Brand Purpose: The Competitive Advantage Second-Stage Companies Need to Win 2021

Purposeful second-stage companies are more likely to grow and scale in 2021 and beyond following industry disruption caused by the global COVID-19 pandemic. Research suggests that consumer expectations are changing, and consumers now expect brands to be meaningful problem-solvers. The main advantage that these challenger brands have in common: brand purpose.

In every recession, there is opportunity.

For the goliaths, opportunity means digging into deep pockets and outspending weaker rivals (or purchasing them). For challenger brands, opportunity means outthinking and outpacing the larger, slower, more unfocused competition.

The second-stage challenger brands that will win 2021 (across all industries and markets) have a competitive advantage in common: brand purpose.

Before crunching the numbers on business model adjustments with your leadership team, answer these two questions together:

  1. Why do you exist?
  2. Who are you built to serve?

Use these questions as a compass. In 2021, purposeful second-stage companies will get ahead by taking these actions:

  • Making focused pivots. Purposeful second-stage companies will make nimble business model adjustments informed by “why” and “who,” creating exponential value for their customers – gaining new traction in the marketplace faster than their slow-moving, enterprise-level counterparts. 

  • Following through with brand purpose. These companies understand that purpose in the business model must follow through into branding to yield sustainable, long-term results like market share and brand loyalty. Their brand positioning will resonate with their prioritized (one) primary target customer and communicate their value effectively. 

Purpose-driven organizations pivot more effectively.

“Organizations that know why they exist and who they’re built to serve are uniquely positioned to navigate unprecedented change.”
Deloitte – 2021 Global Marketing Trends: Find Your Focus

Purpose-driven organizations arguably have a stronger competitive advantage now than any other time in our generation. As Deloitte points out in its 2021 report, “why” you exist and “who” you exist to serve ultimately take precedence over “what” you sell during times of economic and cultural transformation.

When “why” and “who” inform every decision you make, your adjustments in times of turbulence are much more likely to be successful. This is really an exercise in alignment. You avoid disconnects between you and your primary target customer, and you don’t lose sight of what sets you apart from the other brands around you jockeying for position.

Keep in mind that your customers do notice the adjustments you make, in real time. Fifty-eight percent of respondents to Deloitte’s study could recall at least one brand that quickly pivoted to better respond to their needs, and eighty-two percent said this led to them doing more business with the brand.

What does brand purpose mean for small businesses?

At Six-Point, we often field the question: how does a small company live out a “big” purpose? The Deloitte study provides a helpful example of purpose being tied to action by Ella’s Kitchen, a mid-sized baby and toddler food brand much smaller than many of its behemoth category competitors.

The Ella’s Kitchen brand purpose:
Create healthy eating habits that will last a lifetime.

How Ella’s Kitchen enacts its brand purpose, beyond selling products:

  • Providing resources to educate parents and givers about healthy eating.

  • Donating products to underserved children around the world.

  • Committing to an ethically sourced supply chain.

It’s not too late to become a purposeful brand.

As The Marketoonist Tom Fishburne points out with the help of a quote by brand strategist Tom Roach, “if being purposeful means doing ads to you, you’re doing it wrong.”

Roach also differentiates between two types of purposeful brands: some brands are “born purposeful,” clear about their purpose at launch, while others are “corporate converts,” re-orienting their businesses around a purpose along the way.

It’s not too late to become a purposeful brand if you’re not there yet. The only prerequisites to becoming a “corporate convert” are authenticity, and a willingness to commit to strategic, long-term work ahead. Injecting more purpose into an existing brand requires substantial change management. It’s also worth the investment.

If your business has purpose that’s getting lost, we can help your leadership team begin the realignment process:

  • Our Build Your Brand Strategy workshop guides leadership teams to begin aligning their business purpose with their branding and marketing decisions.
  • Together, we uncover what’s holding your brand back, prepare you to make smarter decisions with your limited resources, and put an actionable road map into place for building better connections with your target customers.
Customers expect you to solve problems.

In today’s world, consumers look to businesses as problem-solvers, which indicates they’re actively seeking brands with purpose. The pandemic has accelerated this trend.

  • In the Edelman 2021 Trust Barometer, consumers ranked business as the only societal institution that’s both competent AND ethical.
  • 68 percent of consumers also believe CEOs should step in when the government does not fix societal problems.
Customers also expect brands to use their platform to speak up about their values.
  • 66 percent of consumers believe that brands who speak out can facilitate real change, and 67 percent say that brands are effective at increasing awareness of issues when they use their platforms, especially social media (Sprout Social 2019 Brands Get Real report).

These trends aren’t new, but they are growing, and the impact is now felt by brands of all sizes — not just enterprise-level household names. Consider the following:

  • The assertion that consumers only expect the most culturally relevant brands (the likes of Nike, Ben & Jerry’s, and Apple) to further the dialogue on social issues is a misconception. Edelman’s 2019 Trust Barometer found that 53 percent of consumers agree that every brand should get involved in at least one social issue that does not directly impact its business.
  • Brand activism is an opportunity to build long-term brand trust from your market by demonstrating transparency and authenticity. Nine in ten consumers are more likely to give brands who are highly transparent second chances after bad experiences, and 85 percent are more likely to stick with them during crises.
  • Your brand can mitigate risk and still find its voice, reaping the benefits of the opportunity.
  1. Start with issues relevant to your business operations, your employees, and your customers to avoid being met with skepticism.
  2. Take the time to learn which issues are most important to your customers. The Brands Get Real report found that when consumers agree with a brand’s stance, 37 percent will refer that company to their friends and family and 36 percent will buy more from that brand.
  3. Assess each opportunity to speak on social issues before taking action. Harvard Business Review published a helpful three-question framework you should use to determine if you can make an impact on an issue, and if you’ll be aligned with your customers.

Committing to authentic diversity and inclusivity in your marketing and advertising creative will also have similar long-term effects.

  1. Authenticity goes beyond simply “checking a box.” A report by Stackla found that when brands made work that gave dimension to people beyond gender or skin color stereotypes, they were met with a 15 percent rise in consumer perception.
  2. Diverse, inclusive marketing is a long-term commitment. It’s not a one-campaign or even one-year initiative.
  3. Take the time to exhaustively reflect on your creative. The World Federation of Advertisers’ 2020 guide, A marketer’s approach to diversity and inclusion, has examples of the questions change-making leading brands are asking themselves.
  4. Talking the talk (in advertising) is most effective when you’re walking the walk internally, too. Align company culture to the same values you’re going to push out into the marketplace.
Live into and articulate your purpose better than ever before.

The good news is…

If your company has grown beyond start-up phase, you likely have some degree of purpose in your DNA. Most companies don’t make it this far. You’re doing something with purpose.

At this stage, the questions are:

  • Is there a disconnect between your perception of your company’s purpose, and the experience customers have with your brand?
  • Is your purpose omnipresent throughout your operations and culture, or is it siloed to certain departments and leadership roles?
  • Are you getting “credit” with your customers and prospective customers for your purpose and value, or are you a “best kept secret?”
If you are ready to amplify your purpose, and make it a sustainable, long-term strategy, you are ready for our Solve for Y program. In it, we:

  • Align your team, your positioning, and your messaging. 

  • Uncover hidden assets in your existing brand. 

  • Avoid confusion, customer loss, and team frustration by guiding you through proven step-by-step communication and engagement plans. 

How To Plan With So Much Uncertainty

Highly detailed 12-month marketing plans are a thing of the past. You need a more agile way to plan your marketing activity that still allows you to think ahead, but also is built to be responsive to changes in your business and the market.

Enter the marketing road map. This version of agile planning can be accelerated or decelerated as needed. It can help you evaluate new opportunities, as well as the effectiveness of past activity. The only failure with it would be to execute it exactly the way it was planned.

Remember all of that time and effort you spent planning last November? If you were like us and our clients, you were probably feeling excited about the potential of your spreadsheets and calendars. This is going to be a big year! It seems laughable now to think about it.

Whether 2020 has meant opportunity or heartache for you, you didn’t plan it.

As we stare down 2021 with all of its uncertainty, how the heck do we plan? But if we don’t plan, how will we capture opportunity quickly enough to compete?

At Six-Point, we’ve been developing some techniques that hit that sweet spot between agility and planning. Lately, we find that a “map” feels more appropriate than a “plan.” After all, we know that in plotting any kind of route, there are always variables. You can speed up or slow down. You can take a side trip to check out something else of interest. You can plot a detour if there is a roadblock of some kind. 

But you don’t have to give up on the destination. When you are building out a marketing road map, there are a few critical features that make it different from a traditional marketing plan.

  • Old rule: You set a budget/plan and track variances to it throughout the year.

New rule: You build in the ability to handle frequent and substantial changes. Our road maps assume that the leadership team is revisiting and revising planned activity and expenditures at least quarterly, and doing so in the context of the market and the company’s performance. These conversations are held with the expectation of change… scanning for it, and embracing it, instead of seeing it as a failure. The biggest fail in the mapping mindset would be to execute everything exactly as it was laid out, as it probably means there was a missed opportunity along the way.

  • Old rule: You make annual, predictable commitments to vendors, media, and internal stakeholders.

New rule: You allocate resources in a flexible way to respond to emerging opportunities. This flows naturally out of the quarterly revisions, but it needs to be stressed. You need to keep plenty of “dry powder” (as one of my clients likes to say) in 2021. This doesn’t mean that you are thinking about a marketing budget as a potential resource to fund operations (obviously, it happens, but you don’t want that mindset). It means that you aren’t earmarking every dollar of the budget, or locking it all down with contracts that can carry penalties. Instead, you are thinking about your marketing budget as a combination of “infrastructure” spends (the basics you need to make your strategy successful), and “opportunity” spends (resources that you will use to propel the company forward).

  • Old rule: You spend a lot of time and energy having stakeholders review and revise budget line items and timing spreadsheets.

New rule: You invest quality time in conversations that develop and internalize strategy. Again, this is a natural outflow of the other two. In order to be able to execute on a marketing road map effectively, your team needs to know three things:

1. where you are now

2. where you are going

3. what you can’t or won’t do

You don’t spend time on spreadsheets and line items. You spend time making the destination crystal clear for your team (including a conversation about how you will know when you get there…what you will see, what you will hear, what you will feel). You also need to make sure that people clearly know where the guardrails are. Your company’s strategy will determine any DO NOTS for your team, and if those are clearly shared alongside a clear goal, then spotting opportunities, responding quickly, and allocating resources efficiently will be infinitely easier. I have been pleasantly surprised with the number of “feasibility studies” our team has been called on to perform over the past two months. This means that people are valuing a “no” answer as much as they value a “yes” answer, which is the most critical part of any strategy. You need to know what not to do. It’s not as fun as a yes, perhaps, but it is also much more valuable.

“Strategy is not what you’re going to do. That’s Planning. Strategy is what you’re not going to do.”

– Patty McCord, Former Chief Talent Officer, Netflix

  • Old rule: Marketing is a department with a siloed budget and siloed success metrics.

New rule: Building a marketing road map is a collaborative, engaging, and energizing process for the whole organization. The annual planning and budgeting process is a soul-sucking one. But planning a trip? That is exciting! I love looking at maps, plotting routes, seeing potential stops along the way, and anticipating the experiences we’ll have along the way. What if your 2021 marketing plan had that kind of energy around it? It can.

Want help to apply these new rules of marketing planning to your team? Check out our new workshop in which I’ll work alongside your team to build out your 2021 marketing road map.

Or contact us and we can do the heavy lifting for you. Our strategists can do intake and research and deliver you a strategy and a road map in a few weeks so your team can focus on keeping things running.

There have been no easy or painless lessons in this pandemic, but I do believe that small and mid-sized businesses are capable of embracing the sweet spot between uncertainty and data, between agility and planning. And if we do, we can turn it into an incredible competitive advantage.

Moments When Brand Strategy Becomes Mission Critical

Moments When Brand Strategy Becomes Mission Critical

As companies grow and scale, there are points in the business lifecycle when clearly articulating a brand strategy is critical to success. Brand strategy provides clarity and consistency to customers and employees. When companies prepare for a merger, a new market entry, or building out a marketing department for the first time, this clarity and consistency is an indispensable tool.

I’m a brand strategist, so in my book, brand is always a critical component of a business. When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail, right?

That said, I also specialize in advising “second-stage” businesses. These are companies who have had significant periods of organic growth. They often have flourished for years without ever paying much attention to their brand and marketing strategy. 

However, when they come to us, something has changed. What got them to where they are will not get them to their next level. A strategic approach to brand and marketing is no longer a nice-to-have. 

Below are the common scenarios when a clearly articulated brand strategy becomes mission critical for second-stage businesses:

  • A pivot or growth opportunity in a new market. Brand strategy is critical here because established companies have something to lose. They have current customers who need to be served and often dozens of employees who need to stay busy. Chasing opportunities without a clear and consistent way to communicate what is going on, both internally and externally, is a recipe for disaster.
  • A merger or acquisition. This is a point when companies can waste tremendous resources, either by not respecting the equity in existing brands or overestimating brand equity. Do you keep the old brands? Combine them? Ditch them? Making these decisions emotionally can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars in wasted activity and squandered opportunity.
  • A new CEO. In second-stage companies, a new CEO often means the transition from owner/founder to a seasoned industry leader. This is usually done to reinvigorate an organization’s potential. The new CEO will often have an evolved vision for the company, and will need to be able to translate how the company’s past connects to this new future. The clarity and consistency that a strong brand strategy provides will answer internal and external questions, quell fears, and create next-level opportunities.
  • Building out a marketing department for the first time. It’s very beneficial to already have a clearly articulated brand strategy, brand language, and some brand standards before you build out a substantial internal team. Doing this work first means that the leadership team will better understand the skillsets they need to bring in house. They will also be able to attract more seasoned and expert talent that can drive the organization forward. If potential employees can see and feel the vision for the brand, they can better understand how they fit into the future picture.

If you are facing any one of these pivotal moments in your company, brand strategy can bring clarity, confidence, and efficiency to your next move. 

Lastly, if you need expert guidance to walk you through the basics of crafting a brand strategy, check out our new custom workshop, Build Your Brand Strategy. Over two sessions, we will work with your leadership team to achieve three goals. Evaluate your opportunities. Demystify branding best practices with some simple tools, and let you benefit from our years of experience working with companies who have faced the same questions, challenges, and turning points.

Hate the Marketing Plan, Not the Strategy

Meghan Lynch, CEO of Six-Point Creative, has some leadership lessons from her experience in ultrarunning that can apply to the discipline of brand strategy. Now companies that are looking to grow and scale can learn from these tips for building an enduring brand.

I sat in on a Harvard Business webinar the other day with Roger Martin. As soon as I saw his first slide, he had me.

“I hate strategic planning and strategic plans. But I love strategy.” Amen, Roger.

While I was nodding along with much of what Martin was saying, a few key points particularly resonated.

Roger’s rule #2 of strategic planning is: strategy is not about perfection, it is about rigor and creativity. You need to dive into the complexity of the present, analyze it, understand it. But at the same time, you need to use creativity to plan for a future that does not exist. He argues that the most important question in developing a strategy is not what is true? But what would have to be true?

Martin also argues that you need to have a strategic plan that is simple, clear, and elegant. Until you can make your strategy “Sesame Street simple,” he says, your planning work is not yet done.

These tensions between present and future, complexity and simplicity, rigor and creativity, are also the building blocks of a truly successful brand strategy.

For most businesses, marketing plans are built on complexity, on the analytics of the past, and on the capabilities we currently have, not what our customers need, or how they want to interact with our brand. A true brand strategy understands the complexity, but doesn’t remain mired in it. It looks at the brand from the outside in, from the customer’s point of view, and uses that as a framework for growth.

Above all else, your brand strategy should demonstrate possibility and simplicity. This is one of the main reasons why Six-Point’s Solve for Y brand development program culminates in two key products:

  • A “Sesame Street simple” marketing plan with 3-7 annual goals along with 90 days of tactical activity to make progress toward those goals.
  • A book that brings the aspirations for the brand to life in simple, clear language and compelling visuals.

No binders. No spreadsheets. Just clarity…leading to action.

And this action is key. Strategy is not an annual event. It is not a documented plan. Strategy is a series of choices, followed by action, followed by reflection. It is an ongoing discipline.

That’s why I, too, can hate strategic plans, but love strategy. One is analysis paralysis and a focus on the allocation of limited resources. The other is relentless forward progress toward an imagined, abundant future.

Five Things Running 50 Miles Taught Me About Brand Strategy

Six-Point’s CEO, Meghan Lynch, ran the Vermont 50 miler in 2014. A race of that length pushes people to their limits, so it isn’t surprising that she learned some things along the way. What is surprising is that she learned some things about brand strategy!

On a misty morning in late September, I found myself at the starting line of the Vermont 50, an endurance race for trail runners and mountain bikers.

(My journey to get there is a story for another day.) Friends were shouting last words of encouragement and advice, and then, unceremoniously, the pack of runners started moving forward, and I was swept along with them.

If you have never been exposed to the ultrarunning community, running 50 miles might sound impressive…or just ridiculous. If you have been exposed to ultras, then you know that 50 miles is a JV distance, and nothing to write home about. I have friends who regularly compete in 100 mile races, and now even 200 milers are popping up around the country. I’m not bringing it up to brag. I’m bringing it up because I have never learned or done anything in my personal life that has been so applicable to my professional discipline of brand strategy, and I think the lessons are worth sharing. So here we go:

  • Lesson #1: You do not run 50 miles all at once. I knew that I was at the starting line to run 50 miles. That was the goal. But as soon as I made that first step, I was running “aid station to aid station.” 8 miles to the first stop. 6 miles to the next. Each one had volunteers offering food and water to refuel, or friends and family cheering me on, or a “drop bag” where I had left myself some special treat.

You don’t build a powerful brand all at once, either. You need to have the ridiculous goal, the impossible vision. But then you need to figure out how to take the first steps – how to break down the impossible into small, achievable brand goals that keep you on that path. Four research tasks towards really understanding your core customer. Six design tasks to refine and codify your visual presence. Five writing exercises to get a consistent and compelling brand voice. And before you know it, you are thinking about how far you’ve come, not how far you need to go.

  • Lesson #2: The work and preparation of other people helped me achieve my goal. There is a reason that I never ran 50 miles on my own in a training run. Could I have? Perhaps, but I would have put the likelihood of my success at maybe 5%. The race directors who plotted the course know the area like the back of their hands. They decided what those distances between the aid stations needed to be, and what food and drink were needed at each stop. They gave us information before we started on what to expect and how to train. They marked the course. They had medical personnel standing by to help with blisters, stomach issues, ankle sprains, or even more dire problems. They enabled my success. I was not out there alone.

Brand strategy is similar. There is a reason why Six-Point Creative and our Solve for Y program exist, and it is to help you go further faster and more easily than you would on your own. Could you get there without us? Probably. If you’ve ever listened to How I Built This, you know that a smart, driven entrepreneur will eventually find a way. But wrong turns, wasted time, lack of preparation, and lack of experience mean wasted resources. If you could plug in to a well-organized infrastructure and skip the wrong turns and have all of the aid you need along the way… why would you stumble around the woods by yourself?

  • Lesson #3: Don’t let your plan get in the way of reality. While I would never recommend taking on a challenge like an ultramarathon without a plan and some expectations about how it will go, 50 miles is a long enough distance that things are never going to go completely according to plan. Yes, stopping to take off your shoe to dump out a pebble will slow you down and get you off your pace charts. But if you don’t do it at mile 5, by mile 30, that little irritation will become a huge blister. Now you need to take a lot more time to stop for medical attention, or limp along for the last 20 miles, or even drop out of the race because the pain is too intense.

Again, the correlations to brand strategy are real. You need to make assumptions and have a plan to move forward, but you need to build in a framework for constant re-evaluation and look for anything that signals that your brand is on the wrong track. Refusal to pay attention to the signs will result in wasted resources, or simply never achieving that long-term goal. That is why instead of annual marketing plans, we work in 90-day “sprints” with a built-in mechanism to track leading indicators and step back to evaluate the work. If we sense a pebble in the footing of our strategy, we can help our clients pivot quickly before the stakes become too high.

  • Lesson #4: Sometimes you are your own worst enemy. Ultramarathons are as much a test of mental strength as they are physical endurance. You need to learn to get outside of yourself and see your dark mood as a symptom of low blood sugar. You need to have an important, personal “why” that is driving you to finish the race that you can focus your attention on when your body starts to tell you that you can’t go another step. Also, for the last 10 miles or so, my best friend, Jess, could also run with me. She was called a “pacer” but she was really my motivator. By the time I reached her, I had all of the excuses ready as to why I didn’t need to go the last 10 miles, but she would have none of it. She kept me on track, made me run the hills I wanted to walk, called my bluff when I said I didn’t need any more food or water, and overall just kept me focused and upbeat. There was nothing in it for Jess to be out there with me, other than she wanted see me achieve my goal.

When you are in the midst of working toward your long-term goals for your brand, there will be times that you want to short-cut, or switch gears, or will tell everyone who will listen that it just isn’t working. You need to allow yourself to have those ups and downs, but you also need to find some trusted advisors who care about you, and who want you to achieve your goals. These are the people who will save you from yourself at those points, who will gently (or not so gently) challenge you – not for their own ego, but in service to your vision.

  • Lesson #5: Nothing is impossible. If you talk to an ultrarunner and tell them that you could never run 50 miles, you will hear one consistent refrain: If you want it, you can do it. And I would tell you the same. Because everyone who has done it also once thought that they couldn’t do it. But then they did. And once you have been on the other side, you see how it is possible in a way that you can’t do before you have been through it. And the beauty of the trail and ultrarunning culture is that these runners will also share their experience, giving you tips and encouragement, and helping save you from learning lessons that they learned the hard way. You still won’t truly believe it until you do it, but when you start hearing the how, it no longer seems quite so impossible as when you just hear those numbers: 50 miles, 100 miles, 200 miles.

It is the same for your brand. We can put artificial limits on our companies, and go into scarcity mindset. We’re not GE…Starbucks…Coke…McDonald’s. True. You’re not. But there was a time when they weren’t those brands either. Sometimes you need someone else to tell you: If you want it, you can do it. And this is how.

Balancing Brand Opportunity Touchpoints and Liability

Your brand’s most highly personal, long-lasting interactions with customers are most consequential. These brand touchpoints can be what customers remember and cherish about your company (leading to brand loyalty and revenue growth), or they can be the reason why this customer never buys from you again.

The auditorium darkened. Music swelled. Legendary entrepreneur Richard Branson appeared first on a towering movie screen, windsurfing and launching rockets, before he appeared on the stage before us.

And just fifteen feet away from me, he was larger than life.

I was lucky enough to be in the front row when Branson addressed a room full of entrepreneurs, and was swept up in his stories of starting and growing Virgin. One that stuck with me was about salt and pepper shaker touchpoints. Yup. Sir Richard can make pretty much anything exciting.

He recounted a conversation with a controller, who called to tell him how much the company was spending on the custom salt and pepper shakers that were created for the airline’s business class passengers. “They’re expensive, and because people like them so much, they’re stealing them. It’s really becoming a huge line item,” the controller explained, logically recommending that they discontinue the shakers and move to a more cost effective option.

Most of us would have acquiesced. Branson doubled down. “No way. We keep them. But in the next order, make sure that they say ‘Pinched from Virgin Airlines’ on the bottom.”

The salt and pepper shakers soon became sought-after touchpoint symbols of the Virgin Airlines experience, and one of the most effective marketing campaigns the airline ever ran.

Why were they so powerful? We know from neuroscience research that the more personal/engaging and long-lasting a consumer’s interaction with a brand is, the greater  neurological impact it has. The salt and pepper shakers were highly experiential personal touches, and passengers had exposure to them for hours on long flights (even longer, if they tucked them in their carry-ons). It was an opportunity for impact, and Branson and his team made the most of it.

But after a recent experience, it was reinforced to me that a personal, long-lasting interaction doesn’t necessarily mean automatic success. Mishandled, it can be a massive liability.

On a Delta flight to Georgia to visit a client, rather than adorable salt and pepper shakers, the meager drink and snack service were the highlight. As I took my seltzer water from the flight attendant, I glanced down at the napkin. It was Diet Coke-branded, with an odd message. Because you’re on a plane full of interesting people and hey…you never know.

Be a little old school, write down your number & give it to your plane crush.

There were two blanks for your name and phone number.

I gave my co-worker a nudge. “Do you believe this?” We rolled our eyes both at the weird idea and at its tone deafness in the midst of headlines about sexual assaults on airlines, and sipped our drinks. (And because I must really be a Virgin passenger at heart, I also tucked one in my bag to show folks back at Six-Point this example of “creative ideas gone wrong.”)

A week later, I got a text from my co-worker with the headline: “Delta and Coca-Cola apologize for their ‘creepy’ napkin messages.”

“Remember that napkin? I guess other people noticed it too!”

The social media backlash and the associated PR was immediate and loud enough for Delta to retract the campaign and replace them with other, less risky, designs.

Two very similar brand touchpoints, two very different responses from customers. How do you make sure that your company has more viral hits and eliminates firestorms?

Here are three key ways:

  • #1: Understand what your target customer values, not just what you value. Virgin Atlantic specifically targets a passenger who values an extraordinary experience above low cost, and who wants their travel to be memorable, not just satisfactory. This focus allows Virgin Atlantic to know that it will be a worthwhile brand investment to allow their customers to steal custom salt and pepper shakers. The brand touchpoint becomes inherently valuable because it allows target customers to take the extraordinary experience with them in a tangible way when they leave the plane.
  • #2: If you collaborate, make sure that you fully understand the other brand’s audience and their expectations. Coke tried to bring its brand value of personal connection onto Delta flights, but it was clearly not what Delta customers expected or valued in that context. And “creepiness” was the result. Ask for data on the other brand’s audience and look for specific demographic that differ from your core audiences. Carefully review examples of the other brand’s most successful campaigns and ask yourself, “Is this something our audience would respond to?” You could even run their brand work by a few of your key customers and vice versa—do your customers have a natural affinity to their brand and do theirs have an affinity for yours? Looking for disconnects instead of opportunities can actually be of great value and help you bulletproof your campaign.
  • #3: Make sure you have brand standards that go well beyond fonts and colors. Your brand documentation should include some “guardrail” checklists that can be used to double check whether a concept or collaboration is brand-appropriate. These guardrails should include:
    • What values a concept/collaboration must align with
    • If and how your brand engages in controversial topics
    • If and how your brand engages in trending converstaions
    • How humor should (or should not) be used, with examples

Whether you are engaging vendors, forging brand partnerships like the one between Delta and Coke, or letting your nephew take over your social-media channels for a summer internship, you must understand both the opportunity cost and the potential liability associated with “off-brand creative.”

Or the potential upside of creative that your customers love.

Let’s all try to pinch a page from Virgin’s playbook.