We live in an upside world where the old rules no longer apply. Many call it a VUCA world – volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous. Mass consumerism has been replaced by a new consumption paradigm as people are driven by new essentialism where things matter less and relationships, experiences and self-being dominate all. In this new world, workers are restless, customers fickle, investors skittish, and the public has an appetite to cancel. In order to rally everyone together to stand behind a company and its path during all the ups and downs, leaders need to draw upon emotions as rationality will not carry the day. They have one tool at their disposal to do this delicate work – the brand.
Although often associated with marketing, brands are actually cultural icons that symbolically carry meaning. In just a nano second, they evoke common immediate meaning and emotions across all people. Think BMW, John Deere, Chanel, Apple and American Express. In a world where everything is uncertain, brands can be trusted to stand true. Now, if you don’t have a brand, you can build one. Anyone can. It takes commitment to people, to tell their story and represent their interests with your brand, not your own. If you create a brand that represents the highest common denominator between your people (customers, employees, investors) and your products/services, then you can forge an enduring powerful partnership that will yield surprising dividends for your business. It all begins with understanding the basics of what a brand really means for a business.
- A Brand Resides in the Mind not in a Logo: Although expressed in a logo and a tagline, a brand is actually a mental construct that gets into the mind and lives in the memory of people. Branding is the process of creating the brand in the minds of people. It is typically done by creating things and experiences that “express” the brand such as marketing materials and product design. Brands also live in the culture. Powerful brands like Nike become social concepts and exist in the culture where they continually give people cues and establish the brand as a part of society.
- Brands Set Meaning: Brands give meaning to products. Is an anti-lock braking system (ABS) a breakthrough in performance (BMW) or safety (Volvo)? That depends on the brand. The brand is a mental lens that provides immediate meaning. A Snickers bar is a snack. Tiffany means luxury taste and quality. Apple is about unleashing creativity while IBM is about improving productivity. The brand provides context which tells people why a product is important to them.
- Brands Carry Emotional Power: Like great art, brands are designed to elicit a response, both emotional and rational. Like art they can enchant and often captivate people which creates desire. Marlboro was the first filter-tipped cigarette and was initially launched as a woman’s cigarette which failed. The same product was re-branded as the ultimate masculine smoke and with the swagger of the Marlboro man still remains one of the most powerful brands in the world. Powerful brands are mythologies that evoke emotions that swell to desire.
- Brands are Fiction Not Fact: Branding is poetry not journalism. Messaging matrixes and value propositions belong to marketers and are fact-based. Branding is another world that is concept-based. Branding brings out the big gun – an idea. A powerful, transcendent, mind-tweaking idea designed to engage the mind and heart at another level. The idea is what catalyzes new behavior and thinking. When Tide gets clothes clean, it means that Mom and Dad are good parents and conveys that message. The Home Depot is a large hardware store, but the brand makes it a Home Center for any current and aspiring do-it-yourselfer.
- Brands Defy Logic: When you have a powerful brand, you’ll be surprised by what it can do. You will see strong conviction and commitment across employees, customers and investors despite challenges. People tend to defend the brands they love and stay loyal against all odds – better alternatives, cheaper alternatives, easier alternatives. To achieve that kind of priceless cohesion, you have to build and continually maintain the brand campfire – and make it into a bonfire for the whole world to see. At John Deere, they say people bleed green because the brand is so deep.
- Brands Deliver Business Value Multiple Ways: Because powerful brands are sticky, they have the ability to build a moat around the business. Customers remain loyal even in the face of superior performing or lower priced competitors. People forgive and forget product and corporate errors which mitigates losses. People are more willing to try new products, services and experiences from brands they love which accelerates sales. If you have a vision to build an empire, but a brand to amplify the upside and mitigate the downside.
Many corporate executives view the brand as simply a marketing asset. Others like Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Richard Branson and Elon Musk view it as a corporate asset, part of the business strategy. Once built, a powerful brand can be used to wield influence in many circumstances from the Main Street to Wall Street to Capitol Hill. While products and executives may come and go within a company, the brand can endure forever – as long as it is well maintained.
In a world of fake news where people are becoming increasingly unmoored and where constant shocks and disruptions seem to prevent ‘normal’ from ever being a reality, brands are a reassuring presence that people can depend on. Powerful brands nurture, the people that come to work, buy products and invest in companies. Business always comes down to connecting with people on a human level. Powerful brands are creative concepts that stimulate the imagination and emotions in ways that most CEOs cannot. With a powerful brand, the CEO has a tool to open minds, raise hearts, command attention, bring everyone together and protect the business again in a volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous world.
Jane Cavalier, CEO and Founder of BrightMark Consulting, is a nationally recognized brand strategist, board member, blogger and author of bestselling business book The Enchanted Brand (Amazon). She helps organizations conquer a changing world with powerful brands and reputations. Recognized for creating breakout brands like Snapple and Qwest, Jane has worked with over 100 organizations including American Express, Johnson & Johnson, ExxonMobil and the U.S. Navy.