Find your brand’s inner layer to ensure growth and longevity

By the late sixties, Xerox had become a highly successful global brand, so much so that the word “Xerox,” had now become the verb replacement for “to copy.”

Xerox decided to add computer technology to its resume. Seemed like a logical fit, given their hegemony as an electronic office equipment supplier. Unfortunately, potential buyers likened this to someone who normally wears a size 8 shoe trying to fit into a size 13.

What happened to Xerox happened to Chiquita after failed attempts to convince buyers that Chiquita stood for more than bananas. Cosmopolitan Magazine had to throw in the towel after trying to sell Cosmopolitan yogurt. Ponds barely got out of the starting gates with Ponds toothpaste before it quit. Thousands of stories like these exist proving how difficult it is to change entrenched expectations.

However, one could argue that Apple is proving to be the exception to this dilemma having gone from a brand of computers to a brand of phones, iPads, TVs, and who knows what’s next. Nike is yet another exception, as it has grown from making running shoes to becoming a successful seller of athletic equipment and apparel. And Branson keeps adding to the list of products for which the brand name Virgin makes successful. Why have these brands avoided deathtraps when expanding their product lines?

The reason has to do with the fact that Apple has never been just a company selling computers, Nike has never been just a running shoe company, and Virgin can sell toilet seats if it wants to. Why? Because these brands have “inner layers.”

Finding your brand’s “inner layer.”

All brands have “outer layers.” These consist of the product or service functions associated with the brand. H&R Block does tax returns, Pizza Hut sells pizza, and Xerox sells copy machines.

On the other hand, a brand’s inner layer is the solid belief system that turns a brand from something that just has a point of difference to something that also has a point of view. A brand’s inner layer is made up of very real values and demonstrable beliefs that resonate with people who share the same values and beliefs.

When a brand reaches the point where its inner layer is discernable is when a brand becomes something more akin to a meaningful story— a story about some relatable and important ideal that is supported by its audience.

The good news is that it is never too late to find your brand’s inner layer. That said, some challenges must be met:

The Challenges

First, your inner layer must be authentic. It’s one thing for your brand’s inner layer to be associated with the value of “friendliness.” But that value is quickly devalued when a customer is put on hold for twenty minutes by an uncaring customer service representative. It’s one thing for your brand’s inner layer to be associated with the value of simplicity, yet another when your customer is presented with too many buying restrictions. What you believe and what you do must be inextricably linked. Keep in mind that the truth behind your brand story is found in your outer layer and is constantly being scrutinized via social media, reviews, and other internet sources. That truth must therefore be demonstrated and reinforced through every point of customer contact.

Inconsistency is the bane of authenticity.

Second, audiences don’t care what you think your inner layer is. They care about what they think it is. Unlike outer layers, inner layers are more a function of what your audience sees for themselves as opposed to what you tell them to see. When we purchase a given brand, in effect we are hiring it. How much credence would you put in a job candidate who proclaims, “I believe in teamwork,” or “I value hard work”? It’s not enough to be told what someone believes. That belief must be demonstrated.

Too often, we see advertising taglines like “Excellence is all around you,” or “Where service matters.” However, the best brands don’t get in their own way with brag and boast statements of self-description. Instead, they communicate their inner layers through mantras like “Think Different” or “Just Do It” or “Never Stop Exploring,” ideals that resonate with existing beliefs that their audiences share. These are more than just taglines. They are true theme lines that speak to the significance of their brands’ inner layers.

Your brand must solve problems and provide opportunities. But if all it stands for is some function, your growth path will become very narrow, or even disappear over time. To add width and breadth to that, your brand must be driven by a well-defined and easily discerned inner layer.

Keep it simple and poignant

Inner layers are often confused with mission statements. Mission statements have more to do with action and less to do with the belief that guides action. Notice I said the belief as opposed to the beliefs. A list of core values is harder to remember and more difficult to demonstrate than one strongly held belief that is the driving force behind everything a company does. Furthermore, your customers aren’t going to remember all your core values any more than they are going to remember a laundry list of features and benefits.

Understandably, when it comes to defining a brand’s inner layer, it’s hard to be simple, but it’s critically important. A great place to start is by studying story archetypes. It’s difficult to go into the subject of archetypal analysis here but just know that archetypes are like labels given to character types that are often the subject of stories. Each is described by the motivational forces that cause it to act the way it does. You can read more about the use of archetypes in StoryBranding 2.0: Creating Stand-Out Brands Through The Power of Story. Each of the 12 main character archetypes is represented pictorially and discussed in detail.

Find, don’t create your inner layer

Finally, inner layers are best excavated from what already exists. Like the studious school girl who tries to fit into the “cool-girl” crowd,” trying to be something you’re not is readily detected and can do more harm than good. Often, the only change brands need to make comes from a better understanding of their original purpose as opposed to a manufactured appeal. Find that inner layer and amplify it. Easier said than done, but unless you want your brand to travel down a dead-end road, finding its inner layer is a critical task required for growth and longevity.

CEO of Story-Lab, Chicago. Strategic Storytelling Workshops for Leaders and Sellers.

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