How to Define a Brand's Soul

SAN FRANCISCO Laurence Knight, Unilever veteran and consultant to Unilever brands such as Dove, Axe, Caress and Pond’s, likes to preach that a brand needs soul in order to thrive, especially as the world gets more digital. What brands have the most soul?

Adweek‘s Joan Voight had to know. The answers she gets from Knight, the president of Fletcher Knight, are not what you might guess. Here’s a hint. Do you shop at Costco?

Q: What is the difference between a brand with soul and one that is soulless?
A: Brands with soul share a passion and motivation with their consumers, they have a clear reason for being. The brand soul is not necessarily a mission or a charitable cause, although it can be that. Brand soul is usually related to values and ethics, such as quality, self-esteem or integrity. The brand is a champion of those values. A brand without soul appeals to the head by relying on a hard sell and a focus on product features. A brand without a soul can also appeal to the heart with an emotional proposition. My client Dove, for instance, used to have an emotional underpinning [around the proposition] that its products were relaxing and soothing. That was not soul. Now Dove is aligned with raising the self-esteem of women and girls, that is its brand soul.

In the retail world, what brands have soul?
Costco is a great example; it aligns with the value of giving a people a good deal on quality goods. It literally has a community of like-minded consumers because it is membership based. It behaves like it is a partner with the customer. All the employees seem to get that value system; they [see themselves as] helping their members get the most bang for the buck. That search for a good deal is the soul of the brand. Which is different from a discount brand that is about getting the lowest price.

How about Trader Joe’s chain of markets? Doesn’t it have a similar soul to Costco?
The Trader Joes’s brand certainly has soul, and like Costco the employees live and breathe the brand equity. But their souls are different. Trader Joe’s brand soul is that it searches the world and brings food experiences to its customers. It represents the curiosity of food exploration and has the soul of an adventure seeker. Its products are affordable like Costco, but they are more artisan.

What is a high-profile mass-market brand with a strong soul?
Pepsi. It has aligned itself with music and the self-expression of music.

How about the tech brand with the most soul?
Google. It has integrated itself into everyday life. It helps its users find what they want. That is its soul, [being a helper] in the digital universe.

Name a high-profile brand that needs to find its soul.
Nike. Nike’s ads and stores and its association with big events make a strong emotional impact on consumers. But the brand needs to engage and link with consumers in the everyday space. For instance, it could be involved in providing open fields and playgrounds in cities. Nike needs to find ways to drive dialogue on an everyday basis.

What is the true sign that a brand has soul?
The brand goes beyond the individual and is integrated into the community. Instead of brand evangelists, where there are leaders and followers, a brand with soul has a fan base of peers. The brand is equal and parallel to consumers; it is not in the center. That’s why the idea of 360-degree marketing is a problem. It is egocentric, it puts the brand in the center of the 360.

Does digital technology help or hinder brand soul?
It is totally the reason why brand soul is so important now. It allows people to connect with each other on a daily basis and it allows brands to be in the daily lives of people. Every brand now needs to ask, “What is our daily discussion with our customers?”

What is the role of the marketing agency in establishing brand soul?
Agencies can bring a different set of tools to use to manage the brand. They can track the brand internally by studying the client’s organization as a whole. They can also study the brand externally and then align the overall brand meaning with the internal passion of the company.

What business benefits are reaped by brands with soul?
Brands with soul jump off the curve and have higher levels of loyalty than expected for their size. Most retail beauty brands, for instance, show a set conversion of traffic. But retail beauty brands with soul have a higher number of planned trips and show higher conversion rates. Brand soul also steers employees’ activity in the areas of customer service, sales, product development and innovation.

What are the biggest threats to brand soul?
Radical changes in personnel or in a parent corporation can disrupt a strong set of guiding principles. Another big risk is becoming too obnoxious. The classic example is an entrepreneur who believes too much in his own success and fails to understand that you can only nurture brand soul within your consumer base. Soul lives in the community of consumers and is not controlled at the center.