One of the questions I get asked the most is: “How does your brand stay relevant?”
The truth is that breaking through was never easy, and with time, it’s becoming increasingly difficult. Today, there are endless information channels and even more messengers. Trends move fast and attention spans wane even faster.
Despite these obstacles, I’ve learned some lessons along the way for brands to break through the noise and retain relevance in this ever-changing world. Here are a few of my favorites.
Don’t Boil The Ocean
In today’s culture, there’s a pressure for brands to be everything and be everywhere. However, this is often one of the easiest ways–especially for new and emerging brands–to lose clout, cloud your messaging, and confuse your audience.
When my organization was first founded, our co-founders had a very important decision to make about our scope and focus. In the early 2000’s, there were so many AIDS organizations doing such incredible work. But there was a clear gap: nobody was catalyzing private sector investment into the fight. Instead of keeping our work broad, we chose a mission that was narrow, distinct, and easy to communicate. This intention not only gave our brand its own clear lane, but some important parameters to guard against the inevitable mission creep that corrodes relevance.
It’s better to start small and expand the brand over time. Just look at Blue Ribbon Sports (BRS), which was created in 1964 to improve the quality of running sneakers. Overtime, BRS rebranded and gradually expanded their product line while remaining loyal to their core mission of bringing innovation to the athletic world. Today, their company, which was eventually renamed after the goddess of victory, is worth roughly $190 billion. And if you open your closet, there’s a good chance you own something with the infamous Nike swoosh on it (disclosure: Nike is a former (RED) partner).
Creating a well-defined, distinct sphere of influence isn’t exclusionary, it’s a survival essential. Once you establish your brand’s mission, you must remain steadfast in advancing those core goals. And when you do decide to expand the sphere, make sure it’s authentic to your original mission and not the inevitable pressure to chase the hamster wheel of relevance.
Listen, Learn & Acquire Good Intelligence
Organizations are under such immense pressure to follow the trend and tap into whatever’s hot, that they often fail to pause and take stock of the world around them. That’s why it’s so important to listen and collect good business intelligence.
One of the ways I do this is by getting out and talking to other corporate and non-profit executives about their work and the latest trends. The day-to-day in-office routine affords leaders many opportunities to sit in echo chambers. Retaining relevance requires looking beyond, seeking outside opinions that differ from yours to better understand what you know and what you don’t know about your brand, business, or organization.
Another way to acquire good intelligence is to serve as a convener of information. A few years ago, my organization identified gaming as a space where we could raise money and awareness to advance our mission. There was just one major problem: our organization knew relatively little about gaming (My kids would be the first to tell you that my idea of gaming is Wordle, not World of Warcraft). Recognizing our own knowledge gaps, we decided to assemble a “Gaming and Metaverse Council” to help us better understand the landscape. We sought to convene the best and brightest minds, executives, gamers, and content creators, to share opinions and advice on the challenges and opportunities facing the industry. These experts have become a critical part of our gaming strategy, helping us understand current and future trends to stay ahead of the curve.
Answers for how to retain relevance are rarely found on internal Zoom calls. You must get out there and talk to other people while keeping your ear to the ground.
If It’s Not Working, Fix It
There’s an old African proverb that says, “even the best dancer on the stage must retire sometime.” With time, what once worked great for your brand will someday cease to work as well. When that time comes–and it will–as a leader, it’s important to see it and react decisively.
A few years ago, I noticed that our organization’s messaging around fighting AIDS and strengthening global health systems wasn’t breaking through like it once did. At the same time, the COVID-19 pandemic was underscoring the injustices in our global health system, while here in the United States, issues around discrimination and racism were bringing renewed and necessary attention to the importance of diversity, equity, and inclusion. To ignore these seismic events and the correlating shift in how our audience views the world would have been malpractice to our reputation and relevance.
I decided that it was time for a change. We assembled a group of industry experts who helped us refine our brand’s direction of travel, sharpen our mission statement, and recapture our value proposition by driving home the importance of fighting inequity and injustice. Embarking on this change wasn’t easy. There were plenty of tough conversations, differing opinions, and, at times, uncomfortable introspection. But as leaders, it’s imperative to keep innovating. And when something isn’t working, it’s up to you to address it.
Speaking to Investor’s Business Daily in 2019, Adobe CEO Shantanu Narayen said: “Preserving the status quo is not a winning business strategy.” He’s right. When it’s time for a change, don’t be afraid to make it.
Different Audiences Have Different Needs
Your audience should dictate when, where and how you communicate your brand. Without understanding your audience’s needs, it’s impossible to retain relevance.
Take the time to research, sample, survey and analyze your audience, including their likes and dislikes. What drives your audience to take action? What gets their heart rate going? What gaps are they longing to fill?
Once you know your audience, you need to serve them in unique ways. For example, cross posting across different social media channels might save your organization time, but it will likely limit your effectiveness and relevance long-term. What works for your audience on LinkedIn might not work for your audience on TikTok. There’s a reason websites like Netflix and YouTube attempt to serve users more relevant and engaging content by displaying a carefully curated list of suggested videos based on your viewing habits.
There’s no one size fits all model. So take the time to learn your audiences’ needs and then build a strategy to best serve them.
Invest In Good Storytelling & Good Storytellers
Breaking through and getting a message to stick is a challenge for every brand. That’s why investing in good, diverse storytelling is so important.
To tell a good story, you need to have a story that’s worth telling. The best stories include a powerful mix of strong characters, setting, emotion, conflict, and resolution. As attention spans decrease, stories need to be both captivating and concise.
With so much storytelling today, having the right narrator is just as important as the right message. The best storytellers and characters are often real people who are doing authentic things. One of my all-time favorite commercials was from Anheuser-Busch called “Let’s Grab A Beer.” What made the ad so impactful was its ability to rise above the old and tired product storyline and connect on a deeper, emotional level. By using engaging storytelling and authentic storytellers, the commercial, which aired during the pandemic, created a 30-second advertisement that tapped into the power of human connection. I remember seeing this advertisement several years ago and it still strikes me as so smart and spot-on to what we were feeling–and missing–at the time.
The famous Maya Angelou quote holds true: “People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” That is the power of a great story.
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