Building relentlessly relevant brands.
By Mike Leiser
At a time when disruptive businesses like DoorDash and Lidl are constantly on the tails of more established players, it’s easy for these companies to overlook their most powerful asset: Their brand.
Brands can be levers of growth and drive business transformation. But to do so, they must be modern. They need to have a strong purpose that goes well beyond just making money – one that creates shared value with inherently distrustful audiences. They need to understand that brands are built, not on marketing messages, but on the engaging experiences they deliver to customers. And even though eating and drinking can only happen in real life (at least so far), these experiences must be dynamic and powered by digital, reaching customers through many different channels in many different ways.
Brands that achieve all of this aren’t just relevant, they are relentlessly relevant. They become indispensable, often causing people to pay them the ultimate compliment: “I can’t imagine my life without it.” Prophet has been quantifying brand relevance with consumers for four years in the Prophet Brand Relevance Index®, measuring how well brands perform on four components: customer obsession, ruthless pragmatism, pervasive innovation and distinctive inspiration. The highest-scoring brands know they need to earn and re-earn loyalty all the time by doing something others don’t.
We’ve grown increasingly confident in the business impact of such relevance. We’ve found that companies with the most relevant brands outperformed the S&P 500 by 3 times in revenue and 205 times in profit in the last decade.
Be Bigger Than Food
Today’s consumers, especially younger ones, expect good products and services. But they want more. They want to do business with companies that stand for something bigger and better for society. They are mistrustful of greenwashing and “fake woke” posturing and look for companies that have demonstrated a transparent reason for being. That means, at the most basic level, that companies should be environmentally responsible, and treat employees and customers fairly.
Food and beverage brands have to clear a much higher bar. Because people ingest these products, they are more vigilant, so supply chains must be as transparent as possible. Among today’s health-conscious consumers, any hint that you’ve cut corners, used sub-standard ingredients or that you’re causing any excess harm to animals, the planet or other people will result in a fast, furious backlash.
But purpose is much bigger than simply doing the right thing. It’s a reason for being that makes your brand different than others. My favorite example is Chick-fil-A, the American quick-service chain. It is by far the highest-ranking restaurant in our Index, with chicken sandwiches beloved by fans. (Nando’s ranks highest in the U.K.)
But it is Chick-fil-A’s commitment to making sure every encounter at every restaurant is warm and gracious that feeds customer love, from personal greetings to holding umbrellas for them during rainstorms. No wonder it earns off-the-charts scores on statements like “Has a purpose I believe in” and “Makes me happy.”
Starbucks is another brand powering growth through purpose. Of course, it makes great coffee and customers are also enthusiastic about its food. But its purpose is much loftier. It wants to “inspire and nurture the human spirit – one person, one cup and one neighborhood at a time.” Starbuck fans don’t just get a drink. They get a little refuge from their daily life.
Create Experiences That Deliver
The most relevant brands are ones that harness that purpose to every experience so that each time a consumer interacts with the brand, the relationship deepens. Gatorade is an intriguing example, leveraging growth through this connection of purpose and experience. Based on the belief that elite athletes are made, not born, its research through the Gatorade Sports Science Institute makes sure it is at the leading edge of hydration and nutrition for high performance. It sponsors youth training camps and works with influential schools and coaches. And at the elite level, it partners with athletes to customize products so they can optimize their performance. Each interaction blends its mission with memorable engagements, ever-improving athletic ability.
Restaurant experiences also need to keep evolving. Food and service must be consistently high quality, but achieving relevance requires that brands look for inventive ways to connect with customers. To be pervasively innovative, brands need to surprise people, giving them something they never even knew they wanted. Brands need to help hungry customers get what they crave faster and on their own terms, thinking about innovation in a much broader context than what’s on the menu. Smart companies are using pop-up stalls and food trucks. They’re placing favorite brands in unexpected places, like airports. And they find unusual delivery methods – one popular U.S. bakery dispenses cupcakes through old ATM machines. Such innovations prove brands are willing to follow people everywhere.
Spark Up Your Digital Transformation
Eating and drinking are real-life experiences. But it’s increasingly critical to respect people’s digital – and especially mobile – lives. Digital wallets and ease of payments are now simply expected, as is online ordering.
But again, settling for the basics isn’t enough. Brands need to understand that consumers see the world through their phones, and they want someone to make that easier. Customers not only want to shop for food digitally, they also want the whole food journey to happen online. They expect recipes, list-making and nutrition content. They want inspiration. And they want it all to come with ease of use and as few clicks as possible.
Moreover, they expect it from companies that don’t even sell food. Appliances like Electrolux and KitchenAid are finding growth through such digital efforts, understanding that people reward them when they play a much bigger role in answering that all-important “What’s for dinner?” question.
Finally, it is essential to remember that market disruption doesn’t just come from newcomers. Every day, we see old-school names reinventing themselves, truly modernizing their brands and leveraging them for uncommon growth.
And they do it by continuously finding new ways to connect, engage and inspire their customers.
Mike Leiser is a senior partner and chief strategy officer for Prophet, a consultancy that helps companies unlock uncommon growth in the face of disruption. An expert in developing and implementing brand strategies that build market leadership, he works with leading brands in retail, travel & hospitality, consumer goods, healthcare and financial services. He earned his MBA from the University of Chicago Booth School of Business.