Jim Stengel is a Clark Kentish looking man who was born and raised in Lancaster, graduated from Franklin & Marshall College in 1977 and embarked on a Superman’s career in marketing and branding. He worked for Procter & Gamble for more than 25 years, and from 2001 to 2008 he was their Global Marketing Officer. In case you’re wondering, that’s a really big job.
Jim is now running his own consulting firm and is an adjunct professor at UCLA. He has written a book titled “GROW, How Ideals Power Growth and Profit at the World’s Greatest Companies,” that draws on his experience at P&G and elsewhere, and further develops many of the principles he learned while marketing some of the world’s most recognizable brands. It’s one of the best books on branding I’ve read in a long time because it shows how building a strong brand is directly linked to growing your company.
The major premise of Jim’s book is that the most successful brands in the world are not just about delivering great products or services, they are committed to brand ideals that are based on improving people’s lives. He explains that Pampers is not just selling diapers, they are committed to helping moms with their child development; and Apple is not just continually producing cool technology, they are helping people explore their creative side and express themselves in unique ways.
Jim was kind enough to share his thoughts with me about his book, his career and his concept that understanding how a company works to improve people’s lives helps that company focus their business model far more effectively.
OK, are you really Brand Superman?
Well, I’ve been called a lot of things in my career. I love the business we’re in. And I love working with people to unlock their energy and unlock their growth.
You explain early in your book that brand is far more valuable today than it was in 1980, and that it now makes up much more of the value of a typical company than it did then. How is that brand value defined?
Millward Brown developed the brand valuation process I use in the book. They look at consumer affinity, financial performance, wealth creation and a factor for brand momentum. Sure, it’s a little bit of a black box. One example is Samsung. They’ve had a great increase in the value of their company that is attributed to the brand. They realize it and are working to strengthen their marketing capabilities.
A brand is a precious thing. It’s very organic. It can fall apart quickly. In a lot of companies, they take it for granted and get complacent about the care and nurturing of the brand. But successful brands spend a lot of time on taking care of the brand and they orient themselves to it.
Your book is based on the concept that there are five fields of fundamental human values that companies should build their brand from—eliciting joy, enabling connection, inspiring exploration, evoking pride and impacting society. You believe a company should focus its brand on one of these elements. But isn’t it tempting to say, “Hey, we do all of those things, plus every Friday it’s crazy T-shirt day!”?
It’s important to be clear about which field they are in. Petrobras and Chipotle are clear about changing society for the better. Mercedes is clear on evoking pride. Understanding it means staying focused on one ideal. It starts with how you talk to your employees, over and over. One factor is tone of voice and personality, your character. It has to come from your ideal and be consistent with value to the customer.
In your book, you talk about how a clear brand strategy will speed up your business process. But do you think building a brand moves at a faster pace now than, say, 20 years ago?
I think it does move at a different pace, for a variety of reasons. If you take any business that has a crisis, it spreads so much more quickly. There’s less time to plan. People have to trust their instincts to react quickly. In so many categories there are disruptive players that come in, like Amazon did to the retail industry. And then I think that there is clearly more money in digital media for many brands, and that’s a very live kind of process. You have to be faster on your feet. It’s not like years ago when you planned a few ads and let them run. Some companies have abandoned planning, which you still need, but you have to be able to change on the fly as well. It takes exceptional management skills.
Ad agencies get this quite quickly. You can look at many brands that have great longstanding relationships with their agencies. Johnnie Walker, Jack Daniels, FedEx IBM, Apple and Coke have strong deep relationships. These partnerships help brands respond and develop more quickly.
Your theories clearly fit the consumer brand world, but how do they work in the B2B world?
It’s no less important to them than to a consumer company. It has the same resonance and impact, but I think a lot of B2B companies find it hard to go there. Using brand ideals creates a great opportunity to differentiate. IBM is a good example of company that has embraced this kind of thinking.
Is the world of today over-branded? In other words, does the rush to be different end up creating a clutter and confusion in the marketplace that turns off consumers and reduces brand loyalty?
Yes, I think so. I have a picture in my office of two babies that are totally tattooed with brands using Photoshop. As consumers, we are overwhelmed, we are swamped. It makes it more important to create real value and affiliations.
And the standards are now much higher for what’s important and breakthrough.
Can you briefly describe the process you use when you work with a company to identify its brand ideals?
I’ve done this with a lot of companies. We start right at the beginning and work with leadership teams to figure out what they need to do. You look at your stories and heritage. You look at the same things for the competition. We look at the trends and values of the customer we serve. It’s a kind of a landscape assessment. Then we go through the field and discuss what they mean and how they fit. Most teams aren’t in the same place on which field of values they should focus on. Then we do an ideals generation session. From there we develop the criteria for self-evaluation of an ideal. With a coherent leadership team we can make a lot progress in a day. Then we look at the rest of the Ideals Tree. We work through the structure of the tree and choose the areas to focus on.
I’m a big believer that the secret to understanding the power of a brand is to see the connection it has to the self-esteem of the customer. It’s about how a brand makes customers feel about themselves. How does this fit with your concept of brand ideals?
Oh, I think the ideas are very coherent. If more brands did that they would attract people and help people feel better about themselves. When I visited Zappos, it struck me that they sell stuff that everyone else is selling on the Internet. They basically came into the market and took one of the worst jobs in the world—phone sales—and they said phone people are the heart of this company and we’re going to get people to call us. We want our associates to not worry about making the sale, but to worry about building relationships, and we give them freedom on how they treat customers. It’s the freedom to give the coupon or a free pair of shoes. They took a dead-end career where people have low self-esteem and built it with employees who have a passion to help.
Can the same brand ideal be interpreted in different ways for different markets?
They can. Take Pampers, which has the ideal of helping mothers with child development. Pampers is marketed in dozens of countries, but uses different models. In each one, we were customizing products that help with a baby’s development. In Vietnam, mothers worry about getting babies to sleep through the night. They are culturally accustomed to putting the baby to bed with no diaper at all. If the baby wets the bed, the mother would wash the sheets the next day. We developed a pad for the baby to sleep on that wasn’t a traditional diaper, but which kept the bed dry.
What’s the Jim Stengel brand ideal?
I want to be a catalyst to change the story of business. Getting businesses to work on what’s important and that’s delighting people. So much of what we do on a day-to-day basis in the business world is about things like politics, complexity and decision-making. I’m trying to get companies and brands to be more ideal based and bring those ideals to life. When you get them talking they come forward with ideas that can help them get there. It extends to everything. It’s not just an ad campaign.
When CEOs get that it’s not just a marketing idea, it’s a company idea, it can really take off.