My first encounter with the idea of “brand” as something more than just a logo was during a summer internship at PBS. My desk was in a storage room made into a makeshift office within the broadcaster’s Alexandria, Virginia headquarters. This was long before Google Alerts, and every morning I would scan through a stack of newspapers from major cities across the US for news about anything PBS. One of my duties was to compile the daily press clippings, make copies of them, and deliver them to the organization’s executives and the marketing leaders who worked in my division, Brand Management.
The place was exactly as I imagined it would be, full of passionate people who believed fully in the mission of the organization and the powerful influence that television could have on education and the culture of this country. At a company meeting, the TV spot for the upcoming year’s campaign was unveiled, “Big Bird.” You’ve most likely seen it—Big Bird takes a little girl by the hand and the two friends head off on a tour of the world via PBS programming. When the lights in the meeting room came back on, everyone around me was wiping tears from their faces, including me. We all knew why we were there.
After graduation I eventually ended up with a proofreading position at a bona fide branding firm. I was in the system—albeit it at the bottom rung, poring over dozens of supermarket- and bodega-bound packaging SKUs a day. For a year I was assigned to one of the biggest consumer packaged goods brands in the world, a disposable diaper brand. Examining SKU after SKU, size after size, in languages that I didn’t even know, I made sure that nothing was misspelled and that all the “elements” of the brand were present and in their proper places: the logo, the trademarking, the sizing, and the photos of the diapers, which often had illustrations of a certain larger-than-life canary who lived on Sesame Street.
My memory of how I felt during that time of my career is an overwhelming sense of disconnect. The PBS brand, the essence of which was so perfectly captured in that Big Bird commercial, seemed to me to be about more than just promoting the network. It was about a shared vision for something better. It was about the power that arts, culture and education have to transform the perspectives of generations and create connections across demographics.
The system of branding that I was working in felt authoritarian and rote. For each type of diaper, there was a target consumer: the thrifty mom, the caring mom, the ambitious mom. Meticulously researched and painstakingly defined, every decision about the brand, its messaging and its design was based on the preferences and behaviors of these nameless, composited women. I, along with many of my team members at the time, was neither a mom nor expecting to be one, and there was nothing about this interpretation of motherhood that compelled me to join the club.
Within just a few years, driven by technological changes in the printing process, changing consumer expectations, and a growing awareness of the impact of packaging on the environment, branding for consumer packaged goods began to evolve rapidly. Production artwork, the bread-and-butter work of big design agencies (which had generated all the SKUs that I had cut my teeth proofing) was reassigned to more budget-friendly print shops. Consumers, bored with the once-iconic products they’d been fed for decades began to look for brands that matched their values and expressed their individuality, which they happily promoted via rapidly expanding social media platforms.
At the agency where I worked, I found others who like me, felt that as strategists, writers and designers, there was more we could and should be doing to create better brands that did a better job of serving the people who need and want to buy from them. The world was rich with startups across every category, from beer to transportation and even diapers. And these brands were breaking into the market with vision and originality. Could we not also summon the creativity within ourselves to inspire big brands—brands that were reaching millions across the globe—to deliver similar experiences to their consumers?
It was at about this time that a video started getting passed around the branding circles, Simon Sinek’s 2010 TED Talk, “Start With Why.” The idea is that the most successful brands understand why they do what they do. In other words, they understand their purpose. And if they’re really enlightened, that purpose drives every action and decision they make.
Sinek’s talk explained the disconnection I had experienced on so many of the brands I had worked on. So much time and effort had been spent on pinpointing the motivations and behaviors of that “target” consumer, that the motivations and behaviors of the people working behind the scenes on the brand had been undervalued and overlooked. There was a festering “us vs. them” mentality among the people working on the brands and the people the brands were trying to sell to: brand vs. consumer, agency vs. client.
In real life, outside of archery and darts, there is no fixed bulls eye. Audiences, customers and consumers are complicated, often irrational humans with rich inner worlds of worries, hopes and dreams. Just like you and me. They are constantly on the move, adapting their behaviors with the intent of moving the needle of progress for themselves, their families and their own businesses. They aren’t looking for your brand. You might not be on their radar. But, they are looking for someone or something that will help them make their lives better, in ways big and small.
And that’s where your purpose really matters. Your purpose is your point. It’s why you exist. If you want people to care about your brand, be excited by it, and even moved to tears by it, you’ve got to feel that way about it first. So does the rest of your team, your company, and everyone involved with it. Only then, when you’ve identified and are acting upon a purpose that transcends trends and competition, can you expect an audience to care about it, too.
At Intrinzic we begin our process by carefully listening to our clients to uncover the psychological and economic drivers behind what they do, how they do it, and the people they do it for. We identify a core set of attributes, and we define them in a way that uniquely captures the passion behind the purpose. From there, we build and unify all the different elements of the brand—the strategy, design and messaging—to bring that purpose to life in a way that connects the people inside the brand to the world outside. We want to know, what is your brand doing every day that leads to something better for the people it serves?
Photo credit: Greg Rakozy on Unsplash