I’ve been spending lots of time analyzing different companies in different industries over the last few months. These have been both new and established companies, with brands at different stages of their lifecycle and facing different challenges. This exercise has afforded me the opportunity to give lots of thought to what makes a brand and the traits great brands share, and here are my top six:
Today more than ever, this is the most important characteristic of all. Digital media has made a brand part of the fabric of society, so a lack of integrity will be quickly called out, amplified and quickly create an emergency.
Having well-defined principles and sticking to them are what gives a brand the ability to be honest and transparent, which in tough situations is the only thing a brand can rely on. So integrity isn’t just the cost of doing business, it’s good business.
Great brands aren’t frenetic and constantly changing. They are consistent in action, voice and look. How a good brand comes to life stems directly from its brand personality and architecture, so any change has to be based on something concrete that’s directly related to where the brand has been and plans to go.
This doesn’t mean that evolution has to be slow. The best brands can launch a new brand campaign, message or visual language, but it’s disciplined disruption. It’s change with a purpose that should last years, if not decades.
This is why so many changes to brand identity fail (I’m looking at you, Burberry). They become change for change’s sake, rather than an evolution to shore up some brand shortcomings. A new logo won’t fix a fashion brand’s stale line-up. In fact, it can accelerate a downturn because you’ve killed a link to a successful past.
Great brands know who they are, so they can play to their strengths and focus investment in them. For years, Amazon was a transactional brand focused on scale and convenience. Growing scale and focusing on volume has helped define new products like Prime and Alexa, expand into entertainment, fashion and of course, data.
Self-awareness also helps brand be honest with themselves so they don’t waste time or effort on what isn’t part of their core strengths. Evernote is a great example. As the software became a useful and popular tool for business, it introduced unnecessary, unrelated products like bike messenger bags and socks. It’s gone from a billion-dollar company to the fifth-best option in its segment.
Great brands have confidence. Even if they aren’t number one in their category, they act like it. They have the confidence to talk about what makes them great and the confidence to be ruthless when evaluating success and failure. When they make a new product mistake, the brand kills it and moves on.
Confidence also allows the brand to have opinions and make a stand, because they trust their principles and know who they are. In effect, it makes taking a stand a good business decision, because the people who buy the brand have expectations, so a stand is simply fulfilling those expectations.
Great brands have a reason for being. Whether it’s putting humanity back into air travel, treating everyone like they’re an athlete or bringing joy to every child in the world, there’s a goal that every employee can understand. That goal helps instill a standard that employees live up to and a filter for all marketing and product decisions.
A purpose also gives customers something to talk about and share with friends. It gives them a sense of pride for making the “right” decision and helps define the values they share with a brand.
We make our purchase decision based on a mix of the rational and emotional, and the best brands understand this. By simply having some humanity, a brand makes it easier to grow an emotional connection and therefore, harder to pass it by.
But humanity is even more important because it’s the foundational characteristic for everything else. It fosters a corporate culture that helps retain employees and thus maintain consistency, confidence, purpose and the understanding of what makes it special.