What Doesn't Your Brand Stand For?

It's Too Easy to Stand for Too Many Things

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Do you find yourself in awe of certain brands? You know, those with an unquestioning, undyingly loyal following. Timberland or Chipotle come to mind.

You're likely working harder than ever to push your brand toward iconic status, using content strategies and every emerging social platform, hoping that something you do will catch fire. You dream of the day your brand will become admired, not only by its target audience, but also by the larger marketing and business media.

Admiration is certainly achievable. But what about "holiness"? Is it too much to expect that your brand might someday be worshiped? Maybe not. But getting there is less about what the brand does, and more about what it doesn't do.

Conventional wisdom tells us that figuring out what a brand stands for is the most important aspect of developing a successful strategy. But frankly, it's relatively easy to stand for something. It's easy to stand for a lot of things, which is where a brand usually makes its biggest mistake. A brand becomes bloated and fuzzy when it tries to stand for too much.

Figuring out what a brand doesn't stand for is the path to the higher level of success. Some might call this "focus," or "discipline," but I like "sacrifice." The word comes from two Latin root words: "sacer," meaning sacred, and, "facere," meaning to make or to do -- "to make sacred." The "Cambridge Dictionary" offers a more functional definition: to give up something for something else considered more important.

Two brands in particular, Harley Davidson and In-N-Out Burger, demonstrate the courage and discipline required to do this. They've given up aspects of their business and turned down opportunities that others might have considered vital. But, through their sacrifice, they've become worshiped brands.

Despite inquiries from cities all over the country, In-N-Out Burger, the fast-food chain, operates only in five states, all in the west. In-N-Out knows what it stands for: food quality, cleanliness and overall image. What it doesn't stand for is rapid growth. It doesn't stand for franchising, like other fast-food chains, or a new product every quarter. In-N-Out's menu has remained steadfast over the 65-year-life of the chain -- basic burgers, fries and shakes.

Because tightly controlling the brand experience is so important to this family-owned company, they don't even have freezers or microwaves in the restaurants, which means that every location needs to be near its distribution facilities.

My other example, Harley Davidson, is one of the most sacred brands ever imagined. This is a company that makes motorcycles but has decided that it will not be associated with transportation. In an interview with Ad Age published in July, CMO Mark-Hans Richer noted that a Harley "might have an engine, it might have wheels, and it might run on roads" but "we're really not about transportation; it's not about getting from Point A to Point B. It's about living life in the way you choose." This has meant consistently promoting independence and being "free from the man," as stated on the company's Facebook page on Labor Day. The hashtag #stereotypicalharley was developed to reinforce the specialness of the Harley owner.

These are two simple lessons in clarifying what the brand is not about. But, is it possible to give up the wrong thing? Sure, sacrificing can be perilous, if you don't really understand the consumer. J.C Penney notoriously dropped discounts and promotions, in order to stand for everyday low prices. The store failed to understand how vital promotions are to consumers in the mid-tier retail category. Instead of becoming sacred, Penney became confusing to its dwindling customer base.

Trying to make your brand sacred takes both vision, and courage. If you are willing to ask what your brand can give up, that sacrifice might just be the thing that takes it to the highest ground.

Tom Denari is president, Young & Laramore, Indianapolis, Ind.
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