Revisit values, make an impression, and other advice from the world’s most popular brands

By Katherine Scarrow

The Globe and Mail

Toronto, Ontario, Canada


The Gathering 2020, a three-day conference, offered insights from world-leading cult brands, ranging from the importance of putting customer experience first to simplifying your brand message to revisiting your foundational values.

Some common themes surfaced during the event.

Popular brands are popular for a reason. News media companies can learn valuable lessons from them.
Popular brands are popular for a reason. News media companies can learn valuable lessons from them.

The four Ds of difference defining cult brands

The perception of people who join cults is that they’re sad, lonely, gullible, victims of mind control, and blind followers of brilliant psychopathic leaders. “But the people who join cults are very similar to the people in this room,” said Douglas Atkins, former head of community at Airbnb and author of The Culting of Brands.

Atkins focused on the four ways cults, like the world’s most beloved brands, are able to create such devout followers. The answer is paradoxical: People don’t join cults because they want to conform or disappear, but because they want to be more individual — more like their true selves. The most successful cults and brands take who you are and make you more so.

Atkins noted four tactics (the four Ds of difference) that help successfully build a loyal and long-lasting community.

  1. Determine your franchise’s sense of difference. For brands to truly know who they are, they need to define what they aren’t and not try to please everyone.
  2. Declare your cult’s difference with doctrine and language. Once you’ve figured out your purpose, you need to actively declare it so that people recognise it and join.
  3. Demarcate your cult from the outside world. People can tell one brand from the other through visual and aural cues like logos and values.
  4. Demonise the other. The “us versus them” kind of stance (such as Apple versus Microsoft) creates solidarity in the community. The “other” becomes a threat and bands the followers together in opposition.

Key takeaway for news media brands: To create an indelible brand, you’ve got to focus on creating a community and a sense of belonging. Don’t be afraid to be different, declare your purpose, demarcate yourself from others, and create solidarity among your customers.

Maintain and grow a brand differently

In his Q&A on stage, Lululemon founder Chip Wilson talked about how he invested in brand branding at his company.

At most companies, the rule of thumb is to allocate 10% of sales to maintaining and growing the brand. At Lululemon, the amount was 2% because brand costs were embedded in other departments. Because these costs were spread across the company in different departments rather than in one cost centre, it was easy for financial experts to overlook how Lululemon invested in brand building.

For Wilson, essential brand costs included:

  • Retail leasing costs to locate stores in places that drove brand awareness for e-commerce.
  • Developing reusable shopping bags promoting Lululemon’s social stance on health and longevity.
  • Investing in high-quality material and patenting 45 materials. It also has trademark registrations for several of its products, fabric names, and images, which differentiates the brand and protects it from competitors.
  • Hiring and training inexperienced executives who were athletes.
  • Having executives work part-time in the store before starting full time to ensure a good cultural fit.
  • Designing stores for expedient shopping, demonstrating that it values customers’ time.

Key takeaway for news media brands: Think differently about how you define your brand. It’s not just a line item on a financial statement. It’s embedded at every touchpoint of your business and every interaction with your customers.

Look to the past and simplify the message

“Iconic brands are built on consistency over time,” said Jane Hwang, Skittles’ global brand director at Mars Wrigley.

The company evaluated its success (and lack thereof) by looking at the past and considered how to communicate effectively moving forward.

Skittles’ unpredictable nature hinges on a distinctive brand of humour, but this was increasingly difficult to define. To solve the conundrum, Hwang and her team developed a framework to help everyone understand not what Skittles humour was, but what it wasn’t. Masterful in its simplicity, the solution was a large red square with the following descriptors flanking the four sides: too cute, culturally offensive, negative emotion, too gross.

No matter where you live, or what team you’re on, the message was clear: If the content of the creative veers out of bounds on either of these four dimensions, then it’s not Skittles humour.

Key takeaway for news media brands: When you’re feeling like you’ve lost your way as a brand, the past can serve as a rich source of ideas and inspiration. It’s a matter of polishing off some of the gems that made you great and bringing them to the forefront.

Make impressions, don’t buy them

“The ability to adopt a customer-centric business is the only way to compete,” said Chris Kneeland, CEO of Cult Collective and co-founder of The Gathering conference. The reason why some brands continue to be relevant decade after decade is because they “fully commit to their customer cohorts.”

So, if a business’s goal is to service a customer, you have to ask yourself: How customer-centric is your company? To win, you can’t just know your customers. You have to be obsessed with them.

Examples include Home Depot, which rebranded its headquarters to “Store Support Centre;” Porsche, which launched the Passport vehicle subscription service to its most devoted clients; and Fanatics, the online retailer of licensed sportswear, which partnered with American Express to create the jersey insurance programme.

Key takeaway for news media brands: The most beloved brands have one thing in common: They put customers first. If you want to succeed, it’s not about selling a great product or service, it’s about being obsessed with your customers.

Go back to the values you were built upon

Duncan Fulton, chief corporate officer at Restaurant Brands International (the holding company that includes Burger King, Popeye’s, and Tim Horton’s), was blunt about the fact that Canada’s favourite coffee and doughnut chain had lost its way.

It’s about “stripping down the business and getting back on track,” he said. Part of the transformation involved exploratory interviews with historical and relevant stakeholders into the foundational values Tim’s was built upon, and what made the company “amazing.” The findings are helping the brand realign itself.

Key takeaway for news media brands: The world moves at a dizzying speed and it’s easy to get caught up in every new trend. To stay grounded, revisit the foundational values your business was built upon.

Know what you stand for and flaunt it

Doritos has also been revisiting the brand identity it was built upon. It’s main question: What do we stand for?

This most basic question propelled the brand to reinvent its brand purpose, said Rachel Ferdinando, senior vice president of marketing at Frito-Lay North America. “How do we embrace disruption and take the brand into the future?”

She distilled four key lessons uncovered during the exploratory journey with her team:

  1. Know what you stand for. Relevance that transcends disruption. What’s your timeless truth? Bring your brand into the here and now.
  2. To be an icon, act like one. If you’re going to level up in a disruptive way, how are you going to do that?
  3. Don’t be a cultural tourist. Create culture to enable your future. It’s easy to grab a cultural play, but the Doritos brand team decided it was going to create value in culture, figure out what matters to its fans, and play a part.
  4. Sometimes you need to ignore the data. Trust your gut. Data is important, but it’s not everything. Part of the company’s new brand purpose acknowledges the importance of emotion and instinct.

Key takeaway for news media brands: No brand is safe from disruption, so understand your timeless truth, be bold, create value in the world, and don’t be afraid to trust your instincts, even in spite of the data.

About Katherine Scarrow

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