THE BLOG
11/25/2014 09:45 am ET Updated Jan 25, 2015

The Brand Idea: From Unity, Strength

In an era of digital cool, I still have faith in the unifying power of brand ideas, unhip as this may be. So should we all.

Only the brand idea -- Axe's "Irresistible attraction," or Honda Europe's "The power of dreams" -- has the power to unify disparate messages and business objectives. Tactical promotions can be aligned with thematic communications. Functional "reasons to believe" can be aligned with higher-order benefits.

Moreover, great brand ideas align traditional and digital media. The tension between different platforms -- "lean in" versus "lean back," actively- versus passively received -- can be resolved.

New technology is two-way, and it enables ongoing dialog between brands and consumers. However, "engagement" needs to be carefully constructed, lest marketers lose control of their message.

Digital creative executions can too easily devolve into cheap stunts. At the 2014 Grammy awards the fast-food chain Arby's caused a sensation when it poked fun at Pharrell Williams, an American rapper. His hat looked like the one in the Arby's logo, so the company tweeted, "Hey, #Pharrell, can we have our hat back?" It was the most talked-about fashion moment of the show, because it reminded people of pop-culture totems, including Smokey Bear and Harry Potter. The sly move inspired 77,000 re-tweets within 24 hours, and, just like that, Arby's became part of the zeitgeist. But there is little evidence the company sold more roast beef sandwiches.

Marketers must forge a paradigm that allows freedom within a framework, pulling off the trick of simultaneously permitting consumers to "participate" with brands while empowering marketers to manage message and dialog.

A beautiful brand idea is our holy grail. It is both "alive" -- inherently capable of evolution -- and meticulously constructed, a product of conceptual craftsmanship.

A beautiful brand idea is invisible yet possesses the gravitational force to unify messages across an exploding array of media, geography and cultures. It crystalizes the long-term relationship between consumer and brand that remains consistent yet, like a good marriage, deepens over time. It is inherently mutual and underpins subsequent engagement across both digital and analog media.

A beautiful brand idea is a commercial life force.

If brands are to weather today's challenges of globalization and media fractionation, consistency should be the bedrock of everything they do. If not, things fall apart. Nike lives and breathes the "Just do it" spirit across all media. The spirit is not simply a call to participate in sports. It is a rallying cry to push against convention and defined oneself independent of society. Through Nike, through a relationship with a brand that has forged a meaningful role in life, a paraplegic can ignore preconceptions and compete in a long-distance marathon. Nike+ is a not simply a wearable technology. It is a high-tech manifestation of Nike's soul. A fusion of innovation and conceptual precision, "Just do it" is always on.

Nike's spirit didn't appear out of thin air or drip from a Twitter feed. Like all great band ideas, it is the exquisitely refined vision that has been reinforced at every level and in every corner of an organization for forty years.

Great brand ideas are precise, the fruit of meticulous thinking. They possess four characteristics:

First, they are seamless fusions of insights into consumer behavior and a unique brand offer. The UBO must directly address the need revealed by the insight. Through "strong stain removal," OMO's "Dirt is good" resolves the tension between a mother's wish for her kids to explore the world and the hassle of getting tough spots out of clothes.

Second, great brand ideas should be surprising, which ensures they have a long life. Until HSBC shifted its strategy from a focus on retail banking to money management, its brand idea was "The world's local bank." The combination of global heft and local savvy, of towering scale and cultural empathy, was unexpected. For more than two decades the unifying power of HSBC's brand idea kept an expanding network from falling apart.

Third, the text for brand ideas must be evocative. Sometimes the brand idea doubles as a tagline. Sometimes it doesn't. Regardless, it articulates the brand's soul and role in life, serving as a manifesto that calls an organization to arms. Lian ziji, the brand idea of the leading Chinese sportswear producer Anta, is more electrifying than its English translation, "forge yourself." The character for lian has a fire radical that connotes a transformation of blood, sweat, and tears into shining glory.

Finally, the brand idea must be written in a way that feels "of" a specific category. Rolex's "Timeless champion" uses watch language, aligns that language with success, and alludes to the brand's heritage of craftsmanship. "Live for Greatness" or "Tell History, Not Time," two of Rolex's recent campaigns, would never have materialized without an enduring brand idea that springs from category-specific cues.

Carefully crafted ideas -- and adherence to the ABCs of brand building -- must remain our lighthouse. As brand pioneers, we must explore the shoals of a new digital landscape. But let's not become stranded by algorithmic trendiness. Timeless can be new.

This article original appeared on BigThink.com, to support the launch of my book, "Twitter is Not a Strategy: Rediscovering the Art of Brand Marketing"