How to create a living, human brand.


Is branding just about consistency? What element actually needs to remain constant? The static image of the company or the pattern that unifies its dynamic behavior?


The best brands sell self-actualization– the notion of achieving, growing and transcending limits. Instead of positioning their brand with a sense of “we are already there,” smart companies are beginning to make their brand the “trusted friend” that helps you on your path to greatness. Strive to be a peer rather than a just-out-of-reach ideal.

Smart brands are succeeding in the social economy not just by manicuring their image as that trusted friend, they are also providing real value. Showing is always more effective than telling.


Do Something Meaningful.

Follow the Money

Global spending on advertising is around $500 billion per year.  There is a huge opportunity to spend this on doing good stuff in the world- it would cost only $100-200 million per year to reduce deforestation in the Amazon rainforest to nearly zero within a decade.

Pepsi gave away $20 million to grassroots projects based on democratic voting through a social media campaign called Refresh. People would upload pitches for their project onto the platform, and rally support from the public, who would vote, and the top ideas each month would get funded.

Since Pepsi sells glorified sugar water, it can’t provide a meaningful experience based on its product. So they chose to re-purpose their advertising budget for democratic philanthropy and just plaster their logo all over the place, so Refresh campaigners would promote daily to Facebook with the Pepsi logo as the featured image by the link.


Providing a Service as Marketing

A level deeper than Pepsi’s slightly gimmicky Refresh project is Nike, who is strategically shifting its marketing efforts away from media advertising and toward providing actual services and real value to customers. To compliment its Nike+ suite of technology tools for measuring performance, Nike is using social media tools to help runners connect and support one another. Instead of charging for the use of this online community, Nike views this as a deep and valuable way to connect with customers, so they expense it as advertising.

At Nike, the Global Director for Brand connections recently said, “We want to find a way to enhance the experience and services, rather than looking for a way to interrupt people from getting to where they want to go.”


Invest in Customers Rather than Advertise to Them.

This page embodies simplicity rather than scavenging revenue.

The front page of Google has no advertisements. This is one of the highest-traffic properties on the internet, and yet Google is passing up hundreds of billions of dollars. Or are they? What Google is doing is actually building brand equity by giving you a break. That home page is the face of the brand, so they don’t want it cluttered and noisy. So actually, that front-page is not ad-free, quite the opposite, its one big ad for Google, that says, “we serve our users first and advertisers second.”

(Speaking of online advertising- if you’re trying to read a website, and an annoying pop-up ad comes up, your brain is creating an association between your brand and a feeling of annoyance. Nice job, marketing department.)


Tell a Real Story.

A brand is not how you formally present yourself to the public, that is the brand image. The real brand is in how people describe you to one another. Since your customers and stakeholders are the ones who generate your brand, it behooves you to engage them in dialogue, and allow them to help shape the story. Studies suggest that up to 90% of new product and process ideas are generated by customers,* you better be paying attention to what they say.

Ford rejuvenated its brand in Europe through the Fiesta economy car which was only available in Europe until 2010. In efforts to get the word out when the Fiesta was coming to North America, Ford loaned 100 Fiestas to bloggers that were already documenting their lives, and asked them to share stories of their Fiesta. Importantly, Ford gave them freedom of speech, even if that meant the bloggers saying they hated the car. By the time the Fiesta launched in 2010, it already had 60% name recognition among North Americans who had never even seen the car!


Nurture the community around your brand, not the ego of the brand.

Most of the videos made by the 100 bloggers don’t even mention the Fiesta; they just happen inside a Fiesta. In fact, the videos serve more as promotions for the bloggers than for Ford! In this way, Ford is championing its customers, not its own ego. It is building the brand through how its customers show and tell about their product.

This one of the Fiesta videos that is on the Ford website, that I would never have found otherwise. It’s a music video, and has a watermark for the production company for the duration of the video, and only at the very end has a quick URL to the Fiesta.

These examples may not land with you as your favorite companies in the world- but certainly they are some of the most recognizable. These companies are extremely self-conscious about their brand perception, and because they are smart, they are ditching conventional “advertising” wisdom. Hopefully, this is a sign of things to come, and companies will continue to ditch lame adverts and embrace authentic connection with their customers.


Be more human through your brand.

Be more than your logo.




Your Moment of Zen:

Tiny Story from Sebas & Clim on Vimeo.



*Peter & Donnelly, “A Preface to Marketing Management.” McGraw Hill, 2011. Page 130.