How to Build a Breakthrough Brand

Dec 22, 2016

There has always been some science to the high art of brand building: Identify what the brand is supposed to stand for and whom you are trying to reach. Build a strong messaging platform. And target your resources to the right media. That approach is still accurate, yet both the way consumers evaluate brands and the method by which their meaning is disseminated have changed completely. Fortune’s Jennifer Reingold spoke with Jim Stengel, head of branding consultancy the Jim Stengel Co. and former global marketing head at Procter & Gamble (pg), to get some perspective.

FORTUNE: What are the biggest changes you see in building a brand today vs. 10 or 20 years ago?

Stengel: People are ­really trying to convey a sense of purpose. I don’t think that’s a fad; it’s been with us for several years, and people are getting better at it. At the recent ANA [Association of National Advertisers] meeting, there were several remarkable stories about employee enablement of the company’s purpose.

One was Mattel. Barbie has been in a funk for a long time, and no one knew what to do with her. They went back to when the company was founded. What did the founder hope Barbie would do? The original intent was to get girls to think of themselves in various roles and inspire confidence through play.

What other changes are there?

We have to look at the rise of the “story” brands. They have a story that’s easy to access and understand. There’s a willingness to be human and have a personality and have some fun. They behave like a friend behaves.

Social media has got to be the biggest single difference in how a brand’s message gets out.

It’s enormous. It lets you create advocates and to have a dialogue, to learn more, and to react. The brand building is about fully engaging those who are potential advocates. You have to be okay with lots of people talking about your brand—and give them license to do so.

Social media can also really harm a brand—and ­quickly. How do you deal with that?

You have to be willing to jump on [problems] when they happen. Before, you had more time to think. That requires a different decisionmaking process and a fast, nimble, and empowered team.

When Starbucks stumbled on its race initiative, it didn’t have lasting impact. They blew right by it because everyone knew their intent was good. And they quickly said, “We didn’t get that right.” It was very human.

Some big brands that have always relied on scale to get their message out have stumbled. Why?

Scale is not bad. But it’s not the competitive advantage it used to be. For one, everyone is now selling through different channels. Another shift is the incredible rise in computing power and data available to everyone. Also, the ecosystems in marketing are different. You can’t underestimate the overwhelming influence of Google and Facebook.

A version of this article appears as a sidebar to the Breakthrough Brands 2017 package in the January 1, 2017 issue of Fortune.

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