How to create a purpose-driven brand
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When I began my career in business in the ‘80s, the widely held truth in the corporate world was that the principal purpose of a business was to increase its profits. This belief was championed by the renowned, University of Chicago economist Milton Friedman, and iconic CEOs like GE’s “Neutron” Jack Welch and Sunbeam’s “Chainsaw” Al Dunlop were widely championed as showing the way by slashing costs as a path to bigger profits.
Across the corporate landscape, businesses were executing against this purpose with an intense focus on delivering quarterly wins. Early in my career at Pillsbury, I witnessed a large public company aggressively manage their business to hit short-term numbers. The forced march to drive quarterly profits led many leaders to cut investments and costs to meet investor expectations. While Pillsbury had a few great brands like the Doughboy, I saw systemic underinvestment across dozens of others. The music ultimately stopped for Pillsbury, and it was sold in an unfriendly, hostile takeover.
The lesson for me in those formative years was clear: Short-term, outcome-based profit management produced both risk for the health of the business and real-world impact on people, competitive brand strength, and shareholder value. It seemed to me a moral responsibility for a leader to manage a brand well for the long haul as you needed more than happy shareholders to win over customers and employees, who had many other brands and companies from which to choose. I promised myself then that I would never put a business or team at risk for mere short-terms gains. As a leader, I would be accountable for the future.
When I got to Brooks Running in 2001, I was determined to play the long game. I had always been a student of great brands. Those I admired most were best in class and super tough to compete with in their industries. None was an overnight success; most were built over decades with leaders who brought intense focus and a culture of execution excellence. More than that, everything they did pointed to a North Star, a clear purpose far beyond short-range profits. When you mesh a compelling purpose with a focus on long-term opportunities, you set the stage for true success. I knew we could do that at Brooks.
Running With Purpose is told through my life journey and my lens as Brooks CEO for the last 20+ years. From the brink of bankruptcy to becoming a Berkshire Hathaway subsidiary to over $1 billion in revenue, Brooks came from behind to lead the pack among the biggest athletic, fitness, and outdoor brands in the global running market. I believe it is a challenger brand story for the ages and a primer for curious people seeking to draw others to a higher calling.
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Below is an excerpt from my new book Running With Purpose: How Brooks Outpaced Goliath Competitors to Lead the Pack (HarperCollins Leadership), which launches today, April 26.
In the spring of 2019, I was invited to deliver the commencement speech at my alma mater, the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management. It was a great honor. They asked me to share the Brooks story and talk about my authentic leadership journey. That May, I stood in front of several thousand undergrad and graduate students, faculty, and their families and friends. I felt a huge responsibility to deliver takeaway value to these graduates who had just completed their degrees and were about to launch into the next phase of their lives. With a firm belief that strong leadership skills are a currency that will always have value in business and life, I gathered my thoughts. For me, authentic leadership can be distilled to three key aspects: focus, curiosity, and trust.
At Brooks, I knew in my first days that to survive, we had to focus, and it was my job as CEO to clear a path for my team to do so. If I couldn’t deliver clarity of focus, I risked not being followed. Back then and still today, I work hard to pitch the opportunity around our inspiring purpose and being part of a team that is building a unique and successful business and brand right in the middle of the biggest category in sporting goods and one of the most inclusive sports the world has ever known. Just as important, focus also helps people navigate distractions and decide what not to do. Purpose plus sustained focus wins the game.
For me, curiosity is about solving puzzles in a constantly changing world. To avoid being a one-hit wonder, you need to develop a great radar as a leader and then, because nothing ever stays the same, be willing to recalibrate. Be a learner, not a knower. A curious attitude often reflects humility in your understanding of the world around you. Solving for customers’ needs takes an intense curiosity. At Brooks, we are creating brand affinity in the minds of customers every day. At Berkshire Hathaway, Vice Chairman Charlie Munger reminds us regularly to avoid the ABCs of business decay: arrogance, bureaucracy, and complacency. Others with capital and brains will always be competing to breach your moat and take your customers away. Staying humble, remaining curious, and avoiding complacency are essential, especially following great success. A final point on staying curious: reevaluating and recalibrating don’t mean losing sight of your constancy of purpose.
The third attribute I tied to authentic leadership is trust. Business and life are still all about people. Happiness and fulfillment come from your relationships with the people in your life who matter to you. For me it’s my wife, my kids and grandkids, my family and close friends, and my teammates at Brooks with whom I share our brand-building journey. However, I did not start out with this wisdom. As I said, early in my career I lacked empathy. I was quite wonky and intensely searching for the right answers. For me, that usually meant scrutinizing the numbers, definitely more IQ than EQ. In hindsight, how I won over MaryEllen is still a mystery to me! Given my insular focus and lack of emotional intelligence (EQ), I can only credit her with having tremendous vision and patience. But through the years I learned that human behavior was behind every number and everything in business. Success requires creating relationships with people, and that means generating trust.
At Brooks we aspire to be a trustable brand. It starts with a promise of a positive product experience, but goes much deeper. We are a purpose-driven brand built around the fact that a run will make your day better. We compete with our culture and values. We think if we can express them consistently in everything we do, over time Brooks will resonate with like-minded people. They will trust us rationally and emotionally. In the past thirty years, I have watched so many of our nation’s leaders, institutions, businesses, government offices, and religious organizations suffer from a loss of trust. The stories are all too common. It is a time of increasing transparency and scrutiny. People are looking for someone they can trust.
Taken from Running With Purpose: How Brooks Outpaced Goliath Competitors to Lead the Pack by Jim Weber. Copyright © 2022 by Jim Weber. Used by permission of HarperCollins Leadership. www.harpercollinsleadership.com.