Want What Nike Has? You Gotta Earn It.

(Reading Time: 4 minutes)

At a recent branding seminar, I asked attendees what they hoped to achieve with their branding efforts. One guy exclaimed, “I want what Nike has – instant name recognition!” Around the room, many heads nodded in agreement.

Over the years, I’ve asked clients, prospects and colleagues that question hundreds of times, and a fair percentage of replies are along those lines. Maybe it’s Starbucks or Target instead of Nike; maybe they want their brand to be a “badge” or have “a logo everyone knows.”

So why do so few brands achieve those results? Because most brands don’t earn them. They want the quick fix. They want to play it safe. Or they want something for nothing.

No great brand has success handed to it. If you want what Starbucks, FedEx or Target has, you have to be prepared to do what they did. I submit that the following three characteristics are what you need – at a minimum – to achieve brand greatness:

A vision for a better tomorrow.

You simply cannot build a brand if you don’t, in some way, make the world a better place. A successful long-term brand depends on enduring relationships – and if your consumers aren’t winning, why would they keep coming back? This is why companies with a pure sales or financial mentality rarely develop great brands; they’re so focused on their own results that it impairs their ability to create a positive result for their customers.

FedEx figured out how to get packages around the globe overnight. Google developed a quick way to search the broad expanse of the Internet. Target delivers low prices without sacrificing style. The great brands make life better, each in its own way. If your brand does that, your marketing actually gets easier, because you lead with a differentiated, compelling promise.

The discipline to stay focused.

No great brand was built overnight. Brand-building takes time – to generate awareness, establish your promise and keep that promise often enough that people start to believe you.

Nordstrom is known for service because it focuses on service and consistently delivers it a notch above the rest. Nike seared its place into our brains by presenting the brand in a remarkably consistent fashion, continuing to add depth to its core brand idea. It didn’t switch taglines (or, even worse, positioning) every 18 months in an attempt to stay “fresh.”

In this cluttered marketing world, discipline and focus go a long way. People probably won’t get your message the first time. Or even the tenth. But with consistency, your brand idea will sink in.

The courage to break the rules.

To paraphrase the old saying, “One definition of insanity is to do the same thing as your competitors and expect a different result.” You can’t create a parity product and support it with ads that look just like everyone else’s, yet somehow expect to win. At some point, you have to zig where others zag.

I learned this lesson well when I was marketing manager for Airheads candy. At the time, my major competitors, Skittles and Starburst, were spending my annual marketing budget every two weeks. We had to be creative. So, instead of launching a 50-cent pack for grocery, as prevailing industry wisdom would have dictated, we launched an 89-cent pack of six bars to give Airheads consumers the variety they sought. It was the right decision for the Airheads consumer, and it remains in distribution 13 years later.

Jones Soda sells oddball flavors like Fufu Berry and Crushed Melon, and sticks quirky pictures on their labels. Cirque du Soleil created an unparalleled mix of acrobatics, design and music. Jungle Jim’s does … uh, apparently whatever the hell Jungle Jim wants to do. Where would these brands be if they were imitators instead of groundbreakers?

Want what Nike has? Then you need to demonstrate vision, discipline and courage. And if you’re not prepared to do that, then you’re not entitled to have what Nike has.

A version of this post appeared in the Cincinnati Business Courier on October 5, 2007, in the column “That Branding Thing.” Originally co-written with David Wecker.

About Matthew Fenton: Matthew helps challenger brands to focus, grow and win.  Since founding his consultancy, Three Deuce Branding, in 1997, he’s helped hundreds of brands to achieve “brand clarity.”  His consulting services and speaking engagements help brands to focus on what matters through positioning, strategy and ideation.  Contact Matthew here.  He calls Chicago home.

Copyright 2007 – Matthew Fenton.  All Rights Reserved.  You may reprint this article with the original, unedited text intact, including the About Matthew Fenton section.