Selling a Lie

Tiger Woods was once the epitome of the all-round American good guy. He was a devoted family man, uber-successful sports star, and brand figurehead for the likes of Nike, Accenture and TAG Heuer. He’d won a total of 71 official PGA Tour events, including 14 majors, and was hailed as the world’s most marketable athlete.

But in 2009 things changed. Tiger crashed his Cadillac into a fire hydrant, yards from his Florida home. The crash set in motion a chain of revelations, in which fans learnt that Tiger had been a very naughty boy; cheating on his wife with over a dozen women, ranging from porn stars to cocktail waitresses.

Authentic Brand Positioning - Tiger WoodsCritics argued that Tiger should be given his privacy just like any other individual. However, the problem was he wasn’t just a regular guy, he was a $1 billion brand; an aspirational product in the public-eye that represented an ideal that so many believed in. Woods had sold out, making millions from advertising endorsements for General Motors, American Express, Electronic Arts, Gillette, and Gatorade. Whether he liked it or not, he was public property.

The Tiger Woods brand was built as much on his wholesome reputation as a clean-living family man as his sporting prowess. What transpired is that we’d been sold a brand that represented something very different to what we were led to believe. We’d been sold a lie.

The Power of Authentic Brand Positioning

Regardless of whether it’s a personal, B2B or B2C brand, authenticity has never been more prevalent. For years, marketing has been about manipulation; getting an audience to act in your favour through the use of various offers, discounts and aspirational messages. But things have changed. People don’t trust advertising anymore. And consumers now have a voice thanks to the power of social media. As the world continues to evolve, standing for something authentic is becoming more and more important.

Authenticity starts with understanding what’s at the core of a business – its purpose, meaning, or cause. It goes deeper than just the products or services it sells, to actually the reason behind why the company exists. Many brands make the mistake of looking to what’s hot in the market to guide their messaging or mission. In my mind this is topsy turvy. Authenticity comes from what you believe first. Not what you think your market wants you to believe.

Take music as an example. The most successful artists don’t change their style to suit what’s popular in the market at any given time – this would be compromising what they believe. Acts like KISS, Prince, Lady Gaga, and Bob Marley are instantly recognisable by the consistency of the music they produce. They all have people that love them and people that hate them, but that’s what makes them successful. They ignore the haters, and just concentrate on pleasing the people that believe what they believe. They stay true to themselves – and that’s what makes them authentic.

I’m not saying that brands shouldn’t keep up with consumer demand, of course they should. The key is to understand the key purpose and belief behind the brand, and then use the products and services they create as proof of that belief.

Trust in business is at an all-time low. And we wonder why. Tricking or manipulating consumers into buying a product might work once, but it’s certainly not going to bring them back begging for more. More importantly, thanks to the social revolution they now have the power to tell their friends how much a brand sucks, and their friends friends … You get the picture.

Your Weapon is your Story

Many business gurus will bang on about the importance of a business having a “USP” – a unique selling point, or unique selling proposition. The challenge here is that we are living in a world where anyone can do whatever you are doing cheaper, faster, or better. If you have a USP or first-movers advantage, it’s not going to be exclusive for very long.

The one thing that nobody can copy is your story. Yet so many organisations attempt to build their brand based on the features and benefits of their product. This isn’t brand. This is product comparison. Brand is a feeling, and feelings are based on emotion. Brand is the thing that makes people queue outside an Apple store overnight. Brand as Kevin Roberts from Saatchi would say is “loyalty beyond reason”.

Every single one of us has our own unique story – our background, where we’ve come from, the events that have helped shape or influence us. By bringing this story to life, and telling it in a way that connects the consumer to our cause helps create an emotional bond that leads to real brand affinity.

The key here is to bring your authentic self to the forefront of your brand, to humanise it and allow the consumer to connect with your mission and cause – the thing you are trying to change in the world, not just your product. When we understand what is driving a company beyond just profit, remarkable things start to happen. Employees become more committed and energised, exceptional talent queues up to work for you, and customers line up to buy from you.

Think about what makes you tick. What is the purpose of your brand? Why does it exist, and what is it trying to change? What was the reason behind establishing the business in the first place? Think about life events that have had a pivotal impact. Are they part of the reason you do what you do?

Your Customer is the Hero

Once you have a clear idea of your purpose in the world, this needs to come to life through the services you provide and the products you create. They need to serve as the proof of what you believe. As I preach to people every day, the one thing that will kill your brand is inconsistency. The minute your audience feels that what you are producing is a piece of tactical marketing, and not the reason why you company exists, doubt sets in and the whole thing starts to unravel.

Many organisations tell their story in terms of what they are, not by the benefit that they provide to their customer. Smart brands recognise that the customer needs to be the hero – they need to identify themselves in your story – connecting to what it is you believe. Whatever quest you are on, whatever gap in the market you have identified, your story not only needs to be authentic, but it also needs to invite the prospect into it – they need to see themselves as one of you – like the Harley Davidson rebel, or the Apple change maker.

What we Buy is a Reflection of Us

For most organisations, the products they produce are simply utilitarian in function. They offer nothing for their audience to connect to, apart from features or function. These are the brands that are constantly fighting for survival, manipulating customers with price drops and interruption marketing.

The more we understand the authentic story behind a brand, the more likely we are to choose it over its competitor – if it connects to what we believe. The product choices we make are a statement of who we are. They reveal our values to others – or at least what we want other people to perceive our values to be. Therefore, the more faceless a brand and the less it reveals about its purpose, the harder it is for people to connect with it on an emotional level.

Apple has always been clear about its purpose in the world – it “challenges the status quo”, and “thinks different”. Therefore, if you are one of the “crazy ones” and if you “think differently” to everyone else, then you buy Apple. Have you ever noticed how the Apple logo on the case of a MacBook faces the person opposite when the lid is raised? Most other manufacturers have their logo so it faces the user when the lid is closed. Apple isn’t stupid. This brand continues to have such astronomic success because they understand the power of self-reflection.

The only reason a product becomes a commodity is because it fails to provide the customer with a sense of identity. Take the smoothie market. There were plenty of manufacturers producing smoothies when Innocent came along. Innocent didn’t invent putting crushed fruit into a bottle and serving it as a drink. But right from the start, they were clear on their mission – “to help busy people live healthier lives”. Therefore, customers saw themselves in their story – “I’m busy!” people yelped .. “I want to be healthier!” And the products flew off the shelves. Customers merrily walked around, proudly drinking from their Innocent bottle – displaying to all around them what they believed.

Innocent didn’t define themselves by their product, they defined themselves by their cause – and they told their story with the customer as the hero. Customers bought their drinks in droves because they wanted to tell the world what they believed. This purpose-driven strategy based on an authentic belief, has allowed them to diversify from drinks to now selling ready-meals in “Innocent Veg Pots”. This doesn’t feel weird, or opportunistic, because we identify with their cause. It’s simply serving as further proof of what they believe.

We want others to see us as we see ourselves. Therefore, the purchase decisions we make are an extension of what we believe. The brands that get our money are the ones that allow us to demonstrate to the world that we are part of that tribe.

Inside Out. Not Outside In

So many companies waste thousands, if not millions of pounds every year reinventing their brand “identity”. This is like redressing the person, without any consideration for their personality or soul. Logos, straplines, websites and advertisements can make a difference to short-term tactical revenue. But they are only the clothing when it comes to building strong brand affinity. That comes from understanding the purpose, beliefs and cause behind why a business exists.

Has Harley Davidson ever altered what it stands for? Has Apple? Has Innocent? Has Zappos? No. All these brands understand what makes them great, and they use this like a guiding beacon against everything that they do. Sure their products change, but their purpose never does – it unites employees, customers, partners and suppliers under one core, universal goal.

To grow a successful brand in today’s world it needs to be authentic, transparent and based on a higher belief than just cash. The brands of tomorrow will be the ones that are built inside-out, not outside-in.