The Brand Strategy of Standing for Something

“You can tell what’s informing a society by what the tallest building is. When you approach a medieval town, the cathedral is the tallest thing in the place. When you approach an eighteenth-century town, it is the political palace that’s the tallest thing in the place. And when you approach a modern city, the tallest places are the office buildings, the centers of economic life.”
Joseph Campbell

The Power of Myth

As Joseph Campbell’s quote suggests, people are forever in search of inspiration and meaning, and the institutional source of those pursuits has shifted over the centuries. In the twenty first century, while churches struggle for attendance, lines of fervent worshippers wrap around the block at the Apple Store on new product launch days. The locus of what’s informing our society is business, and more specifically, brands.

“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” was replaced by “Just Do It”.
Ask a young person what “True Religion” is and you’re likely to hear, “a jeans brand”.
Ask someone about “followers” and you’re likely to land in a conversation about Twitter.

There’s ample research to substantiate this notion of the convergence of brands and religiosity, and this insight itself can be the source of inspiration for building a more effective brand. Here are a few examples of brands  building stronger customer bonds by using ideas that were once the domain of spiritual teachings delivered in churches, synagogues, and mosques.

IKEA‘s homily on our over indulgence of the material world, and encouragement to return to the source of our truest happiness: our families.

Dodge reached into the Bible to pull on the soul and heartstrings of viewers in championing the values of their trucks’  most rooted customers.

Guinness, speaking of dedication, loyalty, and friendship, and how the choices we make reveal the true nature of our character.

No, Dorothy, branding isn’t in Kansas anymore.

So what can brands do to participate in this movement toward meaning?

A few thoughts:

1. Understand that at 10,000 feet, most companies’ and their competitors’ products are largely at parity, so focusing on feature and functional advantages is not the strongest differentiator—what a brand stands for and the meaning it confers to customers, is.

2. So how do we arrive at these branded messages of meaning? Hint: they typically aren’t found it in industry journals, seminars, or MBA programs—they’re found in quiet conversations and moments of personal reflection in our lives—in conversations with our children, friends, co-workers and loved ones about “what’s real”, “what’s truly worth believing in and caring about”—beyond material possessions.

3. Lastly, it requires having the courage to actually say something meaningful. There are many ways to move the awareness and revenue needle. The strategy of branding meaning aims to accomplish it by moving people’s hearts, and when done artfully and authentically, it can have a powerful effect on the brand and its customers. That said, as natural a human activity as advocating for people to be their most conscious best should be, actually doing it isn’t for sissies—standing for something real requires backbone.

Next steps? Am I encouraging brands to cast aside their traditional messaging and fully invest in the brand strategy of aligning with human meaning? No, this kind of approach is one best leavened with wisdom that often requires some evolution in a corporation’s level of consciousness. Start small, with an employee communique, a speech, a single branded asset like a brand video . . . try it on for size, see how customers and employees respond to it, and most importantly, observe how it makes you and your team feel about promoting substantive and meaningful messages, then build on that feeling.

Be bold and prosper.


Rick Julian is an award winning Creative Director and Brand Strategist at  QUO VADIS, a branding agency in Atlanta, GA.


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Rick Julian

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