A great brand is hard to find. “I walked through a hardware store last night and I came across 50 brands I didn’t know existed,” says Scott Bedbury. “They may be great products, but they’re not great brands.”
Bedbury should know — he’s already working on his second great brand. As senior vice president of marketing at Starbucks Coffee Co., Bedbury, 39, is responsible for growing the $700 million Seattle-based company into a global brand. Since Bedbury joined Starbucks in 1995, the company has been on a branding blitz: beginning a relationship with United Airlines to serve Starbucks on all United flights; joining with Redhook Ale Brewery Inc. to introduce Double Black Stout, a malt beer flavored with coffee; venturing with Pepsi-Cola Co. to market Starbucks’s Frappuccino drink in supermarkets; joining with Dreyer’s Grand Ice Cream to introduce six flavors of Starbucks Ice Cream; opening its first retail stores in Tokyo and Singapore, with 10 more to follow in each market; expanding the Starbucks stores to 1,100 outlets with 22,000 employees; and serving coffee to 4 million people each week.
Building the Starbucks brand, however, is deja vu for Bedbury: his first great brand was Nike Inc. When he joined the Beaverton, Oregon-based footwear and apparel company in 1987, Nike was a $750 million business; when he left seven years later, Nike was a $4 billion business. In between Bedbury directed Nike’s worldwide advertising efforts and broke the “Just Do It” branding campaign. “I can honestly say that Nike left its imprint on me in ways I never thought possible,” Bedbury says, “largely because of the strength of the Nike culture.”
Whether the product is sneakers, coffee — or a brand called You — building a great brand depends on knowing the right principles. Fast Company asked Bedbury to identify his eight brand-building principles.
1. A great brand is in it for the long haul.
For decades we had great brands based on solid value propositions — they’d established their worth in the consumer’s mind. Then in the 1980s and 1990s, a lot of companies sold out their brands. They stopped building them and started harvesting them. They focused on short-term economic returns, dressed up the bottom line, and diminished their investment in longer-term brand-building programs. As a result, there were a lot of products with very little differentiation. All the consumers saw was who had the lowest price — which is not a profitable place for any brand to be.
Then came Marlboro Friday and the Marlboro Man fell off his horse. Today brands are back stronger than ever. In an age of accelerating product proliferation, enormous customer choice, and growing clutter and clamor in the marketplace, a great brand is a necessity, not a luxury. If you take a long-term approach, a great brand can travel worldwide, transcend cultural barriers, speak to multiple consumer segments simultaneously, create economies of scale, and let you operate at the higher end of the positioning spectrum — where you can earn solid margins over the long term.
2. A great brand can be anything.
Some categories may lend themselves to branding better than others, but anything is brandable. Nike, for example, is leveraging the deep emotional connection that people have with sports and fitness. With Starbucks, we see how coffee has woven itself into the fabric of people’s lives, and that’s our opportunity for emotional leverage. Almost any product offers an opportunity to create a frame of mind that’s unique. Almost any product can transcend the boundaries of its narrow category.
Intel is a case study in branding. I doubt that most people who own a computer know what Intel processors do, how they work, or why they are superior to their competition in any substantive way. All they know is that they want to own a computer with “Intel inside.” As a result, Andy Grove and his team sit today with a great product and a powerful brand.
3. A great brand knows itself.
Anyone who wants to build a great brand first has to understand who they are. You don’t do this by getting a bunch of executive schmucks in a room so they can reach some consensus on what they think the brand means. Because whatever they come up with is probably going to be inconsistent with the way most consumers perceive the brand. The real starting point is to go out to consumers and find out what they like or dislike about the brand and what they associate as the very core of the brand concept.
Now that’s a fairly conventional formula — and it does have a risk: if you follow that approach all the way, you’ll end up with a narrowly focused brand. To keep a brand alive over the long haul, to keep it vital, you’ve got to do something new, something unexpected. It has to be related to the brand’s core position. But every once in a while you have to strike out in a new direction, surprise the consumer, add a new dimension to the brand, and reenergize it.
Of course, the other side of the coin is true as well: a great brand that knows itself also uses that knowledge to decide what not to do. At Starbucks, for instance, we were approached by a very large company that wanted to partner with us to create a coffee liquor. I’m sure Starbucks could go in and wreak havoc in that category. But we didn’t feel it was right for the brand now. We didn’t do a lot of research. We just reached inside and asked ourselves, “Does this feel right?” It didn’t. It wasn’t true to who we are right now.
4. A great brand invents or reinvents an entire category.
The common ground that you find among brands like Disney, Apple, Nike, and Starbucks is that these companies made it an explicit goal to be the protagonists for each of their entire categories. Disney is the protagonist for fun family entertainment and family values. Not Touchstone Pictures, but Disney. Apple wasn’t just a protagonist for the computer revolution. Apple was a protagonist for the individual: anyone could be more productive, informed, and contemporary.
From my experience at Nike, I can tell you that CEO Phil Knight is the consummate protagonist for sports and the athlete. That’s why Nike transcends simply building shoes or making apparel. As the protagonist for sports, Nike has an informed opinion on where sports is going, how athletes think, how we think about athletes, and how we each think about ourselves as we aim for a new personal best.
At Starbucks, our greatest opportunity is to become the protagonist for all that is good about coffee. Go to Ethiopia and you’ll immediately understand that we’ve got a category that is 900 years old. But here in the United States, we’re sitting on a category that’s been devoid of any real innovation for five decades.
A great brand raises the bar — it adds a greater sense of purpose to the experience, whether it’s the challenge to do your best in sports and fitness or the affirmation that the cup of coffee you’re drinking really matters.
5. A great brand taps into emotions.
It’s everyone’s goal to have their product be best-in-class. But product innovation has become the ante you put up just to play the game: it’s table stakes.
The common ground among companies that have built great brands is not just performance. They recognize that consumers live in an emotional world. Emotions drive most, if not all, of our decisions. Not many people sit around and discuss the benefits of encapsulated gas in the mid-sole of a basketball shoe or the advantages of the dynamic-fit system. They will talk about Michael Jordan’s winning shot against Utah the other night — and they’ll experience the dreams and the aspirations and the awe that go with that last-second, game-winning shot.
A brand reaches out with that kind of powerful connecting experience. It’s an emotional connection point that transcends the product. And transcending the product is the brand.
6. A great brand is a story that’s never completely told.
A brand is a metaphorical story that’s evolving all the time. This connects with something very deep — a fundamental human appreciation of mythology. People have always needed to make sense of things at a higher level. We all want to think that we’re a piece of something bigger than ourselves. Companies that manifest that sensibility in their employees and consumers invoke something very powerful.
Look at Hewlett-Packard and the HP Way. That’s a form of company mythology. It gives employees a way to understand that they’re part of a larger mission. Every employee who comes to HP feels that he or she is part of something that’s alive. It’s a company with a rich history, a dynamic present, and a bright future.
Levi’s has a story that goes all the way back to the Gold Rush. They have photos of miners wearing their dungarees. And every time you notice the rivets on a pair of their jeans, at some level it reminds you of the Levi’s story and the rich history of the product and the company. Ralph Lauren is trying to create history. His products all create a frame of mind and a persona. You go into his stores and there are props and stage settings — a saddle and rope. He’s not selling saddles. He’s using the saddle to tell a story. Stories create connections for people. Stories create the emotional context people need to locate themselves in a larger experience.
7. A great brand has design consistency.
Look at what some of the fashion brands have built — Ralph Lauren and Calvin Klein, for example. They have a consistent look and feel and a high level of design integrity. And it’s not only what they do in the design arena; it’s what they don’t do. They refuse to follow any fashion trend that doesn’t fit their vision. And they’re able to pull it off from one season to the next.
That’s just as true for strong brands like Levi’s or Gap or Disney. Most of these companies have a very focused internal design process. In the case of Nike, between its ad agency Wieden & Kennedy and Nike Design shop, probably 98% of every creative thing that could possibly be done is handled internally, from hang tags to packaging to annual reports. Today Nike has about 350 designers working for it — more than any company in the country — to make sure it keeps close watch over the visual expression of the brand.
They’re what I like to call “impassioned environmentalists” with their brands. They don’t let very many people touch them in the way of design or positioning or communication — verbal or non-verbal. It’s all done internally.
8. A great brand is relevant.
A lot of brands are trying to position themselves as “cool.” More often than not, brands that try to be cool fail. They’re trying to find a way to throw off the right cues — they know the current vernacular, they know the current music. But very quickly they find themselves in trouble. It’s dangerous if your only goal is to be cool. There’s not enough there to sustain a brand.
The larger idea is for a brand to be relevant. It meets what people want, it performs the way people want it to. In the last couple of decades there’s been a lot of hype about brands. A lot of propositions and promises were made and broken about how brands were positioned, how they performed, what the company’s real values were. Consumers are looking for something that has lasting value. There’s a quest for quality, not quantity.
Alan M. Webber (email@example.com), a founding editor of Fast Company, favors gold coast blend and maple-oatmeal scones. Scott Bedbury is a Sumatra man (hot or cold).