5 Challenger Tenets to Build Brands

January 22, 2020 | blog | By Mike Sullivan

In last week’s blog, “The Customer Response: Start with the End in Mind,” I talked about the link between culture and brand, and how challengers use that link to create exceptional customer experiences. This week, I’m building on that with a look at the five things challengers do to build and fortify the kind of connections between culture and brand that, in turn, deepen connections with their customers.

1. Start with great storytelling.

In a century of filmmaking, there have been thousands of movies and television shows in the fantasy/sci-fi genre, but none connected like the films of Marvel, Game of Thrones, and Star Wars. That begins and ends with their extraordinary storytelling, not their production value.

With the media available at your fingertips – both old and new – there’s never been a better time to tell broad, fantastic, integrated stories. And yet, for most brands, story is an afterthought. Or worse, a never thought. If you want to truly connect with your customers, tell great stories in smart, touching, funny, dramatic, and engaging ways. That goes not just for the brand itself but, if you’re a marketer, for the advertising you create. Engaging storytelling is the most ancient and effective method we have to connect people. Tell your story well and people will notice.

2. Think ahead and plan accordingly.

A 22-film story arc doesn’t happen by accident. The MCU (Marvel Cinematic Universe) is an inspired, perfectly-planned universe of character and crossover that becomes even more brilliant when you go back and watch it from the beginning. The same can be said for the Game of Thrones and Star Wars sagas.

Whether it’s due to timing, budget, or lack of imagination, most brands shy away from this kind of broad production, opting instead to produce single spots or, at best, limited campaigns that rarely build on each other. Like compound interest in financing, great ideas that advance an intriguing narrative are far more lucrative than ones that are simply one and done.

Think in interacative campaigns rather than spots and your impact could be exponential.

3. Remember, love makes the brand go around.

There are literally millions of people who know Marvel, Game of Thrones, and Star Wars who have never seen a single episode or film. Why? Because those brands have intersected all of our lives in numerous and unexpected places. In part, that’s due to smart licensing and brand crossover (have you had the Game of Thrones Oreos?) But the bigger reason is that, early on, fans connected with these franchises because of story, character, production, and humor. Lovers of these brands felt a sense of community, took ownership, and became a PR machine 100 million strong.

Theirs was not a passive affection. It was the kind of rabid, all-consuming love that drove millions of people to buy tickets for the opening night of Infinity War, End Game and The Last Jedi months in advance. It’s a love that drove millions of people to re-watch the entire Game of Thrones series (some for the seventh time), just to prepare for the final Season 8. Brand lovers become loyalists and loyalists become evangelists. Give your customers authentic reasons to love you and they will. Then they’ll tell everybody they know how much.

4. Make an emotional connection.

Is it harder to evoke emotion in a :30 TV commercial, a magazine print ad, or a brand website than a two-hour movie? Sure. But for too many brands, that’s become an excuse to stop trying. Tapping into genuine emotion is what binds us together as human beings. In truth, it might be the only thing. When we experience the world in a way that makes us feel – happy, sad, amused, or heartbroken – that experience chemically implants the experience in our brain. That’s why we can all remember exactly where we were the morning of 9/11, or how we felt the moment our children were born.

Brands that evoke emotion have the same power. If you’re an avid fantasy fan, think how you felt when Thanos snapped his fingers at the end of Avengers: Infinity War… how you felt in the final moments of The Red Wedding in Season 3 of Game of Thrones… when the words, “Luke, I am your father” echoed off the screen for the first time.

Find genuine emotional touchpoints for your brand and use them. Their impact echoes.

5. Anchor the brand in real-life experiences.

By definition, fantasy is anything but real. As much as we might want to, none of us can fly, or ride a dragon, or wield a light saber with nothing but our thoughts. But that’s why we watch. We love seeing those things on screen. They’re fun and amazing and all part of our temporary departure from the real world. But they’re also only half of the equation. The reason Marvel, Game of Thrones, and Star Wars are what they are is because at their core, they are grounded in humanity. They’re steeped in real-life experience and because of that we see ourselves in them.

Smart branding works the same way. Great creative grounded in real-life experience – love, hate, life, death, argument, resolution, thoughtfulness, care, loneliness, redemption – helps people connect the dots. It grounds your brand in something familiar and it holds up a mirror that allows people to see themselves. Like running into a good friend, people pay attention to what they recognize. They stop, focus, and trade their most precious commodity – time – for a moment of connection. That’s where genuine brand loyalty starts. And as we all know, that’s the first step toward ruling the universe.

So how do I know what the end looks like?

Understanding what you really want your brand to be about begins and ends with the story you want to tell. Think about your brand as if it’s a movie genre. Is it a drama? A comedy? A love story? A historical documentary? Let’s hope it’s not a tragedy. For a lot of companies, you can see the brand narrative reflected in their taglines.

Nike — Just Do It.
(Stop talking, stop making excuses, get up and move)

Apple — Think Different.
(Product for people who are anything but status quo)

FedEx — Relax, it’s FedEx.
(Worry-free shipping)

Hallmark — When you care enough to send the very best.
(All other greeting cards are inferior)

Allstate — You’re in Good Hands
(We’ve got you covered.)

The truth is, you may or may not have a good handle on what your brand story is and either way, you’re not alone. If you understand your story, good for you. Dig deep. Find ways to expand it and to bring it to life. If, on the other hand, you’re still trying to figure out what your brand narrative should be, here’s a simple exercise you can finish in a day that will help you find your way.

To help illustrate, let’s go back to the MCU, Game of Thrones and Star Wars. As I mentioned, these franchises succeeded because their creators started with the customer experience in mind and then built the brands that could best deliver it. Sure, they are billion-dollar juggernauts now, but in the beginning, before the first film or television episode, their creators were just like you, wondering what their brand story should be. And, like you can do now, they started by asking themselves six fundamental story building (and marketing) questions:

WHO are the characters people will care enough about to follow? (And who are we trying to reach with this brand?)

WHAT story are we going to tell? (And what extensions will help us connect the brand with consumers?)

WHERE will these stories take place? (And where can we connect these stories to consumers?)

WHEN will the stories take place? (And what should our timeline be for releasing each part of the story?)

HOW will the stories ultimately end? (And how can we best connect these stories to the consumers who love them?)

WHY are these stories being told? (And why will they matter to consumers?)

Sometimes in marketing and advertising we get so caught up in the complex that we forget to slow down and ask the simple questions that offer clarity and direction.

Have you ever stopped and asked these six basic questions about your brand? If you are building your brand, answer these six questions first. Answer them honestly and you will know who you are.

Consider for a second, all the people who have touched the MCU, all the people who have worked on Star Wars, all the people involved with Game of Thrones. The collective genius in that group is staggering. And while they didn’t all have this exact set of questions, they most likely started with similar queries. Determining who you are and starting with the end in mind allows everyone involved in building the brand to share in both the vision and the mission. But, even more, it’s the only thing that allows your team to embrace creativity, innovation, and change, and still arrive at the agreed upon destination.

So what about the culture?

Building a transcendent culture is imperative for building a brand that lasts. Unless you’re a one-man band (and what fun is that?), your brand and the brand experience you deliver to consumers is a collective reflection of everyone who works in your operation. If your culture embraces the requisite elements – safety, vulnerability, purpose, belonging, creativity, connection, and North Star leadership – your brand will reflect that.

On the other hand, if your culture is toxic and your people feel unsafe, threatened, aimless, alone, suffocated, ostracized, and without any meaningful leadership, then guess what? That’s also what your brand and your customer experience will reflect. No matter what it is you’re selling, brand and culture go hand in hand, for better or for worse.

MIKE SULLIVAN is President of LOOMIS, the country’s leading challenger brand advertising agency and a top Dallas advertising agency for digital, social, mobile and user experience. For more about challenger branding, advertising and marketing, leadership, culture and other inspirations that will drive your success, visit our blog BARK! The Voice of the Underdog and catch up on all of our posts.

For more about LOOMIS, or to discuss how we can help your company succeed, CLICK HERE

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Mike Sullivan

President at LOOMIS, the country’s leading challenger brand advertising agency


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