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Brands need ROOTS to grow

You don’t hear so much about brand essences these days. You still see them at the top or in the middle of brand models. But no one seems to talk about them any more.

Funny, because they used to be all the rage. The essence was the crowning glory of every brand presentation. “Because in the end, when everything else is stripped away, what this brand is all about, the reason why it’s on this planet…is…here it comes…wait for it…”

There were always different definitions. It was a brand’s ‘true nature’, ‘its DNA’, ‘its heart and soul’, ‘its rallying cry’, even ‘its mantra’.

A brand essence had to be clearly defined and easily grasped, clever and obvious in equal measure. It had to be unique, single-minded and authentic. It had to work with internal and external audiences.

And of course it had to match the experience. So one way or another it had to convey a benefit, not the only benefit but the benefit.

The catch was you were only allowed a couple of words. Sometimes it was literally one. Nike was ‘inspirational’. Walt Disney was ‘magical’. Coke was ‘youth’. We made up a word for Polycell in DIY, ‘easier-ness’.

Other times you could get away with two. American Express was ‘personal recognition’. Apple, ‘self-expression’. Magnum, ‘sensual pleasure’. Aunt Bessie’s, ‘home-made know-how’ (we cheated).

There was a brief phase when the two words were meant to be a ‘motivator’ and a ‘discriminator’. I remember Penguin biscuits being ‘happifying sustenance’. It never caught on.

At its best, an essence said ‘this is how we’re going to connect with people’. It was as much a promise as an essence. And in the majority of cases, it was assumed the connection would be primarily emotional.

So Guinness ‘brings out your inner strength’. Lil-Lets is ‘designed by women for women’. L’Oreal is ‘because you’re worth it’.

But all too often essences ended up as some agonised-over words that meant a huge amount to those who’d done the agonising and a whole lot less to those who hadn’t. “TA-DAH!” turned into ta-dah.

Which is why they started to slip out of the spotlight. Some people said it was better to focus on core values, often three of them. So Guinness became ‘Power. Communion. Goodness.’.

Others argued the whole idea of an essence was too passive, so better to think in terms of a belief. The connection would be through the sharing of that belief.

And then riding into town, on its dazzling white charger, came the brand purpose. Part missionary zeal, part social agenda. It stretched the idea of an essence both upwards and outwards.

But to this day, there’s still a shortage of good examples. In fact, people always, always quote the same one. Dove ‘helps women to escape the oppression of the beauty industry by finding their own beauty’. I know, everybody. It’s like an insight became a movement.

So are we actually better off with brand purposes?

The commonest definition you’ll find for one is ‘how we’re going to change your life for the better’. Even that is ambitious. It’s hard enough creating a minor disruption.

But often that ‘change your life’ gets changed to ‘change the world’. And then we’re off down a much more challenging path. How many brands can rightfully claim to have changed the world?

The other problem is purposes are now expressed externally. It would be all right if brands kept their purposes to themselves and we were left to judge them by what they did for us. But the view seems to be if you’re going to change the world, the best place to start is by telling the world.

So your purpose becomes your communication. It’s back to the idea of a shared belief. That’s the hope, anyway.

But if you’re not careful, it all becomes more than a little portentous. That or simply disconnected from the reality. What people say they want but not what they actually want.

I think it’s high time brands went back to their roots. In the end, it doesn’t matter if you call it a purpose or an essence or a promise. Just make sure your brand stands for something distinctive that is of value to your consumers.

And if you want your brand to grow, plant its roots in the richest soil. Those simple, timeless, human truths. Our deeper needs.

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