Brands as acts of leadership: balancing power and responsibility
Business is no longer just about business, writes Manfredi Ricca, global chief strategy officer at Interbrand. Here’s what brands need to do to win in the long haul.
Throughout the preparation of the Best Global Brands Report, and as certain patterns began to emerge, I was repeatedly reminded of a book by bestselling author and physicist Carlo Rovelli. It’s the story of how, in 1925, a young man working alone on a remote North Sea island developed a radical insight that would change the course of science. The young man was a 24-year-old physicist named Werner Heisenberg.
Struggling to make sense of the inner workings of atoms, Heisenberg – in a moment of true genius – decided to break away from traditional physics and start afresh from a radically new angle. He worked feverishly to develop that intuition into what was to become the foundations of quantum mechanics.
Despite shaping our understanding of the universe and much of today’s technology, quantum mechanics is … strange. It’s not intuitive. It’s unlike anything that came before it.
Rovelli’s book reminds us of how, at certain junctures, we must be ready to unlearn and embrace new approaches, no matter how radical.
The economic debate is currently at a quantum moment. Major crises are rupturing our most fundamental convictions about capitalism, growth and business.
The business of business is no longer just business. Societal change is now seen by leading thinkers, and the public alike, as a core function of companies. Studies show companies to be the most trusted type of institution, ahead of government, media and NGOs.
If this is true, then brands are, by implication, the world’s most powerful narratives. And with greater power comes greater responsibility.
This balance of power and responsibility is the red thread running through many of the world’s best-performing brands.
These brands do more than offer exceptional products and experiences. They take sides on the most critical debates, from Apple’s pledge about privacy to Nike’s stances on inclusion – a radical shift from when brands were advised to steer clear of controversy. Extraordinary times reward bravery, not neutrality.
These companies see their brands not just as growth engines, but as acts of leadership that shift our expectations in terms of experiences – and ethics too.
By combining great interactions and meaningful actions, these companies show what we define as brand leadership – they offer superlative experiences and act with bold integrity, doing things right and doing the right thing.
Now, think about a personal relationship. When you meet someone whom you don’t just admire, but who also shares your values, who helps solve your challenges and is there for you in the moments that matter (big or small), there’s a good chance you want to have them more involved in your life.
The same is true of brands. When we have a strong functional, emotional and moral connection with a brand – when it delivers exceptional products and experiences, and acts with integrity – we want to spend more time with it. We want it to play a bigger role in our lives. We welcome it asking: “what else can we do for you?”
This is where the exponential growth we see across many of this year’s best-performing brands begins. Built on a foundation of trust and affinity, they expand in multiple directions, with far more fluidity than traditional diversification. It’s no longer a question of ‘we do this, we can do that too’, but ‘you trust us, and here’s what else we might help you do’.
Traditionally, companies would build a brand around a core product and seek to become a category leader. Think Coke, Gillette, Pampers or Colgate.
Now consider Apple or Google. It’s hard to define what they do; it’s easier to think of what they help us do. Apple helps us connect, do, belong, play, pay and – more recently – thrive. Soon it may help us move, too. Google helps us learn, connect, move and even dwell. Lego, a 90-year-old brand, helps us play and learn, in more ways than it originally did. The same applies for the likes of Microsoft or Disney.
These organizations no longer compete in categories, but around jobs to be done. They place at their core not a product, but brand leadership. And rather than build their brand around a business, they build businesses around their brand.
That may sound counterintuitive and, yes, slightly quantum. But at a time when skills and tech abound and leadership is scarce, nothing gives more permission to grow than trust and affinity.
Businesses have never been so central to societies – and brands, the constructs around which trust is formed, have never been so central to businesses. Now is the time for a quantum-like reset and for organizations to see their brands not only as critical assets but as their most powerful acts of leadership.
Manfredi Ricca is global chief strategy officer at Interbrand.