Earlier this year, brand consultancy Millward Brown and former P&G global marketing officer Jim Stengel announced the "Stengel 50"--the 50 fastest growing brands worldwide.
Topping a list of over 50,000 brands across more than 30 countries, this special group is presumably doing something very right. According to the report, the commonality wasn’t, say, remarkable service or innovative products. That something was this: all 50 demonstrated a causal relationship between brand idealism and financial performance. Working in service of an ideal--a brand’s singular reason for being--was isolated as the “ultimate growth driver.”
Looking at the list, these "idealists" might seem like an odd bunch. Chipotle, certainly. But Louis Vuitton? IBM, of course. But Jack Daniel’s? Starbucks, sure. But Dove, too? Not all scream of sustainability stewardship or corporate citizenship. But above and beyond the buzzwords, each of the 50 brands listed has committed itself to some unequivocal ideal.
Those findings raise some questions. What does it mean to have an "ideal"? How does a sense of purpose drive business to such great heights? Where does a brand begin? The questions don’t suggest easy answers.
Ogilvy & Mather, the global marketing communications agency where I work, proposes a starting place: The big ideaL, an organizing principle designed to divine out a brand’s most relevant and honest sense of purpose--to guide the way it thinks and behaves. As the agency wrote then:
“An ideal … contains an inherent point of view: it is ‘a conception of something in its perfection’; a view of how things should be, of how life should be, of how the world should be. … It’s a belief system that drives everything a brand does and helps it to attract widespread support.”
A brand is forced to package that belief system, that view of how the world should be, into a single-minded sentence: “Brand X believes the world would be a better place if…” The output is simple enough; getting there is less so.
Discovering a big ideaL goes something like this: first, look inward. Take a very, very hard look at the brand’s best self. When the brand is at its best, what makes it that way? What authentic point of view has the brand historically brought to the marketplace? What has it stood for? Second, look outward. What critical conversation does the brand have a right to participate in? What is the most pertinent cultural issue the brand can legitimately address?
At the intersection of these two things--the brand’s best self and a cultural tension--you have yourself an ideal.
Take Dove, a brand that for decades has championed natural beauty, its historical best self. With a beauty industry that preys on the insecurities of women (only 2% of women, according to one global survey, think of themselves as beautiful), Dove has itself a very relevant cultural tension to address: building women up instead of tearing them down. Hence, its ideal: Dove believes the world would be a better place if women were allowed to feel good about themselves.
Or take Louis Vuitton, a brand that since the 19th century has symbolized the spirit of luxury travel. At its best, the brand makes traveling an extraordinary experience. But in the age of security lines and chaotic terminals, that special something of travel has escaped our expectations. So at the intersection of the brand’s best self and a poignant cultural tension, Louis Vuitton found a purpose in re-igniting the excitement of travel. Hence, its ideal: Louis Vuitton believes the world would be a better place if we lived life as an exceptional journey.
As evidenced by these brands’ campaigns, good ideals inspire good advertising. But idealism isn’t just a function of the communications department. Lots of brands flaunt "purpose-driven" advertising, but not all ended up on the Stengel 50. When an ideal works wonders, it does so because it rallies the entire enterprise behind a common purpose. The brand’s communications become an expression and extension of a deeply embedded belief system.
Articulating that belief system might seem a bit warm and fuzzy, like throwing your CEO into a poetry reading. It hasn’t traditionally been the job of business to speak about how things should be, to assume the role of delirious dreamers more fascinated by the world as it could be than the world as it is. Which is probably why we still don’t see too many idealists in the C-suite.
But there are some; and as the Stengel 50 suggests, they’re anomalously successful. Brands with ambitious growth in mind would do well to return to that most vexing, requisite question: “why should we exist?” And start from there.