Is Your Brand Missing Its Compass?

This story first appeared in Huffington Post October 25th, 2013.

I was sitting with a team of entrepreneurs yesterday. Together, we’re launching a new retail brand (look for updates here – we open in January!).

The conversation was all about naming. We’d landed on two great names, which one of the team had put through an online poll. The names polled well – but not as well as a rather predictable moniker which had been included at the last minute. As you might imagine, the mundane-name-that-people-loved threw a wrench into the works.

I’ve seen this before. Heck, I’ve even written my share of ‘focus group stealth bomb’ commercials – spots that focus groups love, and clients feel secure with. Unfortunately, these safe options rarely do well in the real world. People in focus groups love things they’re familiar with, just as people on the street love things they’ve never seen before.

Happily, I had just taken my group of entrepreneurs through the process of creating a brand bible. We took a hard look at the section on our company’s higher purpose, which convinced all of us to choose one of the great names we’d polled.

This naming anecdote illustrates a larger point. Now more than ever, companies need to look hard at their higher purpose and recalibrate their strategies and tactics to reinforce that purpose.

Why?

Chaos at the gates, and schizophrenic brands

The world has always been a chaotic place. But our ‘always on’ connectivity has amplified the turbulence. 

So whether its economic instability, environmental angst, culture clash or the inundation of technology, people are feeling overwhelmed by reality. Being a society of consumers, they’re reaching out to brands to provide leadership.  

Now insert your average big, established brand into this equation. The sort of brand that has never given much thought to satisfying anything more than relatively superficial consumer wants. A fizzy pop or floor cleaner, for example. How is this brand going to suddenly provide consumers with a moral compass?

It’s not. Unless the brand stewards step back and think hard about that brand’s compass.

This was part of a conversation I had with Simon Mainwaring of We First a while back. Simon is a first rate thinker on our western psychological evolution from ‘me to we’, and a great speaker (he did a terrific talk at this year’s Sustainable Brands).

According to Simon, “Companies are still wrestling with who they are – they’re either still coasting on a lazy mission statement, or trying to graft ‘meaning’ onto their current business. With the rise of consumer and shareholder activism, and competition from companies that have purpose stitched into their DNA, these big brands are suffering from internal schizophrenia. They’re struggling to uncover what – if anything – they stand for.”

Find your compass before your set sail

My conversation with Simon underlined the necessity of establishing, understanding, and socializing your brand’s compass / higher purpose before you start marketing.

As Simon pointed out “The space in which brands can be disingenuous or noncommittal is getting smaller. When you’re surrounded by initiatives like Nike’s Better World, Starbucks Shared Planet and Pepsi’s Refresh Everything, you have to think about more than the next quarter.”

If the future of profit is tied to purpose, then the first step to finding your purpose is pulling back and establishing exactly what your brand stands for.

It’s hard, but necessary work. Thankfully, when it’s done, everything becomes a bit easier.

Even picking a new name.

Marc Stoiber is a creative strategist who helps clients across North America build resilient, futureproof brands. He also blogs extensively on futureproofing for publications like Huffington Post and Fast Company, and speaks on the subject from coast to coast.

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