In his New York Times best-selling memoir, Shoe Dog, Nike founder Phil Knight recalls the morning he found out about the death of dear friend and famed runner Steve Prefontaine:
“I heard that something was happening at the spot where Pre died. It was becoming a shrine. People were visiting it every day, leaving flowers, letters, notes, gifts – Nikes. Someone should collect it all, I thought, keep it in a safe place. Someone needed to curate Pre’s rock, and I decided that someone needed to be us. We didn’t have money for anything like that. But I talked it over with Johnson and Woodell and we agreed that, as long as we were in business, we’d find money for things like that.”
Prefontaine died tragically in a car wreck in 1975 at just 24 years of age. At the time of his death, he held every American distance record from 2,000 meters to 10,000 meters. His importance to the popularization of running in American culture cannot be overstated, nor his role in Nike’s growth as a nascent shoe brand in the 1970s.
It wasn’t Pre’s accolades that drew Phil Knight’s affection; it was his spirit. Pre was famous for saying, “Someone may beat me, but they’ll have to bleed to do it.” Knight saw in Pre an ethos that he wanted his young company to embody: A fighting spirit, the will to never give up, and, ultimately, the realization of one’s athletic potential. The day the light went out in Prefontaine’s life, Phil Knight committed to carry that spirit forward in the best way he knew how – through his fledgling shoe company.
As an isolated example, the remembrance of a friend seems like a good deed that may or may not break into the 24-hour news cycle, much less be the beginnings of a Cannes case study or have any sort of tangible business impact. However, we know how the story ends: We can trace Phil Knight’s actions since the day after Pre’s death to see how Nike continually follows its values and “finds money for things like that.”
This is a company that has a sense of self. That has clear and present values. A company with a spine. Better yet, a company that takes action.
The Brand Dilemma
We live in an era of brand commoditization. Packaged good companies pace the floors over Amazon and the knockoffs that hit the shelves weeks after their new product launches. Service companies wring their hands at consumer-review sites. Seemingly every category has a price aggregator or upstart chipping away at their market share. The response is to ask, “do brands even matter?” It’s a fair question. Havas Media’s recent “Meaningful Brands” research showed that almost 75 percent of brands are so meaningless to consumers that they may as well not be there.
While external threats are often pegged as the cause of brand commoditization, the truth is that people are moving toward the companies that create value or offer tangible solutions not previously available. More pointedly: In this era of transparency where consumers know and share more than ever, brands are simply being found out. It’s no wonder that 84 percent of Millennials don’t trust traditional advertising, and the discrepancy between what brands advertise vs. what they deliver is at the core of the issue. Brands can no longer divorce what they say from what they do.
Where there’s adversity, there’s opportunity. As savvy consumers dismiss the vast majority of brands as meaningless, there lies a significant opportunity for meaningful brands to fill the void. Having a powerful, relevant brand matters more than ever. The question, then, is not whether brands matter, but rather: In this shifting landscape, what is the new approach to creating brands that do?
Brands That Matter
At The Richards Group, we preach the gospel of brand as promise. When we say brand, we mean the intangible beliefs and perceptions that people hold about your company, product, or service. That promise lives inside your consumers’ hearts and minds, and everything that your customer experiences on behalf of your company – intentional or not – either reinforces that promise or undermines it.
Defining a brand’s promise allows large companies to simplify the complex to a set of core principles or values that can be easily shared and explained throughout the organization. A well-defined brand promise makes it possible for employees from the C-suite to the front line and from marketing to operations to merchandising to R&D to execute consistently against these core values with a shared conviction.
The dilemma, however, is when a brand promise is relegated to a marketing strategy or, more limiting, an advertising strategy. Hence the separation between what a company says (advertising) and what it does (operations). Gareth Kay has defined the problem best:
“My biggest concern with the notion of the brand: the fact that it is far too theoretical and tends to live (and die) in the meeting room. The very notion of the brand is one that is theoretical and conceptual; it lives in words and diagrams, not in actions in the real world. This has allowed the brand to be reduced to a messaging mechanism and verbal construct that we use to judge whether what we do is ‘on’ or ‘off’ brand.”
When we, as marketers, allow a brand promise to be reduced to a messaging strategy, our impact on the world around us falls short. Our audiences are so inundated with “messaging” that they have becomes masters at filtering it, and they’re tired of being sold. Whether we call it advertising or content does little to affect this challenge.
We’ve long heard – and quoted to each other – the words of Simon Sinek, “People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it.” And, it’s important to note, nobody cares about your why unless you do something. When a brand does nothing – or says nothing of importance – no one cares, no one talks, and therefore sales stagnate. But when a brand does something, people take notice. People don’t want to be told; they want brands to prove the why in the actions they take.
How, then, do we bring our brand promise to life in a truly meaningful way? In the words of Elvis, it’s time for a little less talk and a lot more action.
What Is a Brand Action?
Knowing that brand is a construct that lives solely in our consumers’ hearts and minds, our brand strategy should focus on how to create meaningful, powerful emotional associations over time.
The most powerful emotions rarely come from something that’s read or watched; rather, they spring from shared experiences. Iconic campaigns throughout history created an emotional connection through television when watching TV was our communal activity. We all watched Friends at the same time on the same night, and shared our experiences of the show – and the advertising within it – on the day after. But as culture has changed, media has fragmented, and technology has proliferated, we no longer bond over the shows we watched last night, leaving a void for shared experiences to fill.
And while storytelling is a powerful way to create emotional connections, an ever-evolving consumer is forcing brands to move beyond storytelling to action-taking. Doing things that matter. Not for the sake of impressions or reach. But for the sake of the brand, the people behind it, and the people who choose to opt in to it. These brand actions serve as an outward manifestation of the company’s very reason for being. And they create a connection so meaningful that people can’t help but want to be a part of it.
As marketers, the questions we ask ourselves are: What is the most powerful emotion that I can create in the hearts and minds of my consumers? And what set of meaningful actions can I take to evoke or strengthen that feeling?
Put simply: A brand action is a real-world manifestation of your brand promise. A brand living out its DNA. A brand creating a shared experience that connects audiences with one another – and with what the brand stands for.
Brand actions vary as widely as the brands that create them. They can range from pure fun to an articulation of a brand’s commitment to its customers to a cultural or political stance. They can be a business move – such as CVS’ refusal to sell cigarettes – to activations that are born of marketing. They can be a shift in a product or service, a special touch in a customer service experience, or even a stunt (yes, we said it).
Most important is that your brand’s actions are authentic to your brand, who it is, and what it stands for. Beyond that, there are lots of ways in:
Meaningful Brand Actions Clearly Align With or Serve to Establish a Clear Set of Values
Think Fearless Girl. Commissioned by State Street Global to demonstrate the power of women in leadership, the statue of a young girl facing down the Wall Street Bull sent a clear and moving message about the brand’s commitment to gender-diverse companies.
On the other end of the spectrum is Dr Pepper’s surprise gift of a Dr Pepper fountain to its most ardent fan and Kansas State college student Claire Daniels. The brand is committed to fun and refreshment for its customers, and the life-sized fountain, installed in Claire’s front yard after she tweeted her love for Dr Pepper, delivered on those core values in spades.
Meaningful Brand Actions Target a Specific Audience or Even a Specific Individual
By definition, a brand that’s clear about its core values won’t be all things to all people.
High school football is a way of life in many communities, so it was especially heartbreaking when 106-year rivals from Phillipsburg, Pennsylvania, and Easton, New Jersey, ended their 1993 season in a tie. Honoring the spirit of athletic competition – and broadening the idea of what it means to be an athlete – Gatorade gave the teams the opportunity to break that tie 16 years later during a Gatorade – Replay match. The two teams reunited, trained, and faced off in front of 15,000 football fans – cementing Gatorade’s positioning among high school football fans across the country.
Meaningful Brand Actions Give People a Platform to Tell (and Enhance) Their Story
When Kevin Blandford posted on Reddit that he won a vacation but had a miserable time in Puerto Rico because he couldn’t bring his wife, Puerto Rico stepped in to make things right. Puerto Rico Tourism Company brought Kevin back – with his wife this time! – giving the couple a vacation do-over. Puerto Rico even made sure the couple re-created the photos that were previously evidence of Kevin’s misery as proof that the couple had the time of their lives in Puerto Rico.
Meaningful Brand Actions Leverage Partnerships With Brands Who Share Your Values
Speed demons dream of the open road and an opportunity to go FAST. To make that dream a reality, Audi partners with Airbnb to offer “a once-in-a-lifetime travel and driving experience,” complete with a stay at the renowned Rondolino Residence and an Audi R8 built for speeding along the desolate Death Valley roads surrounding the home.
Meaningful Brand Actions Heighten the Brand Experience
Pizza Hut Cinema steps up the typical “dinner and a movie” with a pizza box that turns into a projector and screen for enhanced viewing of movies watched on your smartphone.
Another pizza purveyor, Domino’s, is enhancing the brand experience in a very different way, by literally removing a barrier to enjoying fresh, hot pizza. The brand’s “Paving for Pizza” initiative helps to “smooth the ride home” for pizza deliveries by repairing potholes in towns that are nominated by its customers.
Or, The Next Pinnacle, Meaningful Brand Actions Help People to Alter Their Reality
Anybody who travels by air knows that it’s far from glamorous. Heineken decided to up that experience by offering travelers a spontaneous trip to a surprise destination. The catch in Heineken Departure Roulette is that travelers have to leave right then and there. Talk about upping the ante on air travel!
How to Get on Board
Ironically, brand actions aren’t done for profit, but they can strengthen the value of a company. With brand value accounting for 33 percent of a company’s valuation and strong brands commanding a 13 percent price premium, building a strong brand is a pretty important concept to get right.
Just ask CVS, whose brand preference rose 50 percent as a result of its decision to stop selling cigarettes. Or Nike, whose sales grew 31 percent year over year after airing its Colin Kaepernick spot. Or Patagonia, who tripled its profits from 2008 to 2014.
While many brands are still navigating the road from traditional TV to digital video, other brands are taking action. And in the process, future-proofing themselves against a time when even the first three seconds on social media aren’t the panacea for consumer attention. Here’s how to get on board:
Get Clear on Your Brand Promise
People want to do business with companies (and therefore brands) that have a sense of purpose beyond profit. And it doesn’t have to be saving the world. Nike isn’t saving the world by celebrating its athletes. It isn’t donating any money either. What it is doing is showing and telling you that it values the competitive spirit and those who embrace it. Are you one of those? Come join us.
Your brand promise establishes your values. So be clear on your brand’s promise, why your brand exists, and how the world would be different without it.
Understand Who You Serve
Heidi Hackemer, founder of strategy firm Wolf & Wilhelmine, points out that Nike “has always had real street authenticity” because “they are relentless about understanding who they serve.” She argues that this legitimacy comes from a ”combination of qualitative and quantitative insights that make bold creative moves seem easy.”
Take a page from Nike: Deeply understand your audience, moments that are relatable for them, and what they’re experiencing that’s culturally worthy or newsworthy. At that intersection are opportunities to inject your brand into their lives with brand actions that matter to them.
Lead With Action
Do you believe someone who extolls on all the reasons they’re great? Or are you better convinced when they show you? Anyone can make declarations. Lead with action instead. Think about actions that are an outward manifestation of your brand promise, that give your audiences something to experience and relate to, that provide them with a story to tell. Then build your narrative around it. Better yet, you can let your audience tell the story on your behalf.
The Goal Is to Be Understood – Attention Is Merely a By-product
The quickest way to ensure failure is to concept a stunt with the goal of creating media buzz. Rather than focusing on mass impact (although that may occur), strive to create lasting bonds with a few (who then share their experience). The goal is to do something beautiful, inspiring, funny, or useful. Most of all, the goal is to be understood. Whatever you do should create an understanding of what your brand is all about. Therefore, if nothing else, your brand actions have to be authentic.
Act – Then Amplify
And the question you may be asking yourself – what is an article about brand actions doing in a report on digital trends? The simple answer is, the best digital content starts in the real world.
If you need validation on this, just check out Facebook’s recent campaign. As they say, “the best part of Facebook isn’t what happens online.” Rather, it’s the actions that happen in the real world, bringing together people with common beliefs or circumstances to celebrate, to rally for change, or to simply share in their commonalities. Social media is simply the watering hole where we share our experience.
As cords get cut, live TV viewership recedes, social media prevails, cynicism and distrust of marketing messages grows, mass media continues to fragment into niche bubbles, and personalized marketing displaces the broad impact of a mass-communal cross-cultural content consumption, people get harder to reach.
An impressive real-world action on behalf of a brand gets noticed, it gains traction in earned media, it generates headlines and images that stop thumbs in the social feed, it creates the “holy cow, I can’t believe they did that” effect that leads to successful word of mouth, and it results in genuine stories about a brand. Your brand.
Knowing that people want to affiliate with like-minded brands, let’s start doing things that let them know what we stand for. Then, once you’ve struck a chord – once you’ve started showing up in your audience’s feed organically and started gaining some momentum – once you’ve created an authentic platform to stand on, that’s when you can leverage the storytelling power of advertising to amplify the brand narrative. It starts in the real world, then digital plays a critical role in building as much momentum as possible.
In the beginning, Phil Knight committed to “find money for things like that” – actions that reflect the purpose and spirit of his company. Today, we have a compelling business reason to follow suit. Beyond that, we have a human reason to do so: As marketers, storytelling has taken us a great distance. Imagine what we can accomplish when we do things that not only prove the stories that we’ve been telling, but actually create a platform for more.
Your brand shouldn’t be relegated to the constraints of a medium regardless of whether it’s measured in inches or seconds or word count. There will be time for talking later. Now is the time for action.