innovative growth strategies

A New Playbook for Building Brands: Part 1 - Brands with Wisdom

All humans are stubborn. Yes, that does include you too.

But it’s not your fault.

As we go through life, we have experiences. From experiences, we have learnings about what is wise and unwise. This wisdom is stored in our brains through alteration of biologic material – or in simple terms, by marking tiny “scars.” Millions of scars of wisdom right there in your brain. If you have ever had a scar when cutting your arm or leg, you know they are hard to get rid of – they are stubborn. Likewise, wisdom once scarred in your brain is hard to change. And that is why, so are you.

One great way to build brands is to design them around this deeply persistent wisdom etched into peoples’ brain. They already believe in these ideas and you won’t have to do much convincing to get them to buy your brand. That’s the secret.

And it is that simple.

Now you ask, “What are these scars of wisdom in peoples’ heads?” They are rules rooted in common sense, or stemming from aphorisms, fables, religious beliefs, etc.

Like when your mother told you “Seeing is believing,” or your someone said “keep it simple, stupid,” or you read about little Anne Frank observing “No one has ever become poor from giving,” or when you thought “if everybody is doing it, it must be cool.” The collection is never-ending.

From experiences to learnings, learnings to wisdom and from wisdom to brands. That’s brands with wisdom for you.

Let’s see how this works, then.

Wisdom: Seeing is Believing

In 2008, a $16 million investment for Daniel Lubetzky, founder of KIND, from a PE firm (VMG Partners) was a lose-sleep-over big deal. Yet, in 2020, he sold the snack bar company for $5 billion to Mars & Co. How do you jump into a crowded market with an army of snack bars with not much money in your pocket and pull that off?

Here’s how Lubetzky described the secret sauce for the success of his brand “The better brands are very clear on what they’re looking for; there are performance brands that are for when you go exercise; there are diet bars. For us, it’s a healthy snacking brand where we focus on giving people ingredients that they can see and pronounce.”[1]

Here's what the brand says about itself on its website, “do the kind thing for your body … We believe if you can't pronounce an ingredient, it shouldn’t go into your body … KIND® products are made from nutritionally-dense ingredients like whole nuts, fruits and whole grains - no secret ingredients and no artificial flavors, preservatives or sweeteners. Nothing to hide®” Yes, just to be sure, they have trademarked those last three words.

The packaging of the bars is clear and transparent, so you can see nuts, fruits and whole grains with your own eyes. It turns out that some nutritionists argue that KIND bars are only a “4 on 10” as far as healthy goes due to the added sugar. But consumers are not nutritionists, they see and believe with their eyes and make choices.

KIND became a high-flying “Brand with Wisdom” by simply aligning with people’s beliefs that “seeing is believing – perhaps even when it isn’t.”

Wisdom: Let Your Light Shine Before Others

In the pandemic years, one of the industries that suffered grievously was plasma collection. In fact, donations were cut in half putting lives at risk since plasma is the prime ingredient used to manufacture lifesaving drugs for people with rare diseases.

Most plasma comes from lower income people who donate weekly and are compensated $30-$50 per donation. During the pandemic, desperate for plasma, all companies increased the cash incentive by 50-100% to encourage donors to come back. That did help bring some back, but not nearly enough to alleviate the acute shortage.

Grifols, one of the largest plasma collection companies, came up with an innovative campaign that instead of cash incentives alone, appealed to the donors’ sense of charity.

Now, no marketer would exploit people by telling them that the Lord himself wants them to buy their brand. But there are plenty of brands that are tied closely to peoples’ religious creed and customs.

Grifols launched the “Give Your Light” campaign which tells donors that their plasma is their own special light or treasure that they can give to others to light up their lives.[2] The words would not be unfamiliar to a Judaic Christian population reading Matthew 5:16 “Let your light shine for others,” where Jesus exhorts his disciples to do good works without pride to help those suffering in darkness.

Grifols became a “Brand with Wisdom” by simply appealing to the values that many already deeply imbibe and suggesting to them that donating plasma equates to their duty to help those in need. In fact, there is data to suggest that amongst lower income people, religiosity exceeds that in other groups. Our research in this market also suggested that lower income people, despite their limited economic means, have a compelling desire to help others because often they can relate better to their pain.

It is not that Grifols did not offer increased incentives as did its competitors, but in its online and offline campaigns, it did not talk about compensation or make its brand about it. Today, plasma collections are back above pre-pandemic levels.

Wisdom: If everybody does it, it’s okay

About a decade or so back, McDonald’s sales were suffering as a rising tide of consumers focused on healthy eating. Amongst them were vocal activists that accused the company of everything from promoting unhealthy foods, to robbing the poor and destroying the environment. In the age of social media, those campaigns had gone viral and turned into a fire-breathing monster frying its brand to charred bits.

Even if you are one of the millions who actually like eating at McDonalds, it doesn’t feel good if you are constantly told by online bloggers and nutrition experts that you are waging war on your body and probably killing yourself. If you walk into a lunch meeting with your office colleagues balancing a Big Mac and McFlurry in hand, when everyone else is eating a turkey guacamole roll with black bean spread, after a while you do get those looks.

In the midst of this crisis, McDonald’s global CMO Morgan Flatley and US CMO Tariq Hassan made a brilliant pivot. They decided to stop listening to the “haters” and instead focus on fans and followers. The new strategy focused on showing celebrities, social influencers and everyday fans enjoying their McDonalds meals in whichever way they fancied. The message was clear. In short, if everybody you know is doing McDonalds, it must be okay. Maybe even way better than okay!

The Travis Scott Meal, a Quarter Pounder with cheese, French fries and Sprite resulted in a 4.6% increase in quarterly revenues and doubled the sales of the flagship patty.[3] If it is good enough for Travis Scott, then it must be good enough for Gen Z. Other collaborations followed – Saweetie’s Rapper Combo, J Balvin’s McFlurry and BTS’ 10 Piece Chicken McNuggets with a South Korean inspired sauce to reflect the band’s roots.

McDonalds recovered its brand from the naysayers by becoming a “Brand with Wisdom,” relished without guilt by everybody. And that includes you!

* * *

Don’t confuse Brands with Wisdom with emotional branding. The wisdom we refer to can be rational or emotional. More importantly, it is a complete thought and pre-committed idea, not just a feeling.

Brands with wisdom work because they go with the flow, with what is already in your head. There is real science and research from Princeton psychologist Daniel Kahneman on System 1 processes in the brain to support that.

The good news is that there are millions of learnings that are scarred into people’s brains. All marketers have to do is to discover the ones that will work for their brand.

And that’s a wise choice, isn’t it?


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