Contact BSI
Derrick Daye
813.842.2260 Email us
Brand Culture

How Brand Culture Drives Brand Dominance


How Brand Culture Drives Brand Dominance

“Every decision is a prediction.”  ~ W. Edward Deming

Brand strategist’s think about the future because its their job to figure out what their organization ought to be doing today that will most likely result in achieving desired business (sales, margin and profit) goals and brand positioning goals tomorrow.

The core challenge facing the brand strategist of course is the problem of anticipating the future. If we’re ever to predict accurately, it’s much better to focus on understanding and identifying specific patterns of change, competitive weakness, hidden human needs unmet by the marketplace, latent opportunities and other pregnant possibilities for growth and development. Wayne Gretsky’s idea of what made him great as a hockey player was that he skated to where the puck would be rather than where it already was, and brand strategists are well advised to do the same.

Indeed, accurate predictions require deep insight.

The case study method is frequently used by the best business schools in the world as an aid in prediction. Case studies help us try and understand the biography of a company, how greatness was achieved and what the key milestones and decisions were on the road to greatness.

Nike is frequently used as a case study because of its evolution from small disrupter to market leader. What can be learned from the Nike journey is more relevant now than ever.

Nike’s Brand Evolution: From Nowhere To Everywhere

When Nike was formed in the early 1970’s it was a bit player in a global industry that had multiple corporations with sales in excess of a billion dollars. The largest sports footwear and apparel brand in the world at that time was Adidas. These companies were all enormous in size in comparison to Nike. So how is it that a tiny group of running enthusiasts from Beaverton, Oregon were able to upend the entire sports industry?

There were critical qualities of thinking and of values inside the culture and mindset of team Nike that set it apart. This mindset of seeing the world of sports in a new light created unique opportunities for growth. Even in the earliest days of the formation of the brand this difference in thought style was present. There was an intense commitment to seeking the truth of what sports performance was all about rather than what its managers assumed or wished it would be.

Innovation happens when we face the truth, respond to it and act upon it. Sound business and brand strategy decisions occur along this very same path. It may be the truth of what a biomechanics scientist learned in the research lab about the shock dispersion characteristics of different cushioning materials, it may be the truth of what different midsole materials reduce injury the most and increase protection, it may be the truth surrounding how to increase performance by reducing weight, it may be the truth of how it feels on the foot using one lacing design versus another. Later on in its learning journey Nike took its intense truth seeking values surrounding footwear performance enhancement and applied them to sports apparel, field testing, then to athlete promotions, advertising, retail displays, retail store designs and internet products and services, becoming the leading cultural protagonist of all that is good and cool about the joy of participating in sports and fitness experiences.

Today with hindsight it is possible to go back year-by-year and look at Nike’s major product launches and marketing campaigns and business performance to trace its remarkable rise as the premier global sports brand. But, perhaps a more interesting question is to ask why all the other major sports brands at the time of Nike’s birth stood by and watched this small scruffy, idiosyncratic company start building the foundations of its immense brand castle well within the range of their cannons and infantry, while they all possessed much larger marketing war chests?

Foresight in strategic brand planning is a much more difficult thing to do. No one can tell us where the stock market will close at the end of the day next Monday, or which team will win the next NFL, NBA or World Cup titles. And while there were certainly individuals and groups of people inside of Nike that were trying to predict which athletes and teams to sign this was only one facet of how Nike leaders were thinking about the future. Even more fundamental than athlete endorsement were the truth seeking qualities around product performance and the emerging truth seeking qualities to uncover our understanding of the role that sports and fitness actually plays in society. And the insights that developed in the world of social truth-seeking led Nike to the realization that in the Just Do It brief that it had the opportunity to uniquely step into the brand role of a cultural protagonist for sports and fitness. No other brand in the category was even remotely thinking this way in 1987.

Cultural Protagonism

What is cultural protagonism? It’s a destination every brand should be striving to reach. Again I turn to Nike as an example to make my point. Nike at its core is passionate about promoting the experience of sports and fitness to promote and encourage greater participation and enjoyment. This in turn led the company down a path of seriously studying other companies outside of the sports footwear and apparel industry that had achieved excellence in storytelling. Disney and Time, Inc. were two companies that I personally studied at the request of Phil Knight in order to glean insights and inspiration as to what Nike might consider doing to become more effective as a marketing organization. This is truth seeking of a different order and in lateral or adjacent business categories. This is much further afield than studying your competitors marketing tactics or what the industry norms are for bringing product to market. This is thought leadership with a link back to the core brand value of truth seeking.

The effective brand development strategist should be comfortable performing this kind of lateral thinking but in practice it is rare. There are cultural issues for this. The decision making structure within most organizations is hierarchical and patriarchal in nature. There are dozens of hidden assumptions that management makes about competing in a category or succeeding in business. If new thinking is introduced at all it tends to be incremental in nature with a very low level of originality and risk. This describes the competitive organizations that Nike was up against and the vulnerabilities in their culture that Nike exploited.

Which leads into the important role of locating your brands purpose and values. These are critical culture building elements that can make all the difference in where your company ends up two or three decades down the line. All organizations should locate an inspirational set of human and social values, which can be defined in a way that is motivating and moving. Business can come to mean something more than just being an engine of financial success. We are now at an age and stage in world culture development where people are looking at the total character of a company not just at the individual products it produces.

There is a big difference between company cultures and how organizations are set up to achieve their goals. Some companies rely heavily on sales promotions to generate financial results. This is sometimes called push marketing because you are trying to push products off the retail shelf by lowering price. This tactic actually tears down a brands image. Managing goals by looking at spreadsheets will never give you great insight into how real value is created with consumers and society at large.

There are some company cultures that make more of an effort to conduct annual marketing teardowns as the basis for developing new marketing plans in the coming year. Marketing is a much broader discipline than sales planning. It looks at consumer profiles and market segments and strives to create easily perceived values and benefits to different target groups based upon what those groups seek as most important. Marketing strives to build products the market wants and generate demand for those products with advertising, promotions and events thereby reducing the need to lower price to move the product.

A Culture Designed For Winning

Then there are some company cultures that add strategic brand planning to their thinking. They use foresight to predict how new brand initiatives and innovation can dramatically shift the user experience in the category. They look outside their industry for innovation ideas. They use strategic research to uncover hidden truths. They use concept generation workshops to create new brand initiatives to take the emotional high ground is in their category. This is how some companies learn to play the role of a cultural protagonist and in the process distance themselves from their more simple-minded competitors.

Far-sighted thinkers grind against the sensibilities of linear thinkers who develop new plans in small incremental steps. Visionaries who work inside more traditional thinking organizations often feel frustrated by the built-in biases and habits of thinking that are common throughout the organization.

Which is why they leave and go on to create astonishing levels of new value elsewhere. Unless of course someone triggers change in the culture that allows them to reach their full potential.

For Nike, the culture was the advantage. Looking for the same level of success for your brand? Find a way to build a culture and mindset where everyone can skate to where the hockey puck will be.

These and other insights into brand truth, purpose and deep campaigns is covered in greater detail in my new book, Soulful Branding – Unlock the Hidden Energy In Your Company and Brand. Here’s more on what I learned working on Nike’s Just Do It.

The Blake Project Can Help: Please email us for more about our purpose, mission, vision and values and brand culture workshops.

Branding Strategy Insider is a service of The Blake Project: A strategic brand consultancy specializing in Brand Research, Brand Strategy, Brand Licensing and Brand Education

FREE Publications And Resources For Marketers

Recommend this story

Subscribe, Follow and Stay Connected to BSI


Leave a Reply

Submit your comment