The majority of brands do marketing very simply. They market what they have to sell: products or services, and their defining features, pricing, or benefits. But more visionary brands market something much more compelling than what they have to sell today: They champion a long-term vision for something meaningful that we can all get behind. Making this switch, from selling today’s products or services to selling a timeless, optimistic vision, can benefit us all–and drive business success in the short and long term.
IBM champions a Smarter Planet rather than enterprise servers. Patagonia champions a sustainable planet rather than breathable fabrics. Nike champions an athletic mindset rather than just Air soles. And American Express champions small business, not just the features of its cards. These are some of those visionary brands that have figured it out.
But despite these visible examples, many brands–even game-changing brands–don’t take that approach. Tesla focuses on its Model S features, price, and range; SolarCity focuses on its financing and cost advantages, and Apple tells us about its latest products and features (although the “Shot with an iPhone 6” campaign begins to make people and the planet the hero rather than Apple products). Pharmaceutical companies focus on the lifestyle benefit of drugs; car brands sell price, features, or a lifestyle; and on and on. Most of the $600 billion marketing industry focuses on selling today’s products and services, rather than a compelling vision for tomorrow that resonates with a deeper meaning. While people are craving meaning in their lives, and looking for brands that can help satiate that need, too many brands are selling what we have plenty of: features, options, fleeting lifestyle benefits.
What if Tesla didn’t just sell the Model S on features and price, but championed the shift to zero emissions and the future of human propulsion? Many of us could get behind that vision, emotionally and in action; and, by championing a new social norm of all-electric, more people would enter the market. Sure, Tesla may help Nissan sell more Leafs and Chevrolet more Volts, but if it took a rising-tide-lifts-all-boats mentality, more all-electric buyers in the market would benefit Tesla, with many graduating to a Tesla after driving another electric car.
Ebay spends tens of millions per year on marketing what you can find on its site right now, but how many know about its founder Pierre Omidyar’s guiding intent to “create more economic opportunity for everyone,” or the myriad stories of opportunity playing out on its platforms every day? Creating opportunity for people is a big, meaningful vision that goes to the core of our human values; eBay’s platform creates economic opportunity, and its marketing could champion economic opportunity in many forms. That’s something that could energize its users, partners, employees, and citizens of the communities in which it operates.
Taking this approach works on a number of levels: It builds deep emotional connection with people who share the brands’ values, and it’s clear now that for most people, a choice of a brand is an investment in meaning, not just features–and a brands’ meaning can endure long after the features are out of date. By aligning interests, a brand sets up the potential of citizen participation around a shared objective, meaning the brand’s idea can travel “for free.” President Obama and Chambers of Commerce across the country advocate for American Express’s Small Business Saturday, something that never could have happened for a campaign around Amex’s cards. We’ve also seen values-oriented vision galvanize employees; Starbucks’s chief strategy officer Matt Ryan said in Fast Company, “We’re able to see a very distinct market improvement in the store’s comp performance . . . controlling for all other variables, when partners believe we’re doing the right thing values-wise. That’s pretty amazing.”
How can brands make this shift? It starts with a clear intention on what success really means for a brand: In the long term, how is the world better if your brand succeeds? Ask yourself, is that vision compelling enough that, like Small Business Saturday, the President could get behind your idea? Or what about your daughter–could she tell her friends with pride what your company stands for?