The New Branding Reality: “Game Changer” or “Game Over”

The Cambridge Dictionary defines a ‘change agent’ as “a person or thing that encourages other people to change their behavior or opinion.” I would argue that we have to add “organizations” to this definition – because we live in a time where true change is increasingly driven by brands that enjoy a massive sphere of influence.

Yet, the ‘inconvenient truth’ is that change agents are a rare species. There is not quite that many of them out there that fundamentally affect how people think, view the world and, ultimately, behave.

“Why care?” you might ask. “Isn’t change said to be the only constant?” “Are we not witnessing an age in which technological change happens at a higher rate than ever before, creating an abundance of new, exciting opportunities?” “Are we not living in a time in which mind-blowing tech startups pop up at every corner with the ambition to reinvent the way stuff works?” The short answer is: Yes, we are.

The (slightly) longer answer is: Yes, we are – but change is only positive if it is directed towards changing the right things. For example, our biggest social, economical or cultural challenges as a society. We really only witness so many Steve Jobs, Richard Bransons or Elon Musks in a lifetime – entrepreneurs and visionaries that have the unique ability to rally the troops around them to turn their very own version of a better world into reality.

And even if their respective vision might have been different and their actions motivated by different goals, one thing that unites all of them is a tiny word with mighty gravitas: Impact.

‘Impact’ is a pretty powerful thing. We live in a world where it matters more than ever, to more people than ever. An entrepreneur wants to create business impact and growth. An aspiring urban planner wants to impact the way we live in cities tomorrow. A social activist aspires to impact the way we think about a cause that matters to him. A new employee at Google wants to impact the way we build a better world in the information age. And today’s millennials represent an entire generation that is trying to define how they can spend their life in a more meaningful and purposeful way.

So that’s all good news and should in theory lead to an outburst of changemakers that will affect the world forever, in no time at all, right?

True, but here is the catch: They will need help. In an increasingly fast-paced market environment where disruptive product and service innovations are launched in ever shorter cycles, where massive investments are necessary to bring solutions to scale, or where it is simple difficult to “cut through the noise,” even these type of impact-driven visionaries will need the foundational structure of an organization to thrive in. One that provides them with the capital and sphere of influence to reach the millions of people necessary in order to create systemic, not incremental, change. Change with truly transformative impact.

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This is where strong brands come in. Their changing role and responsibility is to act as changemakers by providing people with the nurturing ground to grow and harvest ideas that are world-changing. We are witnessing an age in which the most powerful brands are the ones that are the most powerful change agents.

Amazon changes the way we shop. Chipotle affects the way we think about food. Facebook reinvents the way we socialize. Patagonia encourages us to adopt a more sustainable purchase behavior. Tesla redefines the way we look at mobility. These are just some of the brands that attract people who want to change the game, and are intrigued by these organizations’ capabilities to allow them to play their part in doing exactly that. With highly positive outcomes for the bottom line, the level of fascination that ‘Game Changer Brands’ enjoy has become the single most important attractor and growth-driver for them.

On top of that, it gives these brands access to the best and brightest. We have come far since the times in which people simply wanted to work for the companies that built the sexiest physical product or paid the most. LinkedIn’s recent global study came up with a list of the 20 most desired employers. Guess what? Most of the top ranks are taken by ‘Game Changer Brands’: Google, Apple, Microsoft,, Facebook, Twitter. All being organizations that affect the way people will behave and live in the future.

Now, the interesting fact is that organizations that want to join the list of the above nameplates and business model innovators will need to start changing their own behaviors, first. The traditional rules of brand management need to be thrown overboard – otherwise it’s “game over” rather than “game changer”.

Here are 5 behaviors brands should adopt if they want to survive and thrive in a world that demands more game changers:

1. Know your purpose – and never compromise it.

Organizations that want to change the game need to know in which way. They will need a crystal clear articulation of the larger role they intend to play in people’s lives, in society and the communities they engage in. They need to define how their products or services contribute to a world that is more productive, more enjoyable or more just. And once that purpose is defined, it must form the core of everything that organization says and does – without compromise. Authenticity is key, especially in an information age where consumers enjoy total transparency and get wind of every brand that goes astray.

A great example here is Patagonia. The outdoor brand pledges to help create a more responsible economy and proactively asks its customers to consume more consciously; for example, by getting their Patagonia products fixed rather than replaced with new ones. It is a brand that is very authentically and credibly holding on to its convictions. Plus, it is great proof that creating social profits actually accelerates business profits. The organization grew its revenue by one third in 2012, alone, and Patagonia founder and owner Yvon Chouinard has estimated that revenue will continue to grow at a rate of 15 percent a year.

2. Embrace empathy – and make it all about people

Brands that act as true change agents put every effort necessary into understanding people’s needs, desires, emotions and deepest motivations. There is no other way, really. Only if you tap into ‘what makes people tick’ will you be able to motivate them to reconsider their actions and behaviors.

Organizations that excel in this area invest considerable amounts of money and time into research that helps them see the world through the eyes of the people they want to touch. And I am not speaking of the “behind the desk quantitative questionnaire” here. I am talking about spending time with the people and communities you’re planning to engage with. What you want is real human insights, not excel sheets full of numbers and information. Talk to people. Listen to their stories. Understand their fears, anxieties, but also what drives them and inspires them. And then tap into what is meaningful to them – it is the only way to become and stay relevant. And you will need to be relevant if you intend to affect the masses, build a movement and create change at scale.

Take JetBlue, for example. The airline has understood that people are tired of some key conventions of the airline industry; for example, that extra bags mean extra fees or that extra snacks mean an extra swipe of the credit card. Instead, the airline has issued a ‘Customer Bill of Rights’ that is dedicated to “bringing humanity back to air travel.” People love JetBlue for that, because they feel understood and treated with respect. Receiving the J.D. Power Award for highest customer satisfaction among low cost carriers for the seventh year in the row says it all.

3. Allow Participation – and democratize your brand experience

Lorin Anderson, who evolved Benjamin Bloom’s ‘Taxonomy of Learning,’ states a very simple truth: “Creating” is the highest form of learning and key to comprehending new behaviors. What does this have to do with game-changing brands? Simply that brands that wish to change the way things are, and want others to join them in that endeavor, must do one thing: Open the floodgates and allow people in. Only brands that invite peers to co-create their products, services and overall experience will garner trust and advocacy.

SEE ALSO: “Boom Splat!” Why Great Brands Fall From Grace

There are brands that are game changers simply because their entire business model is based on co-creation and consumer participation. TripAdvisor is a great example. The hotel review platform has forever changed the way we look at the travel industry and created a new equilibrium of trust. We now base our choices on the collective opinion of other travelers, rather than the promises of shiny travel brochures and hotel websites.

4. Tell Stories ­and inspire people to do the same

Since the beginning of time, powerful stories have been a powerful tool to inspire and motivate people. Homer’s Odyssey has inspired people to be adventurous. The stories of massive riches in the Californian West inspired the Gold Rush in the 1850’s. And the stories told by your best friend after his summer trip to Disneyland has stirred your desire to go, as well.

Being part of a great experience enables us to tell great stories – and share them with others. Great brands understand that we live in a time where people crave memorable moments.

TOMS, the brand that gives one pair of shoes to a child in need for every pair of shoes sold, is practically based on this simple principle. I’d argue that they are not even in the business of selling shoes. TOMS is in the business of selling you the great story of how your purchase choice has helped a child in the developing world. TOMS’ customers tell this story – constantly – and thus keep growing the brand’s fellowship. That’s exactly how the brand grows its reach and impact, enabling it to do (even more) good.

5. Be Bold ­and (dah!) comfortable with change

An organization can’t be a credible game changer if it is uncomfortable with change. Today’s business models are in constant flux. Disruption is the new convention, and static businesses are perceived as boring and unresponsive to people’s changing needs. This is a tough one because changing, flexing and adapting one’s business model requires massive efforts – financially, structurally and mentally. But, then again, the new reality is simple: It is either ‘changing the game’ or ‘game over.’

There are businesses out there that have a proven ability to diversify their business both vertically and horizontally. Google is an often-quoted example, for the right reason: Search, Mobile Phones, Maps, Glasses, Connected Cars – you name it. There seems to be almost no category people would be too surprised about. And it has become part of the reason why Google has become such an exciting organization. It is famous for fearlessly taking on the challenges of society, with the ambition to create a more convenient and enjoyable world for all of us.

As Voltaire (and also Spiderman’s uncle Ben) has put it, “With great power comes great responsibility.” Brands do have that power. Plus, they have the ability and responsibility to affect people – how we think and, even more so, how we behave. This can create behavior change at scale, on a community level. Change that is engaging and infectious, carrying benefits for both a thriving society and growing business.

The brands that will be successful tomorrow are the ones that understand how to drive and tap into a new consumer behavior, today. And that’s how they will change the game – and, ultimately, the world.

Photo: Bent by quas

  • Sidney Evans

    Great piece! In my experience, most firms lack true clarity of purpose. I am always perplexed by the disconnect between perception and reality. Further, I would assert that firms living the “Coherence Premium” will “WIN” moving forward.