Building brands through People, Purpose, and Participation

"So your job is to build brands? How do you do that? Is that difficult?” – Kyle, 13, from Oregon

Building brands that are truly meaningful, admired and (sometimes) even loved has not become any easier over the years. If anything, it is becoming increasingly difficult. We’ve never lived in more connected, fast-paced, over-stimulated and challenging times; just ask any marketer and brand manager. And yet – as is typically the case – every challenge brings about an opportunity. Guess what? In this article I will give you three.

On a recent flight from Los Angeles back to New York, I sat next to a 13-year-old kid from somewhere in Oregon. Having had long meetings, a short night and definitely a bit of jetlag, an in-depth conversation was definitely not highest on my wish list for the next six hours. Little did I know that it would turn into one of the best and most insightful conversations I’ve had around brands and branding for a long time. And trust me, I do have many of those.

Kyle was visibly bored with the in-flight entertainment program, so it took about three minutes after take off before he asked me what I was doing in Los Angeles. I told him that I’d been on the West Coast to help a client develop what hopefully turns into a fantastic and very cool brand experience for the company.

“I like some brands. I looooove my Nintendo Wii,” was his short but pretty passionate reply. He immediately followed up with a series of questions:

“So your job is to build brands? How do you do that? Is that difficult?”

Asking a brand strategist how to build a brand is like asking a professional chef how to cook a good dessert. There is no straight answer. It’s a blend of science and art. And sometimes the right amount of each, down to an ounce, can make or break a great brand, as is the case with any delicious dessert.

Kyle was visibly not in the mood for a lecture about the many ingredients it takes – so breaking it down to some simple truths was both a challenge and a fantastic exercise to strip away the theoretical noise that at times keeps us marketers distracted from what ultimately constitutes the brands we fall in love with.

So here are my takeaways – broken down for a 13-year-old.

To get started, let’s look at some of the ground rules that are being rewritten and compel brands to behave differently. Yes, we all know the world is changing – always has, always will. No big news there. But there are some changes we must pay a little more attention to if we intend to continue to build those brands that really matter to people – and successfully create value:

1. Each one of us is an open book

Just take a look around you:  Everything you do, everywhere you go, the things you look up online, or the preferences you enter into your social media profile paint a pretty complete and increasingly transparent picture of what ‘your’ brand is all about. You do the math. That turns our world into a place with roughly 7 billion brands. Meaning that organizations have access to more customer (CRM) data than ever before. And that in turn allows them to know us better than we know ourselves, and to fully personalize the experiences we have with them.

2. Work-life separation? A thing of the past

We all work basically 24/7 by now. We might not like it – we might not even want to admit it. But people are ‘consta-preneurs’ these days – always on, always connected. And the more our personal and our work life merge, the stronger grows the sentiment that what we do with our lives needs to have meaning. Brands realize the opportunity that stems from that. By offering something bigger than just products and services, but something that adds significance to our ‘personal brands’, they can become a more integral part of people’s lifestyle.

3. ‘Overstimulation’ is everyone’s middle name

When I started out in advertising more than 10 years ago, I always wondered if stats along the lines of ‘each of us is being exposed to more than 3,000 brand impressions each day’ were actually true. Today, I have no doubt. We should all constantly feel like an 8-year-old in a Toys”R”Us store:  Temptation everywhere, each one claiming to be more exciting than the previous one. Brands have long stopped fighting for our attention – they are now fighting for frequent ways to engage with us. Memorable brand experiences that people deem worthy of sharing matter more than ever. Truly winning over a customer today means making him or her the hero of the story you are telling.

In order to successfully navigate this changing landscape, you must focus on what I call the quintessential three P’s. If you get those right, all else will fall into place.

Read the article in full on Branding Magazine.


Executive Director/Head of Strategy