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brand inspiration

This post was inspired by a recent tweet from Gabriel Rossi, a “branding strategist” (as he calls himself) based in Sao Paulo — I’ve had the pleasure of meeting Gabriel through my blog and Twitter (one of the great things about social media is connecting with new folks like him).  Recently he twittered a question, “What brands inspire you?” and that got me thinking about what differentiates a brand that inspires from one that doesn’t.

I mean, there are some really great brands out there that don’t necessarily inspire people, right?  I’d list a few examples but I fear I might offend someone by naming a brand that does indeed inspire that person — and so that’s not my point.  Inspiration is quite a subjective, personal thing — and so, differentiating brands by their ability to inspire vs. not is probably not very instructive.

But perhaps a definition of inspiring brands might be helpful.  After all, I would think many brands aspire to be inspirational and so perhaps if we can agree on what makes a brand inspiring, that would provide some direction and guidance for brand-builders.

So here’s my suggestion — an inspiring brand is one that makes me want to be a better person.

as in, “you make me want to be a better man,” from the movie, As Good As It Gets. Thanks to Jack Nicholson’s memorable delivery of the line and the touching story of the movie itself, the idea of someone having such a profound effect on another has always stuck with me.  When someone challenges me to rethink who I am and how I think/feel/act so that I want to be a better person, I regard that person as inspirational.

And so it goes with brands.  For me, for example, Nike is a brand that inspires me.  I know, it sounds cliche, but I really feel like Nike not only “gets” me, they make me want to be a better person — they make me want to push beyond myself beyond what I think are my limits and to really accomplish something significant.  Naturally these feelings are in the realm of physical fitness and athletic achievement, but I don’t believe that diminishes their importance — bottom line, I’m inspired.

On the flip side, I realize part of my ambivalence to Frito-Lay‘s recently launched brand platform, Only In a Woman’s World, is because, for all its good, it doesn’t make me want to be a better person.  The platform is for the company’s health and wellness brands, Flat Earth, Baked, and Smartfood, which have all be re-vamped, expanded, and improved.  That a company which has been known for being synonymous with junk food has invested in such a platform is remarkable; the products themselves are quite good (almost too good!  can you pass more of those Tangy Tomato Ranch chips?!); and the communications campaign is funny and entertaining.

And yet, the platform tends to reinforce stereotypes and an unhealthy cultural phenomenon (i.e., women feeling guilty about snacking — you can read more about this on the Gender Bender blog).   So if I really think about it, I’ve come to realize that the brand makes me want to be a different person, not a better one (big difference) — it just doesn’t inspire me.

A few important points about this definition of an inspiring brand:

  1. the inspiration can’t just be an advertising message — the brand must inspire through everything it does — don’t think I really need to say more on this point.
  2. relatedly, the inspiration doesn’t have to be the advertising messageBounty paper towel’s select-a-size feature (which allows you to tear off smaller or larger pieces depending on the need) inspires me to use products (theirs and others) more responsibly; Jamba Juice‘s upbeat in-store experience inspires me to pass along positive energy to others; etc.
  3. the inspiration doesn’t have to be serious or significant — the quirky sense of humor of Ben & Jerry‘s inspires me to find the fun in every day and the eclectic collection of tastes and treats at Trader Joe’s inspires me to try new things
  4. inspiration is personal — as stated above, what is inspirational to one person may not be to another, so companies must be clear on who they’re targeting and how they can be inspired

I’m eager to hear your thoughts on this definition — comments, please!

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  • Denise,

    Thank you very much for mentioning me and my ideas on this terrific post. I’m honored.

    I agree with you about Nike. I believe ‘hero brands’ tend to have quite an advantage among others when it regards to ‘inspiration’. Some ‘hero brands’ invoke well the archetype- the inner drama of feeling and being heroic. E.g: U.S Marines’ ad that starts with a hero fighting a monster. Then, suddenly, the warrior morphs int a U.s. Marine, standing at attention. Message: “You can be a real hero if you sign up.”

    There are many other examples such as:

    Itradar.com : “Who will be tomorrow’s business heroes? Maybe you.”

    Fujitsu: “Be limitless”

    There’s one potential setback: Hero’s ability to persevere in dangerous situations is a marvellous thing. However, the tendency to just carry on, defending against criticism (no matter how useful) can be a danger for these kind of brands as it might be interpreted in a negative way by the public rather than inspiring them.

    I personally connect with brands which are related to my dreams. Mohammed Ali for being emotive, provocative, passionate, charismatic and, mainly his zagness and authenticity.

    Amazon (Explorer brand) because my main commitment is to learn for the rest of my life from people and books. Furthermore, I have to say that Amazon has also been doing a good job at inspiring me with its customer service. I enjoy my buying experience over there. You are right, It’s not everything about ads when it comes to inspiring people.

    Terrific post.

    Thank you. Thank you. Thank you!!!!

    Gabriel Rossi- Brazil

  • Hi Denise,

    I think you make a lot of great points and your definition is fantastic – I will be a pirate and use that in the future if it is ok with you 🙂

    Take care

  • of course, thomas — you’re welcome to use it — and thanks to you and gabriel for the positive feedback

  • Peter Lyrene

    I agree with much of what you and Gabriel have written here, most of all that inspiration is both personal and subjective in nature (that what is inspirational to one may not be to another).
    For this same reason however, I find it strange that you give Nike as your first example of an inspirational brand. Certainly it could be described as a “hero brand”, an amazing success story and an example of growth and branding expertise– But I find that as Gabriel wrote, Nike’s persistence against criticism (and reluctance to address those issues) leaves more of a bad taste with publics who have problems with their practices. I’m not entirely against the company myself (I’d take a job with them any day) but their predicament leaves me wanting them to be a better company, rather than challenging the way I think, feel, work or live.

    But I think your definitions and points are very insightful and would be more easily applied to not-for-profit and charity organizations and causes– brands traditionally equated with the term “inspirational” already.

  • thanks for the comments, peter — i’m curious to learn more about your concerns about nike re: “persistence against criticism (and reluctance to address those issues)” — my understanding is they have more than addressed the labor practices issues from years past but perhaps there are other issues i’m not aware of???

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  • Denise,

    Thank you for sharing this post – I think it’s interesting to note that you broke down the definition of inspire when answering the question.

    I had to really think about this and when it comes to a brand that inspires so many, I thought of the Obama brand. This is not to make a political statement, but the intention of his slogan, “Yes we can,” is inspiring enough, no?

    And what about some brands that make some pretty bad decisions, and uninspire us, even if they do win 8 Olympic gold medals?

    Thanks, Denise, this was inspiring! 🙂

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  • I have a definition inspired by an old Seth Godin post: A company with an inspirational brand is one that helps its customers’ dreams come true.

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