Is Your Brand a Beacon or a Spotlight?

Connect With Consumers Through a Shared Vision, Rather Than an Informed Reflection

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A clarification has been appended below.

Rose Cameron
Rose Cameron
In the midst of every marketing meeting, there comes that point where the entire room leans forward in their seats. The tension heightens. There's an almost palpable sense of voyeurism; everyone strains toward the reveal of that titillating morsel that represents insider access. And the question is asked: "So, what's the consumer insight?" The strategist slowly rises and says, "We always knew that the consumers say this, but did you know that they really do this?" Yes, ladies and gentlemen, it's shock and awe time.

As a planner at heart, that's my bread and butter. What this very authentic example of consumer-insight fetishism raises is the question of what to do when your brand represents one thing but consumers are searching for another. Said differently, what can be done when your brand marketing becomes more about reflecting the reality of your consumers and less about your brand's aspirational identity? To keep your unique brand-driven narrative alive and prevent it from turning into a slow-moving episode of "60 Minutes," there are a few things that I believe every marketer should strive to do.

First is to position your brand for future growth by being a beacon that reflects aspirations vs. a spotlight that simply confirms realities. In a recent global-value study that we conducted, we found that corporate trust is at an all-time low and consumer activism is at an all-time high. I'm sure that's not shocking to most of us. But think about the opportunity that you have as a marketer. In these times of constrained resources, consumers are consolidating their brand choices and ultimately selecting the ones that reflect not their realities, but their aspirations and values.

Is it any surprise that 78% of consumers in this study reported that they choose brands that "represent their aspirations?" They are in search of brands that can help them feel that they are moving forward, not staying in the same place. And when consumers find those brands, they become the select few that are being put on their preferred-brand list.

The second piece of this puzzle is to understand exactly how to position your brand as a beacon. To do this, it's time to do some internal brand housekeeping. Take a close look at how your brand can feed people's desires in today's changing marketplace. Ask yourself how it can resonate with consumers through a shared vision vs. simply an informed reflection. To do this most effectively, you should put all preconceptions aside and look for an honest answer to the question, "What does your brand really stand for?"

Joseph Campbell, the great American mythologist, talked about people's hunger for stories that would feed their emotional needs and motivate them to higher purposes. We can draw a parallel between his work and how brands can become beacons that draw in consumer disciples. When evaluating what your brand really stands for, keep in mind the following 12 descriptors that reflect aspirational brand stories:

  1. Creating something new.
  2. Protecting and nurturing those you care about.
  3. Reveling in sensorial pleasure.
  4. Feeling renewed and refreshed.
  5. Breaking the rules.
  6. Learning more about things important to you.
  7. Exploring new worlds.
  8. Gaining status and security.
  9. Performing at your peak level.
  10. Transforming the ordinary to the extraordinary experience.
  11. Relaxing and enjoying the moment.
  12. Reaffirming the basic goodness of our fellow human beings.

As you begin to realize the realities of your brand and form your new, more aspirational brand story, a renewed confidence is reflected in your communication. You know your purpose. You can focus on how you make yourself most pertinent to your audience on your terms vs. theirs. And you can do so across every media at your disposal.

A real example of the power of becoming a beacon is the Atlantic Monthly. For 151 years, the Atlantic has been America's most important magazine. It spearheaded abolition, introduced the world to Mark Twain, and warned us about the sub-prime collapse. It boasts America's most influential readership. At its core, The Atlantic is about helping you learn more about things that are of importance to you.

But at a time when other magazines were shutting down and online growth was slowed, prestige alone wasn't translating into commercial success. Circulation was stagnant, stuck for years at 400,000. Its website was unknown. It was struggling to attract contemporary advertisers. It was losing money.

The Atlantic had become a tired sage brand -- known for tackling tough topics with long-copy articles but desperately in need of rejuvenation. Research uncovered that people missed the intellectual rigor they got out of their best classes in college. Taking on the tough subjects, learning and debating, pushing their thinking forward -- this was the side of learning to which they truly aspired.

So, the rallying cry for the Atlantic became: "Think. Again." Their purpose was to get people to use their minds; to start a movement that would bring deep, nuanced thinking back in vogue. A movement that positioned the Atlantic as the source of mental stimulation for which so many hungered. A movement that would get people to think. Again. Literally.

The creative brought this enlightenment to life. It took 14 of the Atlantic's most thought-provoking questions and made them into 14 giant, darkness-shattering, neon signs. They then placed them all around the city, and at night, as passers-by looked and wondered about them, they interviewed them. Their personal, profound and often hilarious responses were turned into a series of videos which were housed on an experiential site that became a hub for rich debate.

It was outdoor that became an event that became video that became a website. The launch was an art exhibit featuring the neon questions and screenings of the street interviews. And, most important, "Think. Again." has become the mantra for the Atlantic. It's the brief their editor now gives to every one of his writers.

This effort literally shifted them into a beacon that cut through the darkness and enlightened the United States. As a result:

The Atlantic has seen double-digit percentile growth in readership. Unique visitors to have swelled by 27% over the previous year.

Since the work broke, the Atlantic has attracted new digital advertisers, including marquee brands such as Apple, Audi, HBO, Kindle and Orbitz.

Most important, the Atlantic has inspired thousands of people to "Think. Again." The proof is summed up in a posted response to the question, "Is the doughnut doomed?" that reads, "Only if it has a black hole at its center."

So, what does your brand really stand for?

In today's economy, the opportunity that positioning your brand as a beacon represents is extraordinary. It can be what delivers growth and commitment. And it has the potential of setting your brand apart from the rest as we navigate through these challenging and sometimes rocky seas.

Ask yourself. And answer honestly. Is my brand a beacon? Or is it a spotlight?

Rose Cameron is a strategic planner who has spent her career keeping a close eye on "what's next" for marketers. She currently serves as chief strategy officer at Euro RSCG Chicago and can be reached at

EDITOR'S NOTE: The Atlantic Monthly, the subject at the heart of the case study presented here, is a client of Euro RSCG New York.

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