How aggression creates iconic brands

Of all the things a business can aspire to, there is one I believe that outstrips all the rest: to be a case study.

Case study businesses are those that other businesses return to, again and again, as a benchmark for how things should be done.

Case study businesses are taught in MBA programs, cited in TED talks, referenced in articles, analysed approvingly by the man on the street – so much so that they eventually become cliches. Businesses so over-referenced that it becomes almost embarrassing to use them to illustrate a point, even if it’s a good one.

We all know the ones I’m talking about of course. Apple. Red Bull. Patagonia. Etc etc. The list goes on, making this article feel more stale with each name I drop. These aren’t just case studies, they’re icons; a status that no amount of conventional success and profit can buy.

If your goal was to create a case study business like this (and why wouldn’t it be?), then it would make sense to ask what the commonality was between them. Not what specific lessons each one of them has for you individually, but what single generalised lesson we can draw from all of them as group. Get that locked down, and you have the secret ingredient which separates the case study brand from the merely successful.

The answer, I believe is this: aggression.

None of these companies have, on paper, especially sophisticated or unusual strategies. Indeed many of them occupy positions which are quite similar to some of their competitors. However, unlike their competitors, they don’t just deliver on their strategies: they over-deliver, to an extreme and even self-destructive level.

For a very basic well known example, consider the lengths Patagonia went to in order to be “eco-friendly” (more or less their market offering). As a position in their industry, this is nothing special. In fact we might even say it’s become a bit of a hygiene factor – something brands are expected to be, rather than something remarkable in its own right. However Patagonia made it remarkable purely by the lengths they were prepared to go to in its execution. They smashed their bottom line by transitioning to organic cotton overnight. Against retail experts’ advice, they were the first brand to start selling underwear loose, rather than in boxes. They decided to offer free repairs for their garments forever. Through these actions and many more, they carved out an iconic position in the culture not due to the cleverness of their positioning, but due to the aggression of their delivery.

Most brands lack this same aggression, almost completely.

Most brands are satisfied, once they have a strategy, to deliver on it merely to a level of “plausible deniability” – whereby, if pressed, they could rationalise why they deliver on their positioning, without it necessarily being immediately obvious to the outside observer.

Such strategies, I’m sorry to say, effectively don’t exist. If a disinterested customer couldn’t tell you what marks you out or makes you special merely by observation then the truth is that nothing does – regardless of what your strategic PowerPoint decks might say to the contrary.

Arguably it is the ease with which we can “see the workings” of these case study businesses that makes them case studies in the first place. You don’t need to have been in the board meetings of Apple during the Steve Jobs era to see what they were up to – it was blatantly obvious for all to see, and thus easy to extrapolate lessons from. So obvious was it in fact, that they didn’t even need to explain their strategy to consumers in their comms. Beyond vague stylistic statements like “Think Different” and “Gives You Wings”, case study companies do remarkably little explaining of themselves because it simply isn’t necessary. Through the over-delivery of their actions they communicate everything they want to say.

This “comms free communication” test is an excellent experiment to run on your own company. Do people understand what you’re all about without you explaining it to them? Is the value you’re bringing to the market clear purely by virtue of your actions? If not, then I would question whether you are indeed delivering value to the extent you think you are.

Marketing comms are useful – sometimes essential – but should always be treated ideally as the icing on the cake; a luxury which, in theory, you’d do fine without.

In conclusion, I believe we place too much emphasis in business on the intelligence of our actions, and not nearly enough on their forcefulness. Indeed I would almost go so far as to say that if your actions are aggressive and focused enough, it doesn’t particularly matter if they are intelligent at all. Certainly, I don’t think that there was any grand insight behind Red Bull’s support of extreme sports, or Zappos’ focus on customer service, or Southwest Airlines’ vision of low-cost air travel. What mattered in all cases was how far and hard they were willing to push it, and how remarkable and obvious they became through that process.

So crystallise your creative branding strategy. Make sure it’s pure, practical, simple, and focused. Then step back, observe your business, and identify all the levers you could pull in order to deliver it.

And then, go for it.

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