The next evolution of brands: From USP to something much deeper

Many brands are going beyond moving product—to moving and shaping the world.

Many brands are going beyond moving product—to moving and shaping the world.

As a marketing agency guy, I give a fair amount of presentations; including the often-asked-for-yet-also-somehow-dreaded capabilities presentation for our firm. A big part of that dog-and-pony show, and something potential clients often ask for, is our take on branding and marketing right now. That’s not always an easy thing to answer.

We marketers live in tumultuous times—riddled with ever-expanding technology and ever-shortening attention spans. But there is a relatively recent turn in marketing and branding that I think is both fascinating and here to stay.

We may be witnessing the final breaths of the Unique Selling Proposition (USP). The lights are low, the monitors are beeping, and the USP is lying there, gasping, clutching its sweat-soaked sheets, fading into obscurity.

All drama and personification aside, I think the USP, in today’s environment, is just not enough.

In recent years, between globalization, more places to buy things, more things to buy, and a tidal wave on choices on everything… a truly unique USP is about as rare as an albino alligator. Competition abounds for nearly every product or service.

Consequently, differentiation is often nearly impossible, so brands are reaching deeper. They are creating, and more importantly, openly sharing, a sense of purpose.

This expresses itself in many ways: Missions, philosophies, brand essences, and even taking stands on laws, discrimination, civil and gay rights, politics, religious issues, and other subjects once thought too taboo for business.

It seems that many brands are willing to attract, engage, and keep a smaller, loyal group of people over certain principles, even if that may alienate other groups.

And that’s where things get interesting.

I’ll give you a recent, turbulent example: The brouhaha over Indiana’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act. A surprising number of companies and brands—from behemoths Apple and Walmart to the agile Angie’s List and Salesforce—went very public with their disapproval and plans against the law. The brand backlash was backed by a public slew of social media outrage, and, under pressure, Governor Michael Pence amended the law. (There’s still controversy whether he went far enough, according to many brands.)

In the past, most companies or brands NEVER would have taken a public stance like this—even a more popular one. CEOs may have worked behind-the-scenes with legislators, quietly, to move things in a certain direction. But fear of reprisal or loss of sales kept touchy subjects intentionally out of the public spotlight.

Having a deeper purpose is something we often expect or want politicians or celebrities to have. They use their fame or influence as a means to bring about some sort of change or action. But, they are individuals. They may represent a group or interest, but ultimately, they act on their own.

Brands or companies, on the other hand, are more abstract—comprised of multiple layers of people, history, products, money, influence, and more. They’re infinitely more complicated, yet, when it comes to taking a stance, are acting as a single entity.

Granted, not all brands are doing this, but more and more seem to be. From what I can tell, the movement started on the consumer side of the business. Here are just a few examples:

Betty Crocker’s We love all families celebrated every type of family: Single parent, multi-generational, same-sex, married, and not married. To them, it’s “love that makes a home.”

Wheaties made a major brand shift. Instead of solely holding up professional athletes as inspiration for the rest of us (as it did from the mid-1930s), the cereal now celebrates “Awaken the champion within,” including Special Olympians, the Paralympics, and everyday Joes like you and me.

In more conservative B2B land, it’s not as radical as consumer, but this phenomenon is turning up in the form of selecting and publicly supporting charities, causes, candidates, and more.

Brands having a deeper purpose is particularly important to Millennials, too. I’ve read this in many articles, white papers and reports trying desperately to decipher the mobile-obsessed multitude. The generation in their mid 30s and younger expect more from companies than a mere exchange of goods for cash. They demand transparency… purpose… a mission… and action on issues. That’s whether a company is selling them something or employing them.

What drove this new age of brand purpose? Good question, and way beyond my pay grade or mental capacity to answer. I do believe there were many forces at play, including social, economic, marketing, and political developments that are unique to our times. Everything from Citizens United, to lack of faith in institutions and leaders, to social media and more, all had a hand in this.

From a marketing perspective, I think we’ve entered a new era. It’s almost as if brands or companies are becoming more like people—with a look, personality, voice, history, vibe, a thing or things they do well—and, underneath it all, a sense of purpose they’re willing to share with the world.

– Andy Badalamenti is the creative director for CI-Group

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