When people see a powerful brand, they often wonder where it came from. Back in the day -- think the '60s thru the '90s, advertising's heyday -- brands were largely born from advertising campaigns. The brand idea came from an agency, carefully crafted in a rigorous strategic-creative process that could take up to a year to complete. In that slow moving marketplace, where a new flavor of toothpaste could be the innovation of the year, highly commoditized products dominated consumer choice and the brand was often the key differentiator. What did the brand add? Meaning ... and that meaning held a lot of value. These brands really meant something in the culture and people clung loyally to them. Why? They reinforced big ideas that deeply connected to people in terms of how they thought about themselves and what they wanted in the world. We see few brands like this today.
In my work as a corporate and brand strategist, I find that branding ideas come from different places today and that new brands carry much less human meaning. Today’s brand ideas largely come from three sources.
1. Experience Design/Product Design Principles. Many tech brands grow from a distinctive product design or consumer experience that is highly innovative and continually evolving. Think Amazon, Google, Facebook, Apple. This is modern product-based branding. It’s all about the product experience. Historically, this was P&G having a more absorbent diaper or better cleaning laundry detergent. However, P&G brands also gave consumers meaning beyond the product experience. When you bought Ivory, Tide or Mr. Clean, it made a statement about you and delivered valuable cultural currency. Apple does this, but is largely an exception. (The brand is 30-plus years old and spends $1B+ annually in paid advertising.) Most new mass brands from Verizon to FitBit to Chipotle do not deliver high level human meaning as part of consumption. Branding principles equal product design/consumer experience principles and there is no “big idea” that goes deeper.
2. CEO/Founder Vision. Powerful brands come to life when a visionary CEO/founder is passionate about a big idea. Here, brand power is real and authentic. The brand is deeply considered and intellectually crafted by the CEO/founder. This is the rarified air of people like Richard Branson, Steve Jobs, legendary Johnson & Johnson CEO Jim Burke and entrepreneurs like Nick Woodman (GoPro founder) and Shinola founder Tom Kartsotis -- and many whose names are not well known. These are highly creative CEOs, not the norm, who understand humanity and how big ideas connect with people in a deeply human way. When George Eastman, founder of Eastman Kodak, had the insight that photographs were about preserving memories rather than documenting moments, the world of mainstream photography was born. Few CEOs have the ability to take the branding reigns as an essential corporate strategy and expertly use brands as a means to connect with people.
3. Agencies. Much less today than in the past, powerful brands are designed by professionals trained in various disciplines from advertising, marketing communications, PR, design, entertainment, innovation and branding itself. I am in this group. I say less so today, because fewer companies seek to invest in building a powerful idea-based brand, an original creative IP. Most companies build brand value as measured by attributes linked to product innovation, customer experience and communications tactics. There’s not a lot of magic with these brands. They are almost surgically analytical in their crafting and score high on traditional brand value measures. Other companies still invest in big, enduring ideas that evoke valuable perceptions (e.g. divine feminine beauty, rugged American work ethic, mother’s love). These brands have a super power. Unlike the former, idea-based brands have transcendent abilities and connect with people in a realm beyond rationality. Think Caterpillar, Orvis, PBR. Often, organizations building these brands need transcendent power to overcome significant obstacles such as competitive weakness, longstanding misperceptions.
New brands today have less soul, but a bit more elbow grease. Can brands without transcendent power provide the resilience companies need when innovation fails, commoditization leaks in, disruption descends or consumers simply get upset? (Think how the Johnson & Johnson brand carried the day during the Tylenol crisis.) Have we, as a culture, lost some measure of delight with the disappearance of brands that made us feel in ways we don’t often think about? In a fast-moving market where real human connection is hard to make and maintain, brands remain a proven way to leverage the unique power of ideas with human beings. I encourage organizations to rigorously re-explore their brand potential, as most will find an untapped opportunity to use their brand to solve problems and open doors with people.
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