Remember when popularity was synonymous with success?
At a certain point, we all grow up, find our niches in life and accept that we can’t be everything to everyone. Nor do we want to be because we have influence and thrive in our own universes.
But for some reason, this simple life lesson doesn’t seem to have penetrated the professional brand sector. In what feels like a never-ending high school popularity contest, brands obsessively collect potential consumers, often by latching onto cultural moments—like Pride Month—in a desperate move to be universally appealing and a part of every conversation.
Logic suggests the more people our brand attracts, the better our business. But the fact is that we simply can’t be everything to everyone. Trying to be is not strategic and is a waste of energy. At most, it’s also harmful and leaves people questioning our authenticity.
Here’s the uncomfortable part, too. All of this means someone, somewhere will disagree with what we’re saying. But if we’re going to accomplish our brand goals, we must learn how to be comfortable with that inevitable friction. We must learn why intention can make all the difference in the world.
Although controversial, these following brands share a hallmark. There’s no question about where they stand. To many, their messages might seem over-simplified. However, people understand and remember what they stand for.
Obama: Change and hope
Some politicians get this better than most, and they’re often polarizing.
Politicians with multi-dimensional platforms and seemingly more layered sensibilities struggle to define their brand in a way that people can grasp. To be clear, complexity and sophistication aren’t bad. They are essential to business strategies and long-term success, but they don’t belong in our core messaging.
Obama understood the power of intention. Everything rolled into his idea of change, a message soon distilled into a slogan: “Yes, we can.”
More than 15 million ballots were cast by new voters in 2008, of which 68.7% voted for Obama. Part of his appeal was the simplicity of his brand. His message resonated with people and focused on a feeling and an aspiration more than an understanding of his political policies, creating a winning strategy.
Patagonia: Responsibility and advocacy
Let’s consider how this concept translates to a consumer-facing brand. Patagonia has been equally polarizing and successful in recent years while staying close to its roots and adopting a persona matching the activism of its founder Yvon Chouinard.
In 2017, after President Trump announced rollbacks of protections on the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monuments, Patagonia took offensive maneuvers, issuing a campaign called “The President Stole Your Land.” This message lived on the Patagonia site, Chouinard threatened to sue the administration and later joined a coalition of grassroots groups and Native American tribes to do so.
While many brands would shy away from such overtly political messaging, the statement wasn’t about political gain. And instead of alienating its audience, people responded in favor. The day after the presidential rebuke, Patagonia’s external web sales were six times the regular rate.
Patagonia knows its audience and sticks to its brand values, and in the past decade, its revenue has quadrupled as it continues to develop its defense of public lands under the Patagonia Action Works program.
Disney: Joy and imagination
One brand has continued to build revenue with increasing speed while seemingly managing an impossible task: maintaining a simplified brand intention without risk of polarization. And that’s Disney.
Disney has built an empire on the concept of joy, delivering the three-letter word across every interaction and touchpoint in an imaginative way. “It all began with a mouse” in 1923, but the company has since amassed revenues of almost $60 billion. Disney’s empire spread from animation to filmmaking, then to franchise building in the form of Star Wars, Pixar and ESPN, and has now shifted into the lucrative streaming world in the form of Disney+.
Boasting 12 amusement parks among six major resorts in Florida, California, Tokyo, Paris, Hong Kong and Shanghai, Disney is literally everywhere, with an increasingly diversified portfolio. But the common threads of joy and imagination permeate everything.
You’re probably wondering whether any of these brands were running for a spot on the homecoming court because they’d probably win. You’re not wrong. It’s a matter of intention.
None of these brands went in thinking, “I’ve got to be the popular kid and make everyone love me.” They understand the why at the heart of their brand. They’ve distilled their purpose and let it guide their strategies without hesitation. Their popularity isn’t a driver; it’s a side effect.
In other words, our why should serve as our North Star for everything. Once we get that right, the rest of the highly sought after, ever-so-elusive targets—like popularity, going viral, being labeled authentic—will fall into place.
You can’t be everything to everyone. Do yourself a favor and give your brand permission to be true to itself. Let it thrive in its own universe and watch what unfolds.