Photo by Aarón Blanco Tejedor on Unsplash
Source: Photo by Aarón Blanco Tejedor on Unsplash

“If your brand doesn’t stand for something, then it’s not a brand worth working for.”

- Hannah Jones, Chief Sustainability Officer, Nike

Not every entrepreneur or creative, professional or business is driven by making a positive difference in other people's lives. But if you are, there's good news.

Trends and research point to people wanting more from businesses. Some new research also suggests that mission-centered brands not only are improving their bottom line. They’re also gaining a more genuine community loyalty, shifting our attitude about what branding is, and improving employees’ sense of purpose and productivity.

What we are and are not talking about

When we talk about the psychology of branding, we walk a fine line between manipulation and elevation. The same tools that can help people have truly valuable experiences also can suck people into snake oil. So, I offer these insights in this context with appreciation for those nuances.

Your brand is not a flashy logo or website. Those are only facets of branding.

Here are working definitions useful to put into context these trends and studies:

A brand is the total emotional experience someone has with you. “You” means all of your business’s touch points - your website & social media presence, technology, team interactions, partnerships, loyalty programs, customer support, product purchases, product use.

Apple’s brand is not its forbidden bitten fruit icon. It’s the whole feel of being part of something fun and it’s the unconscious pleasure of the way your fingers feel as they tap on the wireless keyboard and it’s the way you consciously feel when you engage with someone in customer support who actively problem solves with you.

Branding includes all of the means you employ to shape that emotional experience and deliver on a singular elegant promise. Consistently. Logos, websites, design features - those are subtle, pronounced elements of branding. They’re not your brand.

A brand story includes all of the branding elements that tell a cohesive, consistent narrative of you or your business over time about what your business does uniquely and why it matters for our times.

That last piece is critical: why it matters for our times

Without a clear understanding of why your business or corporation exists in our culture now - and how it contributes value to our culture in a meaningful, genuine way - other than to earn profits for shareholders or you, your business or personal brand lacks a complete brand story. It lacks a living mission. And it lacks the difference between inspiring real change or continuing business as usual.

The business and branding climate is different in the early 21st century than it was 40 years ago. That different climate makes new demands on brands.

How branding is changing now

I grew up in the early 1970s, a product of manipulative branding. I wanted cereal promoted by Tony the Tiger, a tricky rabbit, and a dancing leprechaun.

The best minds of Madison Avenue teethed on David Ogilvy’s philosophy. Ogilvy was an English salesman par excellence. His philosophy on copy writing and any form of advertising was simple and clear: Its sole purpose is to get people to buy what you’re selling. If it doesn’t achieve that end, all of the creativity in your advertising is for naught.

So, if a creative agency could create offensive mascots like the Frito Bandito and Frito Lay could dominate Saturday morning cartoon slots on ABC, NBC, and CBS to persuade me at 7 years old to beg my mother for Frito Lay’s Frito snack packs that she could conveniently slip into my Kellogg’s Lucky Charms lunch box, then that business and other businesses like it that could afford the best creative agencies won.

Fair enough. Ogilvy’s philosophy worked at least for the business-as-usual approaches to advertising in a world where the most effective and expensive advertising came in the form of television and radio commercials.

Branding, then, was based on illusions and fictional characters (Mr. Clean, Madge the Manicurist for Palmolive, Trix’s tricky rabbit, and Frosted Flake’s Tony the Tiger).

But the dominance of the tv-and-radio-centered world of advertising has passed. Not that commercials aren’t still creative and effective. But our cultural attitudes have shifted, and digital technology has changed the way we engage media and businesses.

And many businesses and professionals have not caught up from the 1990s.

We live in a time in which people are savvier to being manipulated, many of them are fed up with business-as-usual that treats people like abstract units of sale, and we’re seeing how businesses can actually contribute productively to our culture - beyond creating jobs and increasing the gross national product.

The trends I lay out here point to the fact that personal brands and organizational brands - and creative agencies - need people who are emotionally intelligent, imaginatively intelligent, and ethical.

Mission-driven brands can reverse cynicism.

Perhaps it’s no surprise that surveyed Americans lack confidence in trusting many American institutions. According to this 2016 Gallup poll, 18% of surveyed Americans have confidence in big business - the same percentage 10 years earlier. Confidence in newspapers dropped 11% points in 10 years, and confidence in organized religion dropped from 52% to 41% in 10 years.

I put these three - business, media, and religion - together because these institutions are the three cultural institutions that have the most influence in terms of where people go - consciously or not - to make meaning of their everyday lives and to have shared experiences.

With the increased distrust in media and religion, businesses have an opportunity not only for profit but for genuine purpose. With increased cynicism in institutions, businesses large and small have the opportunity to do better.

Businesses have the opportunity to create new business models that genuinely contribute cultural value and fulfill emotional needs while still being financially sustainable.

Consider Warby Parker’s socially conscious business model (started with a prototype experiment in Ecuador), REI’s risky mission-centered #OptOutside campaign to close its stores on Black Friday while paying 12,000 employees to encourage people to enjoy the outdoors instead of buy more, or airbnb’s Open Homes initiative that provides free short-term housing to thousands of people.

That Open Homes initiative reinforces Airbnb’s ideal - #BelongAnywhere.  

These new business models create genuine shared value - creating economic value while also creating substantive value to culture.

Mission motivates people who work for them.

The stats keep bearing the same truth: Workers, employees, and contractors are more loyal and more lit up when working for a company or endeavor that actually cares about principle as much if not more than pure profit.  

The Millennial generation is sometimes regarded as the purpose-driven generation, and marketers assume Millennials are especially drawn to purposeful brands - both as employees and as consumers. But a study initiated by LinkedIn with the research company Imperative turned up some more nuanced statistics in their report Purpose at Work.

As I reported in this article, “How to Seek Purpose with Less Anxiety,”

Here are some interesting statistics from that report:

85 percent of purpose-led companies showed positive revenue growth

42 percent of non-purpose led companies showed a drop in revenue

As much as media outlets report that Millennials uniquely want purposeful work, the survey pointed to an interesting trend: The older a generation, the more those people prioritized purpose overpay or prestige:

48 percent of baby boomers (those aged 51+)

38 percent of Gen Xers (aged 36-51)

30 percent of Millennials

It's not that Millennials don't prioritize purpose, but their life situation might make money naturally a greater priority.

Purpose, according to numerous studies in the past 20 years, turns out to be one of the top 3 employee motivations for top-performing companies, along with play and potential. Purpose relates to the feeling an employee has that the outcome and impact of her work aligns with her values and how she sees herself.

In the airline industry, employee motivation directly correlates with customer satisfaction. No surprise. We’ve likely all experienced delayed flights. If airline employees are short-tempered and disrespectful, chances are that attitude reflects the company’s internal culture. That’s one of the findings in Lindsay McGregor’s and Neel Doshi’s New York Times best-selling book Primed to Perform: How to Build the Highest Performing Cultures Through the Science of Total Motivation.

When you lead with your mission, especially in the the recruiting process, you attract team members who have an authentic passion for your mission, making them even more invested in your company and success. I write more about this correlation here.

Mission motivates ideal-centric founders.

But what about the founders themselves or people who work for themselves? When times are dark, anchoring back to your mission to make a difference will offer you as a business leader, entrepreneur, service provider, or founder a ray of light.

There are a variety of reasons why entrepreneurs and solopreneurs burn out, as this Psychology Today interview considers. Start-up founders, entrepreneurs, and solo-preneurs face a slew of daily challenges with uncertain outcomes.

Having a clearly articulated mission that drives your decisions, though, also can drive you to meet those challenges.

In 2000, Eric Ryan and Adam Lowry combined their respective passions for design and environmentalism into the mission-centered brand Method - a suite of household products manufactured and sold via a set of clear principles and values. According to former Proctor & Gamble chief marketing officer Jim Stengal’s research in his book Grow: How Ideals Power Growth and Profit at the World’s Greatest Companies, Ryan and Lowry faced numerous challenges while holding true to their ideals. But they did so. Ryan - who has since left Method to found Olly - said this about motivation at Method:

As human beings we all want to be part of something bigger than who we are and what we are. When you articulate an ideal and a cause, it gives people, including myself, the ability to do so much more. You’re so much more excited to jump out of bed and go to work when you’re doing something that improves people’s lives…. Everyone - founders, employees, partners we work with, consumers - finds it motivating that there’s this common ideal and common mission.

Mission-driven brands fare better than other brands.  

More studies keep pointing to the fact that such committed companies, small businesses, and even solo proprietorships end up profiting more than their strictly mercenary competitors over the long-term.

One study by the University of Southern California showed that 87% of millennials say that they base their purchasing decisions on whether or not a company makes positive social efforts.

IBM iX identified a cultural problem - a pervasive, eroding sense of belonging. They wondered what this erosion would do to people’s expectations of brands and how brands can respond productively.

IBM iX partnered with the research firm Ipsos to produce a comprehensive study on Brand Belonging. Brands that bring people together in meaningful ways had market gains 10% higher than those behind the curve.

Why? Not manipulation but elevation. 40% of 18-24 year olds say they’ve never had an emotional connection to a brand, and yet 55% of consumers say they would pay more for a better customer experience.

These companies - including airbnb and Marriott - are waking up to perform comprehensive internal re-branding to make their businesses more culturally relevant and to deliver better emotional experiences.

Kelly Mooney, IBM iX North America’s Chief Experience Officer, sums up the challenge to businesses this way: “[W]e can design better human experiences that are culturally relevant, drive revenue growth and inspire new business models.”

New business-as-unusual business models.

Havas Media Group also has publishes a comprehensive annual report that surveys 300,000 people around the globe on Meaningful Brands - “[b]rands that improve the well-being of people’s lives in a tangible, significant and fulfilling way.”

According to the report, only one if five brands worldwide meet that description. Yet, those brands that do fit that description not only contribute more value and meaning to the people they serve; they also outperform the stock market by 206%. The financial advantages, the report indicates, are “durable, sustainable and disruptive.”    

Elevate, don’t manipulate. We're demanding more from businesses.

If Americans are losing trust in institutions such as newspapers and organized religion - and their confidence in big business remains at only 18%, then there is an opportunity for businesses and brands of all sizes - from the solo-preneur to the mega-corporation - to step up and do business-as-unusual.

More people want brands not only that they can trust. They want brands that lead on principle, that lead with their ideals, and that genuinely contribute to the culture we live, work, and exchange value in.

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