In many respects, a brand’s characteristics are much like those of people or animals. Some people are very confident, or even arrogant, and so are many of the brands you’ve heard of. For example, Nike has a lot of confident swagger (Just Do It), whereas Dollar Shave Club borders on the absurdly arrogant (Our Blades Are F**king Great). Some animals are known to be very loyal or reliable, and so too are certain brands. Amazon has built a fantastic reputation with its fiercely consumer-friendly customer service department, and it’s one of the many reasons the online giant has grown in leaps and bounds.
However, successful brands are also more complex than that. They are not one-dimensional and have a wide range of attributes that become part of a well-rounded, and well-loved, brand experience. Here are the top eight, in no particular order.
Really Knowing Their Audience
In fact, they don’t just know them…they understand them. It’s easy to get lost in a sea of marketing jargon like demographics, behaviorism, and average HHI (Household Income). But at the end of the day, successful brands completely understand their audience on an emotional level. They are not just numbers on a chart in a PowerPoint slide. They are people, with names, dreams, and histories.
When Dove launched its “campaign for real beauty,” it really understood what women were going through. These impossible standards of beauty portrayed by the media, and the unrealistic expectations that society imposed upon them, were punishing the audience. Dove came out and said, “hey, we get it, and we support you.” The ad showing how a supermodel in an outdoor ad goes from average to outstanding through makeup, lighting, and Photoshop became a viral sensation. It touched a nerve, and that is knowing your audience.
Standing for Something
This does not mean a brand must support one of the latest political movement, or be out there stumping for a certain cause or charity. It simply means that the brand puts itself firmly behind an idea, or ideal. In the case of one of the biggest brands, Nike, it stands for determination. Nike tells you to “Just Do It,” and all of its marketing materials revolve around that idea.
The ability to overcome the pain and the obstacles and push yourself to the limits, and beyond. With Dove, the ideal is real beauty. Dove’s advertising gets behind real women, celebrating the female form in its many incarnations. With Apple, it’s simplicity (or at least, it used to be). A brand should clearly define what it stands for in its advertising, marketing, and public relations materials. If it stands for too many things, they will all get lost in the clutter.
The Ability to Pivot Quickly
A great brand must be nimble. That can be a problem when the brand grows, because the more cogs there are in the machine, the more it gets slowed down. When a brand is in its infancy, it’s easy to move quickly and respond to change. When a brand becomes the size of Microsoft or Amazon, it’s like asking a massive ocean liner to turn around in a few seconds.
However, some large brands have kept their ability to pivot, thanks largely to a streamlined approval process, no micromanagement, and the implementation of social media. Consider the famous Oreo tweet that went out during the Super Bowl blackout; “you can always dunk in the dark.” That was a quick response to a major problem, and people are still talking about it. Then look at a brand like Blockbuster. All the signs were there that it needs to adjust to the rapidly changing digital entertainment landscape. But it dug in and stood its ground. While Netflix dominated, and Amazon jumped on digital media delivery, more and more blockbuster stores started closing. It did not pivot in time. And it died.
Passion and Ambition
The greatest brands ooze passion from every pore. You get excited when you engage with them, and become a brand advocate. You want to wear their brand, or post about it on Facebook and Twitter. Passionate brands are proactive, and the people in charge of the brand are usually driven to the point of obsession.
Look at Steve Jobs and Apple. This was a man who insisted on a specific Pantone color for the case of the Apple Mac, which was almost indistinguishable from the stock color available. It cost many thousands to make that change, but he knew what he wanted, and what the consumer wanted. Steve also refused to put the iPad through focus groups. Again, he knew what people wanted, but realized it would take a few months to get used to the idea.
Brands that do not have this passion are not as fun to engage with. When was the last time you talked about the great things happening with Dell, or IBM? And sadly, Dell used to be in this zone. “Dude, You’re Getting a Dell” was exciting and helped make Dell a household name. Never lose the passion. It will sink the brand.
Consistency Through Thick and Thin
It can be tough to be a truly consistent brand, especially when everything is changing around you. It can be a lot easier to simply go with the flow, abandon the consistency, and hope things work out for the best. But a brand that remains consistent to its core values will thrive throughout the constantly evolving landscape. Customers who know they can rely on a brand to be there for them will reward that brand with their loyalty.
Coca-Cola is a great example of both sides of the argument. Once, they ditched their formula and brand to try and stay on top of Pepsi (which was number two in the marketplace). New Coke was a disaster, and Pepsi reaped the rewards. Coke’s loyal customers felt betrayed. Now, Coca-Cola is a model of consistency. It knows what it is, what it isn’t, and what to do to keep its message of “sharing and inclusion” top of mind. Lose your consistency, your customers will feel thrown by it. They’ll try something else, and they may not ever come back.
6: Being Genuinely Interesting and Engaging
Great brands don’t have to work overtime to get a consumer’s interest (or at least, it doesn’t look like hard work). A truly interesting brand will demand attention. You know this yourself just by looking at the brands you follow on social media. What names are on the list? More than likely, they have something interesting to say, and they say it often. Go to Instagram and take a look at the following brands: Letterfolk; Staples; AirBnB; Starbucks; ShakeShack; Nike; Mac Cosmetics; National Geographic; FedEx (yes…FedEx).
The last one on the list should make every brand sit up and take notice. FedEx does a very dull job; it delivers packages. And yet through a genuine desire to entertain and engage the audience, FedEx has almost 74 thousand followers on Instagram. FedEx is not posting pictures of brown boxes, or schedules, or people receiving packages. Instead, the Instagram channel is filled with beautiful shots of planes, trucks in the wilderness, incredible scenery, and people of different cities. The people at FedEx know what’s interesting and they are promoting it. If a package delivery service can get that kind of engagement, anyone can. You just have to tap into something people want to see.
7: Relevancy in an Ever-Changing World
It’s been said over and over again; now, more than ever, brands are engaged in a battle for cultural relevancy. Big brands can become dinosaurs, or they can thrive. Small brands can get crushed underfoot, or they can be as small and indestructible as a diamond. It’s all about how relevant that brand is in the current climate. Perhaps one of the greatest brands to pass the relevancy test is Lego. Think about how popular (or not) Lego was 20 years ago. It was a household name, sure, but it was a plastic building toy about to get wiped about the rapidly growing video game industry. Lego adapted.
It bought into huge film and TV franchises, like Star Wars, Batman, Harry Potter, and even Ghostbusters. It created brick and mortar stores that were an experience for kids and adults alike. It became a staple in Disneyland and in malls around the world. It created multiple product lines, like Bionicle, Ninjago, and City. And then, the master stroke, Lego got into the movie-making business. And by hiring some of the best talent in the entertainment industry (Morgan Freeman, Will Ferrell, Will Arnett, Elizabeth Banks), its movies became massive hits. Lego knows relevancy, and it’s bigger than it has ever been at a time when toy stores are going under. How can your brand remain relevant today? What can it do to really connect?
8: Authenticity and Humanity
Consumers hate fakes and phonies, and when a brand tries and fails to connect on a real, human level, it suffers the consequences. Ironically, Dove has recently come under fire for feeling insincere by continuing its quest to pursue real beauty. The bottles of many shapes and sizes, to represent the many shapes and sizes of its female customers, was a complete disconnect. The consensus from the audience was that this felt like a marketing stunt; something fake and contrived that was designed to get viral hits rather than genuinely connecting to their audience.
“It’s straight-up off-brand,” said Samantha Skey, president of digital media company She Knows Media. “It’s a change in tone for Dove, from ads that are almost painfully sincere and earnest, to something that could literally be a ‘Saturday Night Live’ skit. Unless you’re trying to mock everything you stand for, I’m not sure why you would do this.” This was followed by an ad that showed a black woman taking off her clothed to reveal a white woman beneath. While Dove says it was taken out of context, it was another example of Dove missing the mark, and losing its genuine appeal.
However, a brand that continues to be praised for its authenticity is Target. It knows what it is, it knows its customer base, and it continues to treat them with respect. It’s not afraid to poke fun at itself, or admit when it makes a mistake. Because of this, brand loyalty for Target is stronger than it’s ever been.