Recently, I sat in a meeting with some of our best clients and pondered the constant chase of brand attributes that we as marketers often find ourselves engaged in — the endless measuring of attributes and their attribution to the brand, the ceaseless tweaking of messaging and money spent to get these attributes tracking in the right direction. I sat and realized once again how easy it is to chase the wrong thing.
No matter the brand, company, category, product, or service, the most common list of attributes everyone wants to be associated with goes something like this: candor, accessibility, innovation, invention, forward thinking, collaborative, friendly, easy to work with, trustworthy, leader, fun. A list that my longtime mentor Steve Hayden calls the "horoscope" of brand attributes; meaning "who wouldn't want to be all those things?" And "who wants the opposite?"
Which of course means there is nothing unique in the list to pursue — not a helpful observation when you're trying to create market value out of brand distinction.
On a whim that day, I jumped up and tested an exercise I've repeated many times since, always with the same result. I went to the whiteboard, grabbed a marker, and asked the group to shout out the attributes of Nelson Mandela.
"Brave," came the first response. "Courageous!" quickly followed. As did a whole list of attributes like "altruistic, heroic, peaceful, wise, thoughtful, giving, caring, loving, fearless" and more. About 30 different adjectives (roughly the number of people in the room) quickly found their way onto the board.
"What is the problem with this list?" I asked. Then I pointed to a colleague in the room, let's call him Frank, and mused, "the problem with the list is that it describes Nelson Mandela, and it describes Frank, a caring, wise, thoughtful, loving, giving and peaceful father and husband. But Frank is not Nelson Mandela. Sorry, Frank."
Then I asked the group to tell me what Nelson Mandela stood for. At once, as one, in unison, the room erupted with one word: freedom. Which I wrote on the board.
"That," I said, is not just the difference between Frank and Mr. Mandela, that is the difference between a true brand stance and an easy list of attributes." Understand your stance in the world, understand your true values, what you're actually up to and the why, your reason to get up in the morning — get that right, pursue that mission with full force and fury — and all the attributes you desire will surely follow.
Thirty people created a list of attributes that describe any good parent anywhere in the world. Those same people also recognized instantly that Nelson Mandela is not a collection of attributes but a man of purpose, stance, value and pure mission in the world: He stands for one thing, freedom, and all else has followed.
What this means for our brands, our companies:
- Know that you will never be remembered (or rewarded in the marketplace) for attributes; rather you will be remembered for what you do with them.
- Nail your market and world stance, and all else will follow. It's not so much what you make, what you sell; it's why you do it that matters, and how. The graveyard is littered with great gadgets and ideas that had no reason to be.
- Always stay on mission. Always execute against your stance, not against attributes. Measure the market's understanding of your reason to be — who you are and why you do what you do.
- When lured by the ease of chasing and measuring attributes (as we all are at times), test them by their opposites. For example, you want to be known as honest? Great. Know any company that wants to be known as dishonest? Therein lies the problem. Honesty is the price of entry for all. If you have to chase honesty as an attribute, take note, you've got much bigger problems than any list of brand attributes and research tools will solve.
- Finally, this applies to you, the human, as much as it does to your company or institution. You have your own set of adjectives and attributes associated with you as a person: the question is, what will you do with them?
Dan Burrier (@dburrier) is Chief Innovation Officer of Ogilvy & Mather North America. https://sites.google.com/site/mayuradocs/PinIt.png