The internet changed every facet of our lives forever. And branding is no exception. Two trends have dominated the past 50 years.
First, companies are dealing with the most educated and sophisticated group of consumers ever. Unlike the 60s, where most brand claims and promises went unchallenged and unchecked, consumers today have information at their fingertips. With it comes a healthy dose of skepticism.
Second, consumers’ expectations of corporate responsibility have also evolved. Social responsibility changed from something nice to have and do, to an expectation. More consumers choose brands based on the beliefs and values they share. And consumers vote with their dollars for the kind of world they want to live in. With social media, they now have huge platforms and megaphones to share their approval or outrage.
Easy access to information and the strength of online communities give consumers tremendous leverage and power. And in response to this changing power dynamic, two kinds of brands have emerged: mirrors and windows.
Is your brand a mirror or a window?
When you use your brand as a mirror, you reflect back to society what you think it expects from you— even when those things do not reflect what you believe, who you are and what you stand for.
But if you use your brand as a window, it shows the world what’s on the inside. It becomes the truest expression of who you are and the contribution you want to make in the world.
Mirror-brands are phonies. They fake their support or involvement around important social and cultural issues, for example. Shortly after the murder of George Floyd we saw companies put up black squares for Black Out Tuesday and release anti-racism statements, without any real systemic change within their own organizations.
Window-brands are authentic. They often have a clear purpose and hold strong beliefs. And because they uphold and live by their values, they create strong connections and bonds with consumers. Companies like Patagonia and Apple are able to build cult-like following because they have built window-brands.
Sometimes mirroring the outside world is enough to trick people to see what they want to see, but more often than not, people can see through it. That’s why window-brands usually outperform mirror-brands.
Here’s how you can build a window-brand
Window-brands are built from the inside out. It starts with having the clarity to see and understand that a brand is a shorthand for who you are, what you believe and what you do. And it requires that you start this process with introspection and self-inquiry.
With this kind of self-awareness, you can act instead of merely reacting to trends and external stimuli like competition. You can make strategic decisions that reflect and align with your purpose, regardless of what the rest of the industry is doing. It’s hard to go against the majority when you are not grounded in your truth. But to follow your gut and be wrong, is always better than to follow somebody’s truth and be wrong.
In the words of the late Tony Hsieh, founder of Zappos, culture and brand are two sides of the same coin. And the best way to create this alignment is to operationalize your values. Whether your brand stands for inclusion, transparency, empathy, or sustainability, find ways to use your values as a filter and measuring stick for everything say and you do.
At Patagonia, one of the many ways their commitment for sustainability finds expression is through the Worn Wear initiative, where customers are encouraged to repair, share and recycle their gear and receive credit toward new products. This is how strong company cultures are built and, incidentally, great brands too.
As you strive to live and die by your values, remember that no brand is an island. Brands have the power to change society. But sometimes, it’s society that invites the company to revisit its ideas and ideals. The same way the sun and clouds cast shadow and light inside any room through its windows, we have to remember that brands exist in time, space and within the context of people’s lives.