I’ve led corporate branding and narrative development for companies in every industry, from start-ups to the Fortune 100. At one point in each and every audit, when asking executives who they most want to emulate or be aligned with, they all say the same thing: “I want to be Apple.”
It has happened so often that I have had to specifically re-engineer my question to include a caveat – Apple doesn’t count. Nor does Nike or Starbucks.
These are the go-to brands that transcend their categories. Their very names have become known as widely-accepted verbs by everyone from Wall Street Analysts to Main Street Millennials. These companies have created such strong emotional connections with their customers that they now serve to validate their identities and customers reciprocate by voluntarily tattooing their cars, computers and even bodies. Because for their audiences, they are not corporations, they are a lifestyle.
Lifestyle brands do more than achieve cult-like status among their followers. They successfully break away from the commodity space. They command a price and loyalty premium unavailable to competitors.
And the secret sauce? After researching and following so many of these brands, including those that have had success on a humbler stage, such as Harley-Davidson, Whole Foods and Ralph Lauren, it has become apparent that there is none. No amount of imitation in the way these companies look, talk or act can transform an everyday organization into a lifestyle brand. However, several major themes have consistently emerged in the way these companies operate market and think about their businesses that are worth putting into practice:
Stand for something specific
Have a defined identity and corporate narrative that your employees can strive to exemplify and customers and investors can believe in. Invest in the time and resources to really understand what your company stands for and where it is headed, as well as what drives your stakeholders to action. Building authentic and ownable thought leadership platforms from that narrative can help get your story told by the influencers, but then you need to reinforce that mission consistently by creating the same experience in everything you do: in store and out, online and in person, on Main Street and on Wall Street.
Everyone loves a good story. We connect and learn through them; they can help humanize even the most esoteric of topics. However, how you tell yours and who tells it means the difference between empty noise and building authentic relationships with key audiences. Take Nike for instance: its 1977 ad campaign was revolutionary for its time, many called it “risky,” even “crazy.” The first of its kind, it featured zero actual Nike products, and it was all centered around the art of storytelling and creating an emotional connection with its audience around hope for what they could accomplish – as athletes and as people, punctuated by the “Just Do It” tagline that has become an iconic, cultural mantra of motivation for everything from climbing Mount Everest to climbing the corporate ladder.
The key is to think about what people want to hear, what motivates them and shape your communications strategically around that.
Are you shuttling people from point A to point B or are you enabling a great travel experience? Are you selling technology that brings Wi-Fi to a stadium or are you making it possible for hundreds of thousands of people to stay connected no matter where they are?
Every corporate story starts with a mission. Find ways to get people excited about yours.
Nobody wins by following the crowd
Don’t be afraid to be unconventional – culturally or otherwise. Distinguish your company from competitors by encourage new standards and “best practices” by looking outside the industry – who does it well in general? Where are all the thought leaders on topic X, Y or Z convening? Thinking beyond the category can help employees focus on excelling in key areas like customer service and innovation no matter what gadget or offering they’re supporting. It will also help to reshape the way you think about and approach strategies fornew products, experiences and communications that build your reputation as a leader.
Stay true. If it deviates, don’t do it
Because all associations echo your brand and can have a significant impact on your corporate reputation, mandate a laser-focus on associating yourproducts, partnerships, services and offerings with thesocial and cultural aspirations of your targetaudiences. You can only do this by making understanding the wants and needs of your stakeholders a corporate priority. Building new products, services and innovations around insights will provide a framework for all decision-making.