More Articles

What Doesn’t Your Brand Stand For?

Giving up something could make your brand “sacred.”

Article by
Tom Denari
President & CEO
Young & Laramore
Placeholder Image? What doesnt your brand stand for

Do you find yourself in awe of certain brands? You know, those brands that have an unquestioning, undyingly loyal following—brands that never have to offer discounts, whose customers are willing to camp out for hours when they release a new product or open a new store.

Today, marketers are working harder than ever to push their brands toward iconic status, using content strategies and every emerging social platform, hoping that something they do will catch fire. They dream of the day their brand will become admired, not only by its target audience, but also by the larger marketing and business media.

Admiration is certainly achievable. But what about worship? Is it too much to ask to expect that your brand could become “hallowed”? Maybe not. In fact, I would contend that the way a brand can achieve a more revered status is less about what it does, and more about what it doesn’t do.

We talk about helping a brand identify what it should stand for, which is a critical step in developing a successful positioning strategy. The problem is, it’s relatively easy to stand for something. Many brands get lazy, standing for too many things, trying to satisfy every possible opportunity and audience—afraid to give something up. These brands appear amorphous—less solid.

It’s the understanding of what a brand doesn't stand for that’s the real secret to achieving a higher level of “brandom.” You could call this focus—or even discipline—but I’d like to suggest using the word “sacrifice” to better identify the notion of giving up something to make a brand successful. Sacrifice can be a scary word, because it’s often used pejoratively, referencing something negative or uncomfortable.

I’d like to put “sacrifice” in a different light, as the origin of the word takes us to a much more positive place. Sacrifice actually comes from two Latin root words: “sacer,” meaning sacred; and, “facere,” meaning to make or to do. In other words, “to sacrifice” actually means “to make sacred.” The Cambridge Dictionary’s definition of sacrifice identifies a more functional orientation: to give up something, for something else considered more important (i.e. sacrifice fly).

In-N-Out Burger is a great example of a brand that’s had the courage to know what it doesn’t stand for. Unlike most fast-food chains, what In-N-Out doesn’t stand for is rapid growth through franchising. Despite inquiries from cities all over the country, In-N-Out Burger, the “venerated” fast food chain of the West coast operated in only five states for years, all in the western U.S.—and only recently has branched out into Oregon and Colorado (all with company-owned stores). One of the reasons In-N-Out hasn’t branched out geographically is because every location needs to be near its distribution facilities to control the quality and freshness of their food, because they don’t use freezers or microwaves in the restaurants.

Unlike almost every other fast-food chain, In-N-Out also doesn’t stand for a new product every quarter. Nor, does it try to chase the “veto voter” by offering new products that are unrelated to their limited fare of burgers, fries and shakes, as In-N-Out’s menu has remained steadfastly basic over the 65-year-life of the chain. Because tightly controlling the brand experience is so important to this family-owned company, it’s given up aspects of a typical restaurant business that others may have considered vital and may not have dared to give up. But, through its sacrifice, you could argue that over time, In-N-Out has become “worshiped.”

It’s a simple lesson of how having clarity of what the brand is not about helps In-N-Out make better decisions to reinforce what it does stand for.

But, is it possible to give up the wrong thing? Sure, determining what you don’t stand for can be perilous, if you don’t really understand the consumer. A decade ago, JCPenney notoriously sacrificed discounts and promotions, so that they could stand for everyday low prices, presuming that consumers would rejoice. It was a bold and arguably honorable positioning strategy. But, unfortunately, JCP failed to understand the weakness of its brand and how vital promotions were to the psychology of consumer behavior in the mid-tier retail category. Instead of making the brand sacred, this almost fatal error simply made JCP confusing to its dwindling customer base—proving that trying to make your brand sacred is obviously not for the faint of heart. It takes both vision, and courage.

But, if you have the courage to ask what your brand can give up—that sacrifice might just be the thing that takes it to the highest ground—and dare I say, “holy?”

Tom Denari, President & CEO at Y&L

As Young & Laramore’s president and CEO, Tom has overseen marketing and communications strategy— from audience observations to creative executions— for brands like Angie’s List, Goodwill, Stanley Steemer, and Steak n Shake. Tom’s expertise in developing sound communication strategy is guided by his continual study of how emotional and non-rational factors influence consumer decision-making, which he's written about regularly for Advertising Age.