybody knew and the bean counters had done all their numbers and said, 

Look, no, no, we just wanna do the plain-sided bottles and things like this. It’s much, much cheaper, it’s more efficient, and surface area to volume ratio, packing rates, and distribution costs will save millions of dollars. 

Doing that, we were actually integral and saying, No, don’t do that.

Pay the extra money do the contour shape in PT and retain it because that is absolutely an integral asset part of your brand.

What Does Brand DNA Mean & Where Does It Fit Into Strategy?

Stephen Houraghan

It really is getting to the bottom of what brand strategy is to you and then how that leads to the brand’s DNA in terms of knowing who you are first and foremost before going out and communicating it to the world.

Peter Wilken

Brand strategy and these terms are so broadly used now. 

So I just tell you what it means to me brand strategy is brand plus strategy. 

So a brand to me is a territory in the mind, that’s all it is. It’s a perception. It’s what you stand for in the mind of your customers or your stakeholders.

It’s the most powerful thing of all because it drives action and behavior and that perception. So if you can articulate that and shape that.

You’ve got to believe that as marketers and brand builders then you can have an enormous impact on your business and, and the relationship that your customers have in your brand.

The second part is strategy and strategy for me is very simple, the strategy is choices. 

So brand strategy together is what is the territory in the mind that you’re planning to build? 

What choices you’re making in order to build those that means what you decide not to do and not to own, and what you decide to clearly own.

 The more focused you can be and what you own, the better. It goes a little bit more beyond that.

I had an interesting conversation with a young aspiring brand strategy, a super bright, bright guy just starting out, 26, 27, 28, something like that and he said, 

Peter, you know, I love what you’re talking about the brand DNA and things, but I don’t feel I’ve got permission to kind of challenge my clients on their business strategy that’s theirs.

I said, Why is that? 

Because I do not draw a distinction between brand and business.

The best businesses, the CEOs are actually CBOs, they’re chief brand offices, and there’s a whole new breed of that, particularly in the west coast.

When we’re looking at the Facebooks, the Googles, the Teslas and they are very much believers in driving from their business, from their brand.

So brand strategy and business strategy and communication strategy are absolutely integral and they’re integrated. 

I find them very difficult to stand apart from, and this is where the DNA comes in and, and I’ll film that in a minute. 

Third part of the brand strategy for me is that people kind of still think of it as a document.

Here’s a paper plan I don’t think of it that way.

I think of brand strategy as a journey and as a relationship and on a journey, you need both a compass and a map. 

So the map is the plan you’ve got something written a destination but for me, a compass is far more valuable, especially in a storm and turbulent water is an unpredictable world of change. 

A compass will always point you to true and like, it’d be a guiding beacon or a star and, and that’s what a DNA is to me.

A brand DNA is that it’s a guiding beacon or a star, like it’s genetic counterpart, It’s a template for replicating consistent desired future experiences.

We spent a lot of time, and this was way before Simon Sinek did a brilliant job of owning why we identified four components of what DNA was.

Those were the role that you play, you raise on Detra. Why do you exist? What is it that you believe in the, your overarching commitment or your promise.

The overarching commitment to your stakeholders that you will deliver against, the benefit that they derive from you, successfully delivering against that promise and how you go about doing it, your culture.

You manage and those kind of four elements, 

There’s a kind of a fifth bit, which is the icons and attributes that you champion and use to trigger associations with it.

But all of those elements together, we kind of imagine, in this blue velvet bag with a gold string around it, becomes cemented as your DNA and enable you to have a simple enough tool to be able to remember, but has the richness to really define unique character for every brand.


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Benefits Of Brand DNA

Stephen Houraghan

I really love the analogy. 

I’m a huge fan of analogies, just to really give you context and meaning and yes,

The brand strategy is a map, but. directions change and markets change, and what is on point for us today might not be on point for us in 10 years time.

There might be a different market segment that we want to go after, or the market might evolve in a certain type of way. 

I love that the brand DNA for you is that compass that even if the map is not as clear today as it was five years ago, we still have our compass to realign with who we are and where we’re going.

So I absolutely love that DNA side of things and I feel with, with these aspects of brand you can really get buy-in from your clients because if they believe in the brand DNA, then everything becomes much clearer. 

The map becomes much clearer, the destination becomes much clearer.

Is that what you also found as well, working with clients that the clearer they wear on the DNA, the more invested they wear in the rest of the brand strategy?

Peter Wilken

The process involved collaboration closely with the clients so that we would do DNA development sessions, like the intense pressure of a Coldron.

One of the tips for aspiring brand strategists out there is there’s no shortcut for doing your homework and the discovery report to get to that point of having that meeting but when they take ownership you end up, you don’t even have to sell it.

I know a DNA is cemented when you start to try and change something and say, No, hands off it Peter, you know, this is ours now and we’ll run with it. 

I mean, maybe I should give you a couple of examples of what we mean by DNAs and how absolutely can actually impact.

I mean, I’ve given this example before but I’ll give you another what couple as well.

Shangla came to us when we were in Hong Kong and, and  I think they kind of came to us by mistake because they knew we were a Guo brand consultancy which meant foreigner, and they were looking to expand their network out into North America. 

Funnily enough, Vancouver was, was the place they were looking at.

So they thought they needed to compete with the likes of the Hiltons and the Ritz Carltons and, thinking we need to emulate this heavy blue marble and brass masculine kind of American kind of experience and maybe you can help us integrate our brand into this.

We need to freshen our brand up anyway, so we went through the process discovery process of identifying, asking all the right questions about where they fit, what their role was,  how they were different,. 

The standard things that come back to actually answering the DNA questions.

What is your promise?

How do you address

How do you present yourself? 

What is your opportunity? 

How do you differentiate yourselves 

What opportunities are there for you to change. 

And it was very clear to us that they were far, far away from any kind of North American, you know, masculine kind of positioning.

They were feminine Asian and we ended up defining them as natural coasts and part of their DNA was, was the spirit of it, which was an Asian Audrey happen.

They had got everything came back and everything came home and

it was all about how do we interpret that in a way that people recognize and it was not fantastic Asian art, but it was traditional Asian values in a contemporary way.

So it was Ch Sam’s ceremonies beside beautiful modern interiors. We’d keep the chandelier but they’d be modernized certain parts of the aspect. It, went all the way through their, their organization. Of course, it had a profound impact on how they built out their hotel experience across the world.

It went much deeper than that and it went into brand architecture and the four-star, five-star, six-star, things like that. So that was one. 

Another one is, Canada’s probably most famous, boy school here, St. George’s which I’ve been working with for now 10 or 12 years.

And they came to us with a classic there’s always a change and this was an imminent change of headmaster and leadership and a classic five-year of the cycle of strategy, which they needed to come up with. 

We ended up articulating their DNA.

Building fine young men, one boy at a time and that may not sound very profound, but when we started the journey, they were querying whether a single-gender, education was relevant, in a world where everything was going co-ed. 

They were questioning whether or not they still needed boarding, which was, they were struggling to compete against some of the other island full boarding schools.

So major fundamental issues, and have gone through a discovery and definition process, they realized that their soul was in not only being specialists.

That’s what we know from the whole experience.

We are experts in educating boys.

We know that they need, kinesthetic energy and they get up.

They need more space to move.

We have lower attention spans.

We know that they’re more heavily influenced by tutors,

all those things, and that positioning. 

So they’ve stuck with that for kinda 10 years and moving on

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Top Methods To Define Brand DNA

Stephen Houraghan

I love it, this is the beauty of Brand DNA.

This is where it becomes that tool for the true north is when when you’re crystal clear on exactly who you are as a brand, then the big decisions become so much easier to make because 

You know who you are, 

You know where you’re going, 

You know what you want to represent.

And as I said, the smaller decisions, just become so much easier and the bigger decisions become so much easier as well with that. 

So in terms of methods that you use to define DNA with your clients, can you give us an insight as to those methods?

Peter Wilken

We had a process, a trademark process.

Everyone’s got their own process which we call the 4D process within what we call brand-centered management. and if you remember,

brand-centered management was putting your brand at the heart of everything your organization does and says. 

So if you articulate your desired brand DNA, what you wanna stand for and why and to whom, and you put that at the center of your organization.

It drives everything from the corporate strategy to how you deal with your people, to the products and services you offer, to the experiences or how you communicate those experiences and to the actual experiences of your stakeholders, which drives their perception and then that comes all the way back to your DNA.

So a lot of. It still circulates around the DNA, and I always say it’s all in your DNA. 

So how do we go about generating a DNA? We had this four D’s process. 

The 1st D is, discovery. 

The 2nd is definition, defining your dna. 

The 3rd is direction, what you do with it to set strategic direction.

And the 4th is delivery. 

I focus mainly on the first two Ds, discovery and definition. 

Discovery is doing the ground homework and we would work with big organizations that were spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on tailor-made quantitative research and the details of the numbers and statistical analysis, cluster analysis for their different groups and sizes, and things like that.

It’s all fine, but actually,  It wasn’t giving rich data of how people feel about the brand and how they were articulating the emotional side. 

That really drove choice and you can do a very effective, In fact, we recommended always you can, you can get 75% of the way there with 2020 5% of the effort if you do a well-structured qualitative interview project with key stakeholders within the brand. 

You don’t need to do many, I mean, 15 to 20 of the right people, and those are people who are kind of close to the brand representing the different interest groups or segments who really understand it and who’ve got a vested interest in seeing the brand succeed.

Then we ask structured questions from general to specific in terms of setting the context, what springs to mind when I say, U b T or whatever, what springs to mind when I say AIA or AIG, what springs to mind? 

So you get, and it brings people right down to earth often because you can be a multibillion-dollar insurance company as, as it was then.

And it’s not the biggest thing on people’s minds. It’s what they live for every day and is totally consumed by. 

They’re one of many big insurance companies and we consider you when we have to take out life insurance, which is kind of unpleasant anyway, Don’t really wanna talk about that with two or three others.

So accept a context and then once you’re into the category,

Where do you stand relative to competitors? 

What is your key opportunities are key core strengths and weaknesses? 

How do you go about it culturally? 

How you were different? 

So it would give you a lot of rich insight and we would have a semi-structured, discovery questionnaire that would guide them.

But we would do it and we would interpret it and set that up to bring everybody up onto a level of real honesty and what we would call courageous truth. 

We wouldn’t be afraid to say the truth in front of the truth, the power and so we would say what is the overall category truth here?

What are the conventions that you need to kind of breakout or be aware of what’s the underlying customer truth or human truth within it.

So you really get to the emotional side of it and then combined within that what’s the consequential brand truth? That would be a kind of focused effort from the discovery report, and we would also open it up to questions. 

So this is where I go back to what I was talking about, the brand being integrated linked with business and communications. 

The best question at the end was that the three wishes to change things for the better.

What would you do and so it invariably brings it back business issues.

Asked about tools and, and tricks. 

So that would be the first thing, do your homework, do a great discovery process.

You can shortcut it and in a cost effective, but rich way by doing in depth qualitative interviews and interpreting the while. 

Of course, you back that up with other external, internet and desk research. You do your competitive reviews, you look at your current trends, you look at your consumers, you look inside the company, but it doesn’t have to be rocket science. 

So many of the great creative people that I work with were actually brilliant natural strategists. They’re very good at boiling down to key things and focusing on it, and, and not compromising. 

They’re very good and natural, empathizes with their customers.

They’re much better at putting their shoes and or their feet into their customer’s shoes generally. 

Shouldn’t come naturally, to people who have the creative executional sides skill that are looking to move the next step to add strategy to it. 

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Stephen Houraghan

I love that as well about about distilling it down and drilling down to get to that meaning and to be uncompromising about staying on point and getting to the root of what the brand means.

When you get the client being protective of the DNA that you have helped them to discover, that’s when you know that this is something that they truly believe in an now we have buy-in.

Anything that we want to do from here becomes much easier because we’re all pulling in the same direction and they have this believability in the brand with the years that you’ve spent working with the likes of Coke and McDonald’s and BMW.

What would you say, now, reflecting back to all of those workshops that you did all of those meetings with the stakeholders within the brand on defining the brand and making those big strategic decisions.

What would you say are your most effective or your favorite brand strategy tools that you would still use to this?

Peter Wilken

Well, obviously we’ve been talking a lot about the brand DNA and that’s the heart. 

That’s where I would really go back to articulating that rich template of your, role your key beliefs. Your overarching promise, your commitment understanding the benefits you’re delivering so that you are customer oriented and capturing your spirit.

Those, those elements allow enough, um, simplicity to be able to be remembered, but enough complexity and diversity to make you completely unique. 

So that would be probably one of the most powerful tools and then working within structured 4D process so that you’ve got your discovery work. 

The definition is doing your brand DNA development workshop so that you give your clients ownership and they take ownership of it and then cascade it into direction.

Your DNA becomes a kind of beacon to guide strategy, the key choices you make to bring your, your desired future state to life.

It informs strategic frameworks, and again, there’s so many models of strategic frameworks, but I just, I like the simple circular one where you boil down to three or four key pillars and then three strategic priorities within that.

They’re not thinking about building relationships. They’re just trying to please what they think are the interior designers, customers, which is the end client the homeowner. 

Yep. Gosh, is there an opportunity for us there? Could we do something that would really let that message sink in? Unlike the rest of your providers?

We do this thing that serves this need, that our competitors didn’t know you had.

I think that that’s the kind of emotional and psychographic information that is. Impossible to get from whatever large-scale data sources, like a Sparktoro. 

I think, the one thing I might look at is I might look at things like the words and phrases that people use in their posts and shares.

I might look at pages that are resonating sort of this is a trending piece in the industry there, that must have hit home with a lot of folks in our field, that sort of thing, but really surveys and interviews, man. 

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Dim Sum Strategy: Bite-Sized Tools to Build Stronger Brands

Stephen Houraghan

Peter’s been kind enough to send his book, Dim Sum Strategy to me,  it’s on a race between that and Nelson Mandela, which I’ve also ordered, whichever arrives first is gonna be my next.

Why don’t you tell us, a bit about the goodness that we can find inside Dim Sum Strategy and then where we can go and find that book? 

Peter Wilken

The book Dim Sum Strategy, the name is a kind of giveaway.  

It basically shares 40 or 50 of the best creative, strategic thinking tools that I’ve used the last 30 years of doing brand strategy consulting and advertising across all of those big blue chip clients, but also some of the smaller clients as well.

I was working here in Vancouver with a great company called BluMaan, and they were basically selling men’s hair care products online through YouTube. 

The very young group, the CEO was 24, they were already turning over two or 3 million and they were super smart, well read, um, and knew the theory, but we’re still getting to that point of just not quite knowing losing sight of who they were and where they were going.

They had so many opportunities to be able to expand into this and, we were lucky, kind of find each other at the right time and they, they were not that I’m labeling all Gen Z like this, but small attention spans.

Give it to us quick, Peter and if we’re interested, we’ll go further.

What amazed me was that they were very bright, but they were missing some incredibly powerful tools that had been effective tools and around for 30 years that just lifted the mis for them and illuminated things.

And when I shared them with them.

So that’s basically what it is,

It’s a combination of book of the brand company, what brand center management was the 4D process, how to build your DNA and, and listed and peppered with these creative and strategic thinking tools in bite-size chunks. 

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