When Purpose Meets Need
Attributes of authentic brands: Part 1 of 2
Let’s say you work at a company with a solid product or service, supported by sound business practices. You enjoy the work, and it meets a real need in the world. But you know that even the best ideas don’t sell themselves, and even the brightest salespeople can’t rely solely on knowledge and charisma. Advertising is ineffective without a story to anchor it. You need to connect with your audience and form lasting relationships with them.
You need a powerful brand.
Before going further, let’s define brand in the context of communications. It’s a word that’s been hacked to pieces over the years. It doesn’t help that brand or branding conjure images ranging from cattle-wrangling to animal cruelty or even slavery. Many people think of branding as a waste of resources, a veneer, a façade — or worse, a lie.
Brands are two-sided coins. On one side are the claims and promises an organization makes about their product or service. On the other side is the reputation that is cultivated by the audience. Reputations are made or unmade by a company’s track record of holding true to their word. Branding is the practice of communicating those promises through content, design, and media. It’s a conversation, not a monologue; and it requires foresight, empathy, and agility.
Branding is Just do it. Branding is the Starbucks coffee sleeve. Branding is the distinctive grille of a BMW. It’s Coca-Cola’s red and GE’s monogram. It’s the soothing whiteness of Apple’s retail stores, and the way their sales staff interact with customers.
Branding gets a bad rap because it’s often formed from mindsets of selfishness or fear. But when branding is done from love, it’s a beautiful thing to behold. Rather than burning a smoldering mark into peoples’ retinas, a love-based brand can be a light, a story that illuminates and inspires.
When it comes to building your brand identity, which tools will serve you best? Is it your name, logo, writing style, or imagery? Is it the spaces where your company lives and interacts with the world?
All of these things matter. But I see two elements that, when done right, set brands head and shoulders above their competition every time. The first and most important thing, the foundational piece of the puzzle that you cannot afford to get wrong, is your mission statement. The second is typography — the art of using type, i.e. fonts, to convey messages. Typography makes language readable, beautiful, and distinct. As the most pervasive form of visual communication, it’s the glue that binds message to medium to reader. We’ll discuss typography at length in part two.
Your mission statement is the handful of words that go beyond what and into why. There may be ten thousand companies that provide a similar product. But what good customers buy is not the what. They buy the why and the who. People transition from window shoppers to customers, followers, and finally advocates because they believe in who you are and why you do it. The compulsion to believe is deeply embedded in human nature. If you have a powerful mission, people will come to see that you have a higher purpose, and they will gladly support your work.
This calling must be bigger than your selfish desires. It can’t be about money or power. A good mission connects with your audience’s needs and their better desires. It grows from what can I give rather than what can I get. This means that good brands can actually encourage us to become better versions of ourselves.
Great missions are rooted in love. If that sounds squishy, bear with me for a minute. I think most of us can agree that love is the best motivation for doing anything. But what is love? It’s not a feeling. Feelings are like weather; the only constant is change. Love is first and foremost a choice. It’s an action that grows from a heart of appreciation. If love is your core motivation, your life revolves around the things you love. They feed you and the world in return. Conversely, if your life is shaped by fear, your time is devoured by things you hate because the repellent power of fear pushes us away from our true selves. You love someone or something and pour time into its development and adornment. You make sacrifices which occasionally hurt, but that’s okay because love is selfless, and you know the effort is worthwhile.
When you sell (and brand) from love, you can’t help but be genuine. It just flows, and people will intuitively know you’re authentic. Selling from love looks completely different from lesser motivations. If I sell you something that connects with my passion and yet is bigger than my personal desires, I’m offering you a gift. There’s no manipulation, no catch. There’s something I’ve discovered, something that is so *amazing* that I can’t help but share it with you. Love-based branding comes from joy, and joy is infectious.
So get your mission statement right. Everything else flows or falters from that. Ideally, your passion and product are already aligned, and you simply need to articulate why people should care.
It doesn’t matter if your service is mundane. It doesn’t matter if the product is purely utilitarian. A magnetic mission is still attainable, as long as your work serves people and/or planet. Even the most boring product can function as a backdrop for meaningful relationships.
What does love-based branding look like in the real world? Here are three examples of organizations that have built successful brands by putting passion first.
Founded in 1973 by Yvon Chouinard, Patagonia’s mission is to “Build the best product, cause no unnecessary harm, [and] use business to inspire and implement solutions to the environmental crisis.” Chouinard is an avid environmentalist, mountaineer, and surfer who simply wanted to fund a lifestyle that revolved around nature. In the beginning, he sold pitons from the back of his car. He wanted sturdier climbing equipment, decided to build his own, and realized that other people might want to buy them, too. From that humble beginning, the company grew into making apparel and became synonymous with rugged quality. The rest is beautifully told on Patagonia’s About page:
Alpinism remains at the heart of a worldwide business that still makes clothes for climbing — as well as for skiing, snowboarding, surfing, fly fishing, paddling and trail running. These are all silent sports. None requires a motor; none delivers the cheers of a crowd. In each sport, reward comes in the form of hard-won grace and moments of connection between us and nature.
Our values reflect those of a business started by a band of climbers and surfers, and the minimalist style they promoted. The approach we take towards product design demonstrates a bias for simplicity and utility.
For us at Patagonia, a love of wild and beautiful places demands participation in the fight to save them, and to help reverse the steep decline in the overall environmental health of our planet. We donate our time, services and at least 1% of our sales to hundreds of grassroots environmental groups all over the world who work to help reverse the tide.
This kind of copy makes me want to gleefully throw fistfuls of money at these people. And no, I’m not on Patagonia’s payroll.
While their logo feels warm and a little funky (read: it’s a relic of the 70’s), the rest of their branding is quiet and spacious like the sports they enjoy. The design of Patagonia’s products is sturdy, simple, and resistant to trends. Their website and print communications do a good job of mirroring these values. I think their visual assets would benefit from a redesign, perhaps a new or updated logo and typographic enhancements to inject some energy and give their aesthetic a more timeless quality. I’d certainly want to keep the sense of openness and utility. But their copywriting and marketing campaigns? Pitch-perfect. It’s all grounded in a clear mission that is bigger than Patagonia or any of its employees.
I love to travel. I love the idea of flying. Soaring above the clouds, sunshine streaming through the windows. Passing landscapes like endless abstract paintings. Traversing time zones in a matter of hours. But I hate the reality of flying. Breathing canned air and fellow passengers’ deodorant or lack thereof. Depressing food. Claustrophobia. Germs. Delayed or canceled flights.
When you get down to it, there’s little love in the airline industry. The romance has all but vanished in the 20th century’s wake. Southwest Airlines knows this, and for over 40 years they’ve worked diligently to make flying less painful.
First off, let’s talk legacy. In a word, Southwest is friendly. Though the accommodations are modest, the quality of service and the overall experience is consistent. More than anything, the company is known for its laid back, riotously funny flight attendants. Sometimes they go overboard with the humor, but hey — at least they try, and that’s more than I can say about most of Southwest’s competition. It’s no wonder they’ve turned a profit every year since 1973.
You’re not a seat number to us — you’re a person.
–Brand re-launch page
Southwest’s mantra of putting people first hasn’t changed. But with the expansion to international markets and the integration of AirTran, a rebrand was in order.
[Our purpose:] To connect people to what’s important in their lives through friendly, reliable, and low-cost air travel.
–Southwest mission statement
Their new symbol is — what else? — a heart. It’s not childish or lovey-dovey, but rather a bold striped heart that looks gorgeous at all sizes from plane livery to pins. The stripes are reminiscent of wings, rolling hills, or maybe both. It’s tastefully re-used as punctuation and graphic patterns in ads and print collateral. The brand colors were carefully updated to mitigate loss of recognition. The typography is simple, ergonomic and relaxed. This new system is made to invoke smiles from weary travelers. This is love-based branding at its finest, and it feels genuinely American in the best possible sense of the word.
Without a heart, it’s just a machine.
–Southwest TV spot
Like many good companies, Warby Parker started with a real and pervasive challenge they saw in the world: glasses are too expensive. But what makes them great is their commitment to social benefit, that by all appearances comes from a place of generosity mixed with business savvy:
By circumventing traditional channels, designing glasses in-house, and engaging with customers directly, we’re able to provide higher-quality, better-looking prescription eyewear at a fraction of the going price.
Almost one billion people worldwide lack access to glasses, which means that 15% of the world’s population cannot effectively learn or work. To help address this problem, Warby Parker partners with nonprofits like VisionSpring to ensure that for every pair of glasses sold, a pair is distributed to someone in need.
– From the company’s History page
Warby’s values permeate every corner of their communications and culture. They treasure employees and strive to create a working environment where team members can “think big, have fun, and do good.” These three things are critical to their success. As Dan Pink says, creative professionals (maybe all professionals?) need three things in order to thrive: autonomy, mastery, and purpose. Warby Parker offers these perks in spades.
Another great thing about this company is that they’ve found a legitimate way to turn the mundane process of buying glasses into an experience that’s both personal and philanthropic. Not only is it a little like Christmas to find one of their blue “home try-on” boxes on your front porch, but every pair sold results in another pair being given to a person in need. And they don’t stop there; Warby’s nonprofit partners teach men and women in developing countries how to give eye exams and sell glasses. Note the seamless blend of branding and principles. The brand is a true reflection of their beliefs, rather than a contradiction or an obfuscating veneer.
Their business strategy is paying dividends. Annual revenues top $100 million. They topped Fast Company’s list of the 50 Most Innovative Companies for 2015. And they’ve made what appears to be a smooth expansion from online-only to ten high-end storefronts and counting.
Warby’s brand identity is all about the sum of parts. The overall feeling is bookish, lighthearted and earnest. It exudes excellence and care. Their logo is a simple wordmark, no symbols or mascots. It’s a timeless and appropriate design solution, but it’s not particularly special in and of itself. The real workhorse elements of their branding are copywriting, typography, color, and illustration. Their copy style manages to sound friendly and missional at the same time. The typography is a smart pairing of Utopia, a crisp serif typeface with modernist roots, and Proxima Nova, a friendly sans serif with a geometric structure. Warby Parker’s main color is a bright blue that invokes clarity, tranquility, tropical waters, and sunny skies. The illustration style is hand-sketched and whimsical yet monochromatic. It provides a relaxed counterpoint to the crisp typography and color palette. The images are witty and executed with panache. As an integrated system, this brand identity is a superb reflection of values that grew from love of people and a desire to meet practical needs around the world.
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I could offer a hundred more examples, but hopefully you’re starting to see how the Warby Parkers of the world are fundamentally different from brands that are built on ego or fear. We’re living in a strange time when an increasing number of businesses wield greater power than the countries that allegedly govern them. I don’t know what this bodes for the future, but it’s undoubtedly a tremendous responsibility. The importance of connecting our work to the greater good has never been more crucial.
Building a brand on love isn’t all giggles and glitter. It takes hard work, introspection and the will to be ruthlessly honest about what we’re doing with our lives. For some people, going through this process leads to a realization that major change is in order. The uncertainty can be terrifying. But if you let passion shape your organization’s purpose, I can promise you that the future, however it plays out, will be bright.