Evolve or Die: How Authenticity Builds Durable Brands

This post originally appeared on the Genuinely blog.


Imagine your company is competing in a fairly saturated and competitive industry like fast food. You’ve been around for a little while but you’re really just getting started. You have something new and different and you’re ready to take the world by storm.

Now imagine that you’re up against companies like McDonald’s who spent $800 million on their advertising in 2013. Or Panera Bread who spent $55 million on their marketing efforts in that same year.

Imagine this is your competition and these are their marketing budgets. What would your marketing strategy be? How would your company contend?

Chipotle did. In 2013 they spent a fraction of what their competitors did — less than $10 million — on their advertising and marketing efforts and they had a much greater impact because they were doing things like this:

  • Creating videos like the Scarecrow that takes a stand and challenges how the fast food industry typically operates and sources its food.
  • Holding free festivals like Cultivate where people celebrate good food and music and connect with each other.
  • Sponsoring a “Food for Thought” column on the Huffington Post that is dedicated to creating awareness about how food is grown and the effects this system has on our world.
  • Investing in better ways of working that gives their employees more authority and empowers them to be better leaders.

All of these things that Chipotle has been doing aren’t just marketing campaigns. This is what they believe in as a company and this is authentically how they operate.

And that is what has contributed to their durability and growth over the last decade. From 2006 to 2015, Chipotle has grown revenue from $820 million to more than $4.5 billion.

So how did Chipotle’s approach bring this much growth? And how can you learn from it to grow your business in the digital age?

There’s no doubt that if you want to compete in the digital age, you must have a stellar product or service, and you have to provide a cross-channel experience that is unparalleled.

Ultimately, these things must be baked into your DNA; this is the new status quo. But more than that, you have to build an authentic, human company. And here’s why:

More than 63% of consumers would rather buy from a company they consider to be authentic over the competition.

In that same Cohn & Wolfe study, the #1 behavior that people expect of brands is the fact that they communicate openly and honestly about their products and services. They don’t let their customers down, and that they act with integrity at all times. Because people want to relate to you, they want trust you and know you’re going to do what you say.

Additionally, a BBMG study shows that when people are trying to figure out who to buy from, 73% of people care about the company, not just the product when they’re making purchasing decisions.

And when people care about your company, they tell their friends. And word of mouth is responsible for more than 50% of all purchasing decisions.

The fact of the matter is, in this face-paced, digital world, if you want to earn and keep your customers, build a community of advocates who will support you and tell their friends about you, your approach to marketing must shift. It’s not just about how your company is packaged, it’s about who your company is.

If your company wants growth in the digital age, your business (and your marketing) needs 3 things:

  1. You need to build from purpose
  2. You need to do the work to connect with people
  3. You need to keep your promises

Chances are, your company or the company you work for is in business because you want to make some money. You want to grow. So how will building an authentic brand help you do that?

Because authentic brands are built from purpose, and purpose is the key to their growth.

Our world is changing so quickly, and that has changed how quickly businesses must react and it has also changed consumer behavior.

Consumers know they have the upper hand. They know they have a choice. So the bar has been set a lot higher for companies. Consumers expect businesses to play a larger role in changing society.

Not only that, but as far as employees go, people want meaning in their work and they want to work for better companies.

Purpose is something that can help companies hurdle each of these challenges. It also helps them stay relevant in their customer’s lives.

In a Harvard Business Review study they found that companies with purpose make more money and have more involved employees, all because they’re operating from purpose.

Purpose drives your products and services, the people you hire, your culture, and your marketing. Most importantly, it gives focus that drives the whole business. Once you have purpose and focus, you can develop a much more effective and powerful marketing strategy that will connect with the right customers. When you’re talking to the right people in the right way, those customers want to become part of your community, tell their friends, and drive your growth.

The first step in building an authentic brand is positioning your company around that purpose. One of the ways we do this is by using an exercise from Ogilvy & Mather’s called the Big Ideal.

It can take some time to figure out your big ideal (we’ll use Dove as an example from Arielle Jackson’s work on First Round), but essentially it works like this: combine two things: your cultural tension — which is the problem in the world that you’re looking to address:

with your brand’s best self — what your company actually does when you are at your best:

Dove’s big ideal is that the world would be a better place if women were allowed to feel good about their bodies. This purpose drives the focus for everything they do. Their job is to create products that help women love their bodies.

This purpose and focus then comes out loud and proud in everything they do in their marketing strategy. And from 2004 to 2014, Dove saw a $1.5 billion dollar jump in sales as a result of focusing on purpose to drive their business.

Often times companies will disregard an authentic, purpose-driven approach to building their company and brand because they think it is only applicable to environmentally or socially responsible companies like Patagonia or Tom’s Shoes.

A purpose-driven approach is not a social cause thing. It’s not a non-profit thing. It’s not a B2B or a B2C thing. It’s a people connecting with people thing. It’s focusing on the right things that will help you build a company that people care about, want to work for, and do business with.

When you’re building an authentic brand, how do people fit into the equation? Every day it seems that there’s some new marketing tactic to try; a new piece of technology that will magically help you earn customers faster. But technology will not earn customers. Having a great product, building a great company, being authentic, and doing the work to find and connect with the right people will.

The biggest thing to remember about growth and building an audience is that you’re not looking for everyone. You’re looking for the right people who connect with your purpose. And this takes time, but then you’re building an audience of customers who actually want to be your customers and your loyal brand advocates.

We have worked for a company called Traveling Vineyard for the past two and a half years. They’re a direct sales company. They have several thousand people, or Wine Guides as they call them, mostly women, who sell wine for them.

But Traveling Vineyard actually doesn’t exist to sell wine. Their purpose is to change lives by providing fulfilling (and flexible) work. This purpose has been driving the growth of their business. One by one, we have been looking for the people and organizations who align with this purpose and who are a match for their community.

It’s been a slow process, but over the last 2 1/2 years, we have increased Traveling Vineyard’s lead form submissions by more than 200%. This growth has also contributed to a 40% increase in revenue for the company.

In the very beginning of our work with Traveling Vineyard, we began by identifying an audience that appeared to be 3 different types of moms: a stay-at-home-mom who loves her family but could use a little extra income without a lot of commitment. An empty-nester who’s looking for something new to consume her life now that her kids are gone. And an achiever; someone who is tired of just being a mom and wants something that’s just for her.

But when we were building their persona, we didn’t just stop here by identifying these stereotypes.

We wanted to make sure we were talking to the right people, so we took the step of matching these persona to real, actual people.

Once we mapped the characteristics of the stereotypes to REAL people in their community, we honored them as ambassadors. This allowed us to build better relationships with their existing community and leverage that community to find more people outside of their community who are like them.

One of the first steps we take when we’re building these relationships is we create a Customer Journey Map (adapted from an exercise from Adaptive Path) that helps us understand these women’s desires, roadblocks, and fears that keep them from converting to wine guides.

At each stage of their journey in their lifecycle of becoming a Wine Guide for Traveling Vineyard, we break down what they are thinking, feeling, and doing.

When we’re analyzing what they’re thinking, we look at the common questions that are holding them back. Stuff like: Is the company legit? Will I make money doing this? Do I have to be a wine expert?

Then we move onto how they may be feeling in each stage of their journey. These are the emotions that they are having that could also pose potential roadblocks like if they’re nervous about trusting the company, anxious to tell their friends they may do this, or even just excited to get started.

And then lastly, in the doing stage, we analyze their actions; the actions that the potential wine guides may take before they convert. Things like investigating other companies, talking to their friends and family, and watching videos or reading content on the website.

Understanding what’s holding your customers back from converting is less about the typical persona things like: how old are they? what’s their occupation? what are their hobbies? And more about their behaviors: what they are thinking/feeling/and doing at every stage of their journey.

And once you understand those things, you can address their thoughts, concerns, fears, and challenges in your content strategy.

And since you cannot control the path of their journey through the funnel, your job in building an authentic brand is making it an iterative cycle of getting to know people, understanding them, figuring out what they need, and helping them solve their challenges. This doesn’t require stuff to “go viral.” This is a slow build of trust.

With Traveling Vineyard, we’ve spent the last two and a half years in this cycle: from their purpose of changing lives by providing fulfilling and flexible work, finding the right people for their audience, developing a strategy to reach them, creating the content that they need to be connected, igniting outreach to get it to them, analyzing the data to make sure we’re talking to the right people in the right ways and helping Traveling Vineyard grow their business with this approach.

We’ve continued to do the hard work to find the right people, make it personal so that we’re building relationships with the right people, and add to the growth of their company.

Over the last year, Chipotle has been having a rough go of it. And for a brand that is supposed to be synonymous with “FOOD WITH INTEGRITY” being associated with words like Norovirus, E.coli, and Salmonella is pretty bad news. Even worse, when people are talking on social media about puking and pooping and going to the hospital because they’ve eaten your food, it is not so good for business.

But in true authentic style, Chipotle has spent the last year reacting to this stuff from authenticity and purpose. So they’ve not only been telling their customers that they’ve blown it, but they’re doing what it takes to make it right.

Chipotle has been transparent about how the outbreaks most likely happened. They’ve taken apart their current food safety systems and put them back together. They’ve provided their customers with a plan for action to pioneer and become a leader in food safety. Chipotle wants to make sure that this not only doesn’t happen again in their restaurants, but also inspire other fast food restaurants to operate the same.

But had Chipotle not built such trust with their customers over the last 10 years, their runway for error would have been quite short and this whole fiasco could have ruined them. But because Chipotle had built such trust, their customers were willing to have faith that they will make it right because that’s who they are as a company.

And that’s what’s kind of remarkable about Chipotle’s community is that their customers were willing to give them a second chance. Even as their stock prices fell and the media chewed them up, their customers were still with them.

And even though Chipotle is projected to have a 65% earnings loss this year due to the outbreaks, next year in 2017, their earnings are projected to jump 125%. And even over the next many years, Chipotle is still projected to have a higher growth in earnings than McDonald’s and their big ol’ marketing budgets.

The thing is, this wasn’t the first time that Chipotle made some mistakes. And it certainly won’t be the last. Where it counts is when Chipotle handles the situation with integrity, transparency, and authenticity. That’s what will make the difference in the durability of their brand and their company.

The fact of the matter is that we don’t just love Chipotle because they put cilantro in their rice or because they get just the right amount of salt on their chips. OK, well maybe it is, but really, it’s because they have proven to be a great, purpose-driven, authentic company who people can trust and want to support. Even when they’re at their worst. And this is what it takes to build a durable brand in the digital age.

If you’re considering building an authentic brand, remember these things:

People expect more from the companies they support. Building your company from purpose gives people something to connect to and believe in. Even more, building from purpose gives your business focus and that focus brings growth.

If you want to earn the right customers who will support you and stand by you through the good and the bad, you’ve got to bust your ass, hustle and do the work to connect with people. The people who align with your purpose.

And lastly, as a company, you need to have a killer product. You need to provide a stellar experience across all channels. But remember that growth comes from a deeper place than that. It’s not about how your company is packaged, it’s about who your company is. And your job is to continually prove — through your actions — that you’re worth your customers’ investment.

When it comes down to it, building and marketing a company and brand in today’s world requires a different path than traditional marketing, advertising, and quick-fix tactical approaches. Technology (and Google) is going to continue to change. Our world is going to continue to evolve. We need to build brands that transcend technology and adapt to our ever-changing world. Brands that are real and human and authentic. These are the brands that trump the competition and big marketing budgets every time.

If your company is ready to triumph over the next many years, it’s time to evaluate and evolve.