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Futureproof Brand Secret? Uncomfortable Questions

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Last week, I delivered a talk on motivating consumers to action. My formula for success boiled down to two simple fundamentals. Understand yourself, and understand your customer.

How hard could this be? There isn't a brand manager alive who doesn't understand their brand and target market, right?

Wrong. If my experience working with a spectrum of clients is any indicator, brand managers tend to look at their consumer and brand very rationally, in a way that is easily quantifiable. In the process, they miss is a deeper, more powerful undercurrent.

Understand Your Brand

As Simon Sinek argues, most brands know what they do, and how they do it. But they utterly fail to understand why they exist.

I've worked on some of the biggest, most sophisticated brands in the world. Even these guys usually reflect their reason for existence back onto their consumer: We exist to give moms pride in their home, or We exist to provide you a refreshing pause in the day. Makes for a great tagline, but a lousy reason for existence.

I'm encouraged by the success of purpose-driven companies like Apple and Seventh Generation. Their company was an extension of their founders' personal beliefs. Steve Jobs wanted to challenge the status quo in everything he did; Jeffrey Hollender wanted to create a world where humans and nature co-existed in harmony.

But what to do in the case of, say, a major label household cleaner? More often than not, the product was created by in-house chemists to fulfill a particular market niche. No personal belief in sight.

Complicating matters is the fact most of these products aren't branded as extensions of their company. Few consumers know Mr. Clean is Procter, or Vim is Unilever.

But Unilever does seem to be unveiling a strategy to answer this dilemma. The packaged goods giant now ties product to company in advertising - for example, unfurling a small 'U' logo flag at the end of commercials. And Unilever the company has an extremely strong corporate belief system, complete with social and environmental platforms that are industry-leading.

Although it's still more difficult for a Unilever brand manager to connect the dots between their product and their corporate beliefs than, say, a Seventh Generation employee, the giant packaged goods company is closing the product/belief gap.

Understand Your Consumer

It's no secret consumers are looking for more than products. In fact, the more products are commoditized, the more consumers want brands with congruent beliefs to buy into.

Brands have always been about aligned beliefs, its true. Consumers defined themselves by the brands they kept -- I'm a Harley guy, or I'm an Armani woman. These alignments, although heartfelt, seldom went deeper than the message the brands advertised to consumers -- the 'lifestyle' they promised.

Today, consumers want brands that fulfill deeper emotional needs. Brands that are willing to be transparent and humble. Brands with sincere commitments to the environment, social equity and responsible governance.

This is a far cry from consumer needs just a decade ago. I believe it's a reflection of the rising insecurities we all confront (I call them the four forces of chaos). And for brands, it means understanding - to paraphrase John Marshall Roberts -- your consumer's worldview as much as their rational, pragmatic needs.

The Intersection: Where Futureproof Brands Are Born

Your brand's belief system will not align with your consumer's emotional needs on every point. Even if you love the way Seventh Generation sees the world, chances are you'll still see plenty of areas of disagreement.

However, if your beliefs are aligned on a few points, those anchors open the doors for a conversation. As Blair Enns says, they are the foundation upon which you inspire the interested.

And as your relationship deepens, these points of alignment can align your brand's direction with your consumer's vision of the future. Influencing your direction in areas like innovation.

And building that futureproof brand we all want.