Imagine me as an 11-year-old, a shellacked swoop of spiky hair sticking out above my beady eyes, my whisker-less upper lip curled purposefully to hide a set of bulky metal braces.
It’s 1997, and for the first time I am standing, awestruck, in front of an Abercrombie & Fitch.
As I step through the open doorway, I’m greeted by a pair of teenagers in ripped jeans and polo shirts who wordlessly nod in my direction. Anonymous techno music thumps out from speakers hidden somewhere behind an endless wall of graphic T-shirts and moose-emblazoned boxer shorts.
Every detail is considered. Shirts and jackets alike are inscribed with labels promising “superior quality” and touting an illustrious heritage that dates all the way back to 1892. There’s a canoe on that wall!
Photos in clean white frames feature smiling, attractive people hanging out in some Upstate New York lodge. They are confident and athletic and American. I feel like I’m hanging out there with them, like I could be one of them, braces and all.
For most of my life, shopping for clothes had meant an afternoon errand to JCPenney or Kohl’s. Those were stores; this was a portal into another world.
I’ll never forget the first time I walked into an Abercrombie & Fitch, because, for the first time, I was captivated by a brand. I saw how powerful “brand” could be — I was hooked.
When most people hear the word “brand,” their first thought is “logo.”
Imagine the logos of some of the most oft-referenced and revered brands of the modern era. A swoosh. A set of arches. A piece of fruit (with an iconic bite taken from its side). For many, these symbols have grown into the stuff of legend.
If the curves of that Nike swoosh or the bite in Apple’s apple had been slightly different in shape, would our ubiquitous awareness of them be lessened? I’d argue that the answer is a resounding “no.”
At OX, we recognize that, although a beautiful logo is a start, it’s only a start.
Brands that win with their audiences win on three fronts: the words they say, the visuals they show, and the experiences people have with them over time.
As my teen years wore on, my collection of “superior quality goods” from Abercrombie started to fall apart at their literal seams. Their promise of quality didn’t match my experience. My enchantment faded.
Ultimately, we believe in creating brands that are more than talk and stylish artwork — brands that ask good questions and listen to you more than they talk about themselves.
We call these “human brands,” brands that act and talk and function like real people do, unafraid to make mistakes and unashamed to own them when they do.
When brands show up as nameless, faceless organizations (what we call “corporate brands”), at best, their audience will choose to use their services and products. At best, their relationship is transactional. These brands are so focused on the perception of perfection that they miss the real gold available to them all the time: the opportunity for connection.
The people you’re trying to connect with are just that: people. As a result, whether they mean to or not, they build rapport most naturally with other people.
We believe that human brands have five distinctive characteristics:
1. Human brands believe in the power of great questions. They don’t assume they know the answer, and they aren’t afraid to look stupid. They’re interested in getting to know the real you, and ask questions to help them do it.
2. Human brands understand the power of authenticity. They aren’t trying to be someone that they’re not, and they humbly accept that every person (and every organization) makes mistakes sometimes. They own it when they do.
3. Human brands understand the power of heritage. They know that where they’ve come from is as important as where they’re going; they know that their story matters and points the way forward.
4. Human brands rely on the power of community. Because they know their strengths and weaknesses, they aren’t trying to go it alone, and more than that, their goals are bigger than themselves. They often ask, “How can what we’re doing benefit what everyone else is doing?”
5. Finally, human brands know the power of empathy. They show genuine interest in your experience, what it feels like for you to be you. They think about the challenges you face and the fears you might have. In many ways, the way you see it is more important than the way they see it.
These five characteristics don’t just mark great brands, they mark great people. In a way, it starts to become difficult to distinguish between the two, and that’s exactly the point.
When brands behave humanly, their logo and name simply become the handles for all of the intangible understanding that people have of them, the fixed anchors on which all of the meaningful value hangs. You have a name that people call you, but who you are is obviously so much more.
Further, you can tarnish a great name, but a great name can’t make you — only your real human interactions can do that. Your brand is just the same.
So now, imagine you, the you that you really are, expressed with words and visuals and experiences of true connection that you build over time.
What are you like? What do you hope people would say about you? What legacy will you leave?
As your brand becomes more human, caring more for others than yourself, you yourself will naturally do the same, and so will the people whose lives you touch. Little by little, our brands will build true good for real people.
The logos and the names will be nothing more than mementos of all the good done along the way.