This week, we’re focusing on the third ingredient: distinctive inspiration.
Inspiration is a word companies love to throw around to describe their businesses and brands, but guess what? Most businesses and brands are not inspired or inspiring. They live in functional worlds, providing functional benefits and competing on price, features, and share of voice, but never truly feeling confident about their decisions.
On the other hand, inspired brands—those that strive for a higher purpose—capture our imagination. They surprise and delight at moments that matter, stay true to their values, and turn consumers into passionate brand advocates. While we all know distinctive inspiration when we see it—Southwest, LEGO, and Starbucks, for example—there’s far less talk about how to develop that kind of culture at your brand.
First, look beyond your company’s four walls and learn from what has worked for others. Following are five ways smart companies find inspiration:
1. They obsess about their customers and deliver what matters: At Panera, the food is good and priced competitively, while the service is fast and friendly. But it’s the commitment to good-for-you foods—clean, simple, and healthy—that makes Panera an inspired brand. As Americans’ concerns about food and farming have expanded, Panera has led the way in education about agriculture and ingredients. (The new “No-No List” is a great example.) It has earned the credibility to cast itself in a coveted role—a trusted teacher. (Customer obsession was covered deeply in our first article in this series, and remains the No. 1 source of inspiration for companies.)
2. They “thief and doctor” best practices both inside and outside their category: We often ask the question of our clients, “If you were more like Disney or Uber or Zappos, what would you take from what they are doing to drive change in your organization?” The answers are always surprising. The best health-care companies, for instance, aren’t just looking to the Mayo Clinic or Cleveland Clinic for inspiration. They are just as likely to be asking how they can provide amenities as luxurious as the Four Seasons, service as consistent as Nordstrom, or experiences as magical as Disney. They understand that inspiration usually requires more than imitation. They infuse borrowed ideas with their own brand identity to create a distinctive offering or experiences.
3. They explore their own heritage: Consumers crave authenticity, so brand history can offer an almost endless source of lessons. We often take clients out on what we call “brand safaris” to delve into the stories of companies such as Levi Strauss and Ford Motor Co. Studying how these great American brands honor their heritage yet still inspire customers today always sparks fresh thinking. Levi’s found its mojo again when the 529 was reinvented into the “hot skinny” jean, and Ford inspired all of us through fully reimagining its F-150. Don't disregard the past for future inspiration simply because it’s in the past.
4. They think big and small: Responding to large demographic changes is essential. If you don’t respect Gen Y’s demand to do everything on their phones, you won’t win. But it also means listening to the growing desire for personalization across every customer segment. That trend has inspired companies that range from Birchbox, with its curated beauty offerings, to GE Healthcare, which continues to lead the field with its innovative DoseWatch, leveraging cloud technology to individualize radiation therapy.
5. They take a stand—even a risky one—to stay true to their mission: As a company, sometimes it’s what you don't do that becomes the most inspirational. CVS generated a great deal of publicity for its decision to stop selling tobacco products last year, and was recently in the news again when it resigned its seat on the U.S. Chamber of Commerce over that group’s pro-smoking stance. And it did so without apology: Tobacco use conflicts with the company’s commitment to help people on their path to better health.
These five sources of inspiration are critical for a brand’s long-term success. To stay relevant, companies must continue to innovate, creating new and valuable experiences for its customers. To do so, brands must step outside the functional, and dare to be inspirational.