Blogs & Comment

The most exciting brands today got there by ditching the rule book

Big companies need to learn the lessons of today’s hottest young brands: screw “this is the way we’ve always done it.” Reinvention starts today

Starbucks barista making drinks

Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz’s 2007 “Valentine’s Day Memo” is one of the most important corporate “resets” of modern corporate history. (Ted S. Warren/AP)

“What if we started over?” ING Direct, Canada’s proto-fintech venture and the subject of my first book, was born, essentially, with that question. Around the table the day it was uttered were people abandoning a mature, hidebound industry with the aim of disrupting it. And they weren’t callow kids. They were veterans, energized less by their dreams than by the desire to toss grenades over their shoulders as they fled the status quo. Obsessed about fixing what was broken, it didn’t immediately occur to them that it might be more fun to make something new. When it finally did, to borrow the language of Robert Frost, it made all the difference. There really is nothing like a clean sheet of paper to remind you of how powerful a brand can be.

If you’re not careful, the state of branded marketing these days can get you down a little. Whether it’s the frustratingly unfulfilled promise of social media, or financially opaque ad placements, or agencies that substitute head count for experience, or awareness-building platforms that are disappearing like polar icecaps, or brands that are encrusted to the point of immobility with the bad decisions of a dozen previous custodians, a CMO’s day often isn’t nearly as much fun as it ought to be. It can be hard to make a difference, a defensive game in which more and more effort is expended for less and less effect, until the job is eventually reduced to decreeing bigger logos and new tag lines.

It’s understandable to wonder, in fact, if we’re witnessing the end for this bit of capitalist tradecraft, but hope is there if you look hard enough. Amid the moldering stumps of old-growth brands—and often inexplicably overlooked by its own trade media—the practice of branded marketing is actually thriving.  Almost without exception, exemplars are scrappy young businesses whose brands were born on the same clean sheets of paper as their products were, whose history is measured in months or years rather than decades, and whose founders still show up for work in the morning. In the lower tiers of categories from booze to razor blades, some of the best branded marketing in the world is being done by the companies that are the newest at it.

And the best of these sapling brands are actually starting to shake things up. Where branding pluck like this was once confined to incubators and Kickstarter campaigns, success stories like Canada’s Frank & Oak, Australia’s Bellroy and American brands like Warby Parker, Harry’s and even Tesla are now giving their mainstream competitors some heartburn. And what is so thrilling to see is that they’re not just doing it by being cheaper or awesomer. They’re doing it with a clear, narrow sense of purpose, a sublime customer experience, and the kind of coherence that seems all but impossible when a company gets old and big, and its founding idea lost to time and well-intended meddling.

Admittedly, it’s my job to care about this stuff. But go order yourself a new razor, a nice wallet and a natty cardigan and tell me your life didn’t just get a little better. And then tell me you don’t think that any company could be this authentic and satisfying to do business with, if were simply willing to double down on its founding ideals. That it doesn’t have to be new to be brilliant, it just has to be focused. Discovering a great brand as it comes of age should leave the rest of us wondering if we’re expecting enough from ourselves. Wondering if all this tinkering and optimizing the value in our brands might actually be destroying the goodwill behind it. Wondering if maybe it’s time to start over.

It probably is. Obviously, nobody is going to dustbin a money-making brand with decades of history. That would be dumb. But I’ve seen nothing but good come of brand leaders who take a holiday from tactics and return to first principles, and anyone can do it. Giants like Ford, McDonald’s and Starbucks have all made strategic resets: in the latter case, CEO Howard Schultz’s famous “Valentine’s Day Memo” of 2007 decried the “watering down of the Starbucks experience” that had resulted from rapid expansion, and urged a return to the “romance and theatre…the intimate experience” of the barista’s relationship with the customer.

There’s clearly no age or size limit for a clean sheet of paper, if the courage is there. A clean sheet of paper, even if it’s hypothetical, bestows the luxury of focus, shines a bright light on what really matters to your customers, and even has a way of clearing the room of marketing dilettantes. It’s hard to imagine how a CMO could make a bigger difference than that.