Brands that are built to last.

Built To Last, by Jim Collins, is commonly known as one of the most influential business books ever written. It’s on every consultant’s bookshelf and should be required reading for any executive, business owner or budding entrepreneur.

It’s also one of the best branding books you’ll ever read.

built_to_lastYou have to read between the lines though, because Collins never used the words “brand” or “branding.” Back in 1994 it just wasn’t on his radar. Collins and his co-author Jerry Porras focused instead on “visionary” companies and compared them, head-to-head, with not-so-visionary competitors.

They found that “core ideology” is a common element of success among all visionary companies. Those organizations have strong, enduring principles that go beyond just profits. Call it a cause. A purpose. A set of principles… Whatever. The point is, if you want to build a visionary company or a great, enduring brand, you have to start by knowing who you are, what you stand for, and why you exist.

Collins used this equation: Core Values + Purpose = Core Ideology. The Brand Insight spin: Core Values + Purpose = the foundation of your branding efforts.

If you’re launching a new brand or reevaluating an existing one, start with that equation. Dig below the surface and ask yourself this fundamental question: “What business are we really in?”

Sounds simple enough, but there are millions of business owners and entrepreneurs who never give that a second thought. (Too much navel-gazing, I suppose.)

These are the people who figure “success” is enough of a purpose and you shouldn’t waste time or resources on things like branding. But as Collins proved, it’s those core values that set great companies apart from also-rans. And the great brands from wannabes.

Jeff Bezos at Amazon understands that his brand goes way beyond selling books. And Phil Knight knows it’s not just the shoes at Nike. (Interestingly, both of those brands would probably fit Collins’ criteria of a “visionary” company.)

Here’s another important finding from Built To Last: Ideology must be authentic and integrated seamlessly into everything the company does.

Same with brands. If your core brand values aren’t authentic, consumers will figure it out. They’ll see through the marketing hype and recognize the disconnect every time.

Here’s a good example: Tommy Hilfiger used to be the hottest thing in fashion. His clothing was successfully positioned as a more affordable version of Ralph Lauren. Young, somewhat preppy suburban WASPs were buying lots of Hilfiger outfits that would blend well at any yacht club.

But in the late 90’s the Hilfiger line caught on in the hip-hop community. When that big Hilfiger logo started appearing in rap videos the company saw what was happening and thought, wow, we’re really hot in that market. We should start designing for them.

Donny Deutsch once said it was “the single stupidest blunder in the history of advertising.”

Hilfiger abandoned the brand ideology that made the company so successful and tried to cater to the African American market by adding bling to their clothes.

“We jeweled it, we studded it and we really pushed the envelope,” Hilfiger said in a 2001 interview. They also launched an ad campaign focused on the urban, street culture. But when the advertising went street, he lost the street.

The black community saw right through it and was immediately turned off. Pandering! And Hilfiger’s core audience in the white community saw the ads, said “that’s not me,” and quit buying. Sales plummeted, and that brand’s still suffering. As one wall street analyst put it, “that brand will never again be the hot, flashy, overly talked about, fast-growing company it once was.”

And it would never make it into Collins’s book.

“Stimulate progress, but preserve the core,” it says. Hilfiger abandoned the core in the name of progress, and it backfired on them.

There are many other points from Built To Last that relate to branding… Collins found that visionary companies have “cult-like” corporate cultures. Everyone is indoctrinated into the core ideology and they follow it faithfully. (Ever seen a Wal-Mart sales meeting!)

Great brands work the same way. There are so many parallels I’m tempted to say, just maybe, “Visionary company” is synonymous with “great brand.”

About the Author

I’m a brand strategist, creative director, copywriter and published author living in the very livable town of Bend, Oregon. I’m also an ad agency veteran and owner of BNBranding. Read more about me »

Leave a Reply 3 comments

Mike Frizzi Reply

Good post. Lately I have seen more and more brands move away from their established and successful positions. The Hilfiger example is an old one, but it is no less relevant. I wonder how many companies have had successful reinventions of their respective brands? None spring to mind…

onbrands Reply

Mike, I’m curious on that point as well. I can’t think of any examples… though we could certainly point to brands that have revived themselves (Apple, Harley Davidson, Cadillac)… I’m not sure reinvention is the right term though.

John, good post. I agree that great brands are built on one core idea, one you’re able to deliver upon.

Nick Reply

Great post! However, just like the above comment, I think that perhaps Hilfiger was trying to reinvent themselves and shift their brand to changing trend, and stay on top of it. I’m curious to know how to draw the line between the core and the trend.

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