Building a brand with soul

The definition of icon is ‘a person or thing regarded as a representative symbol or worthy of veneration’.

A brand represents your company. So, technically, it’s an icon.

But is it worthy of veneration?

Most brands aren’t. Most are just kinda there, filling in space. If they went away tomorrow, people would just go… meh.

But a few brands break through and become much more. They capture the human spirit, they awaken a feeling in us. Those are brands that, in some shape or form, warrant a bit of veneration – or at least a tip of the hat and approving nod.

What is a brand with soul?

A brand’s symbolic meaning originates with its underlying purpose.

Free brand audit ad

That’s a loaded word. Purpose.

Purpose is a very human thing. It goes beyond buying something just because it does a specific job. Purpose is about getting us a bit closer to fulfillment.

In fact, you could look at brand purpose as three circles that intersect like a Venn diagram.

First circle – the surrounding social tension that creates a need in a person. These are big, societal things. For example, COVID, coupled with the resulting economic meltdown, has created a great deal of anxiety in people.

Second circle – what the brand actually does. A shoe brand makes shoes, for example.

Third circle – what specific problem the brand solves. A shoe brand helps people move around, and if it’s an athletic shoe brand, it helps them get in shape.

When you get all three of those – a brand that does a specific thing, that solves a very real human problem, and that does so in a way that relieves a tension the person is experiencing – you get a powerful brand.

When you get that REALLY right, you get a brand that almost feels like it’s a bit human. Like you know the brand.

A brand that has a bit of soul.

When Nike got soul

Personally, I think Nike nailed this.

In fact, when I think about brands that capture the human spirit, I generally go to 3 or 4.

  • Volkswagen
  • The Economist
  • Nike, and
  • Apple

I know, right? That’s all I could come up with? Well, no, but it illustrates my point. Brands that capture the human spirit are few and far between. But I digress.

Today, I want to talk about how Nike went from being a good, solid company, to a soulful brand. Let me paint the picture.

It was 1987.

Nike had just done a great commercial, called Revolution. By and large, it was all about great athletes doing great things.

But there was a recession happening.

Nike had laid off 20% of its workforce.

Reebok had just introduced a whole new category of shoe – aerobics shoes. They were eating Nike’s carb-loaded lunch.

Nike’s ad agency – Wieden & Kennedy – had just presented a bunch of new work that fell flat.

Dark times, indeed.

But there was a huge social tension that was happening. The great recession. And on a more human level, families eating worse food, exercising less, and the recession-fuelled cutbacks that had led schools to cancel phys ed programs. As a result of this social tension, obesity was on the rise.

And we had a product that could make a difference. Nike made athletic shoes. They could deliver motivation to exercise.

And, we had a very real human problem. Depression, the rise of chronic conditions, anxiety, obesity.

The perfect cauldron for building a brand with purpose.

Nike knew what had to be done

Nike realized they needed to somehow represent more than aspirational shoes.

They needed to make a difference in people’s lives.

They needed to lift their moods, their spirits. Give them back the inner joy of endorphins and self-confidence.

And that’s where the brand went back to Nike’s founder – Bill Bowerman – who said that everyone has a body, and therefore everyone is a potential athlete.

This awareness that the brand needed to help people in a difficult time, help them with shoes and products to get energized again and – in the process – solve core issues like obesity – was the underlying thought that came out as Nike’s promise of authentic athletic performance.

Not high performance.

Not pro athlete performance.

But authentic. You and me.

The way this first came out was awesome.

The first commercial featured 80 year old runner Walt Stack, running across the Golden Gate Bridge.

He says that he runs 17 miles every day.

People ask him how, with all that running, he keeps his teeth from clattering together.

He said he kept them in a jar at home.

It was 100% human. Authentic. And with not just a little soul.

Now get to work. I’d like to add your brand to the list of four I can remember that capture the human spirit. 😉

This story first appeared as a video on You can check it out here

Want more stories on brand building? 

Here’s one on effective brand positioning.

Here’s one on creating a manifesto brand

And here’s one on creating a transformative personal brand. 

If you’d like all my insights straight to your inbox, subscribe to my newsletter below. 

And you have brand questions, grab some time in my calendar and we’ll connect. 

Add Comment