The Real Thing

The real thing: how brands search for meaning

In Ideas by Peter Gearin

When companies talk about being ‘relevant’, ‘trusted’ or ‘authentic’, what are they actually saying?

A brand story is no longer like the top coat of gloss paint applied at the last moment to make the surface shinier and more immediately attractive. It’s the undercoat that often nobody sees, but which allows the brand to endure.
— Bernadette Jiwa

Brand is no longer about the label you see on the can. In the digital age, customers have a different relationship with the companies they may choose to engage with. Authenticity, purpose, trust and personalisation … these are the things that are said to define successful 21st century brands and the way they try to lure customers.

Melbourne-based marketing author, consultant and blogger Bernadette Jiwa says branding itself has fundamentally changed over the past few decades. In a recent blog post, she argues that branding was an “identifier” 40 years ago – it was what companies did to a product or service after it was created. Back then, local and global businesses capitalised on clever design, copy and advertising (in the mass media), and told brand stories that were intended to make products more visible and memorable. Think of the classic Coke bottle shape or TV ads depicting petrol that put a “tiger in the tank”.

These days, she says, branding is a promise. It’s why customers feel an affinity with a product or service – it gives them a reason to believe in it and invest in it. She says modern brands need to be “purpose-driven” and that the branding process “begins from the inside out”.

This is her list of how branding objectives have changed:

Awareness Affinity
Attention Alliance
Authority Trust
Majority Individuals & tribes
Average Edges
Profit Purpose
Dominance Relevance
Outside in Inside out
Shareholder value Customer-centric
Single bottom line Triple bottom line

Jiwa has an uncommon ability to communicate with power and brevity. She has written books (such as Fortune Cookie Principle and Meaningful: The Story of Ideas That Fly) that are short on pages but long on wisdom. The same goes for her regular blog – The Story of Telling – which typically measures just three or four paragraphs but features boundless insights into marketing’s soul.

Unlike many marketing missives, The Story of Telling shuns adjectives and frippery. It tells truths, and Jiwa uses words persuasively. Smart Company named it Australia’s best business blog for 2016.

Jiwa says it’s not just branding that has changed. Brand stories have needed to evolve to reflect the changing nature and function of the goods and services businesses produce. “Stories have always been a way to increase awareness, communicate value and create desire with the objective of reaching the most people,” she says. “Today, the best brand stories also demonstrate values, giving people not just reasons to choose, but a reason to belong.

“Twenty-first century brands are purpose-driven. They have a reason to exist beyond making a profit, and they no longer aim to appeal to average or everyone – which means storytelling is more nuanced.”

The purpose ‘myth’

Michel Hogan is happy to be called a maverick. The independent brand thinker, adviser and weekly Smart Company columnist agrees with Jiwa on the changing nature of how brands communicate with audiences, and that technology has made it more personal. She says the tools to reach audiences have changed but the concept of “brand” hasn’t. She is particularly sceptical about the idea of “purpose”.

“There’s a whole movement out there about the ‘purpose-driven’ brand,” Hogan says. “I take huge exception to that one. I don’t think businesses have ever operated without purpose – it’s just that a lot of people didn’t like the purpose.

“Purpose has become a proxy for some kind of self-congratulatory goodness. It’s like ‘authentic’. Like, if you’re authentic, you’re ‘good’. Well, no – you can authentically be a dirtbag. I think people need to be a bit more deliberate and conscious about how they talk about this stuff. It’s just like how companies have for some time been doing a bit of ‘green-washing’ [around issues such as sustainability]; I think there’s a bit of ‘purpose-washing’ going on at the moment.”

Hogan believes brand is the result of the promises a business keeps, as opposed to something it creates. “There’s an idea out there that brand is this act of creation,” she says. “That’s why the advertising and marketing guys get involved, right? But in fact it’s an organisational act to build a brand.”

Companies that build strong brands are very deliberate in how they do this, she says. But it’s much more that slapping on a new logo or telling an earnest brand story.

“It comes back to ‘what is your core identity as an organisation?’,” Hogan says. “What is your purpose? What are your values? Understand what they are, make sure they’re true – don’t pretend you’re something you’re not – and go from there. You need to be willing to question: ‘Is this what we stand for?’ ‘Is this who we want to be?’ I make no judgements on what that should be.”

Hogan cites cosmetics business Lush and software giant Atlassian as Australian companies that have created strong brands by being true to their principles and communicating this to their customers authentically.

“I think they [Lush] work really hard to tell a story that’s coherent and consistent,” she says. “They think really deeply about how they do things and what their partnerships are, and they’re really thoughtful and deliberate about what they do. They get ‘down into the corners’. Any number [of companies] do the surface stuff OK but there’s relatively few that shine a light into places they don’t want to look.

“I’ve followed [Atlassian] from really early days and they have been remarkably consistent and coherent in telling their story.”

Hogan says getting the brand story straight is more than just about alignment – it’s about harmony. “Make sure that what you’re doing over here in this part of the business isn’t undermining what you’re doing over there,” she says. “They might be both beautifully aligned but horribly out of sync.

“To me, successful companies start with that strong, deeply held idea of what they stand for and what they’re about and reflect that in everything they do. It’s not an annual off-site, it’s a daily practice. When you do that, you will build a strong and resilient brand that people will care about, over time. And this is a constant process; an evolution.”

Local brand duds

So how are Australian companies performing when it comes to telling meaningful brand stories? It seems customers believe they still have a lot of work to do.

In delivering its most recent global Meaningful Brands survey, media company Havas Group reported that only two in five companies do a good job contributing to the overall quality of life of their customers. Even worse, three in five produced content that consumers thought was “poor”, “irrelevant” or fails to deliver on brand promises.

This is a problem because Havas says it found a 71 per cent correlation between “content effectiveness” and a brand’s impact on the personal wellbeing of customers. It says the more meaningful a brand becomes, the better its business results.

It’s worth noting that the Meaningful Brands survey covers 33 countries, 300,000 people and 1500 brands. It’s also the first study to analyse and measure content effectiveness on this scale.

“If the nature and function of brands have changed, then the process for developing brands and brand stories must evolve, too.”Bernadette Jiwa

“Understanding the role of content in order to be a ‘meaningful brand’ has become more important than ever,” Havas’ chief strategy officer Imogen Hewitt says. “Brands need to connect to consumers through their content by fulfilling at least one of six key consumer demands – to be inspired, entertained, educated, informed, supported or rewarded.

“These expectations from consumers change from industry to industry, but at its core is relevance and authenticity. Does your content align with your brand and is it having the desired effect for your business? That is the question brands need to answer to continue to engage consumers.”

Globally, Havas Group found the average level of trust consumers had for brands was just 57 per cent. Australians trusted their brands even less. At an average of 25 per cent, it was lowest figure Havas Group recorded worldwide. For what it’s worth, Google, PayPal, ABC, Coles and Qantas were the best-performed Australian brands.

Havas Group CEO Yannick Bolloré says the poor results are a wake-up call for businesses across the globe. “The data is clear – brands must rapidly become better at seizing the opportunities that good content can offer or they, and the advertising community that supports them, will struggle to survive.”

Milking an engaged audience

Bernadette Jiwa says brands such as Cadbury, Coca-Cola, Visa and Hertz won big in the days of traditional advertising through being highly visible and becoming top of mind. She says old-style tactics are no longer enough to allow brands to endure.

“It’s not just what’s changed about consumers that brands need to be mindful of, but also what’s changed about how people shop, get information about products and experience brands in a digital world of infinite choices,” she says.

Jiwa says one Australian company that best demonstates the changing nature of branding is Black Milk Clothing. Started by a “bored, broke and rather cold” guy named James Lillis in 2009, the Brisbane-based company quickly became known for its stretchy leggings with colourful, wacky designs.

The company proudly exclaimed: “Give me nylon or give me death!” It produced a catsuit showing the musculoskeletal system, a swimsuit featuring Star Wars character C-3PO and leggings with Batman and Lord of the Rings themes and Dr Who’s Tardis on each thigh. Soon celebrities such as Whoopi Goldberg and Kimbra and bloggers were raving about Black Milk. It now has a range of women’s clothing that it sells online, employs hundreds and has committed customers across the world.

It’s a great, homemade business success story, and it all started with a young guy with $6, a second-hand sewing machine and a dream. Now Black Milk Clothing sells an authentic fun message to the world online, as well as through Facebook (where it has about 700,000 likes and follows) and Instagram (1 million followers). The full story is on the Black Milk Clothing website. Its passionate customers share in its success.

What does Jiwa think it takes for a brand to succeed in 2017? “If the nature and function of brands have changed, then the process for developing brands and brand stories must evolve, too,” she says. “We must begin by prioritising affinity over awareness, trust over authority and customer-centricity over profits.”

Links & references

Bernadette Jiwa’s The Story of Telling blog

Michel Hogan’s ebook Between Making Money and World Peace: A Brand Blogthology on Purpose, Values and Keeping Your Promises on Amazon

Shopify’s article on Black Milk Clothing

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