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How to Build a Brand to Last

In 1994, Jim Collins co-authored one the most important business books ever written: Built To Last,  It’s also one of the best books on branding that I’ve ever read – even though I challenge you to find the word “brand” anywhere in the book.


Over a six-year period, Collins and Jerry Porras, researched and analyzed the distinctions in performance and staying power of “visionary” companies and their “not-so-visionary” competitors.  By contrasting the characteristics of bell-weather brands like General Electric, IBM, Wal-Mart with direct competitors like Westinghouse, Burroughs and Ames, the authors found that a “core ideology” was the common element of success among all visionary companies.

What jumps off the pages of this book for transformational marketers with a keen eye, is a short list of critical success factors for building an iconic brand. In other words, how-to build a brand that will stand the test of time:




  1. Your Brand Story should rest on a “core ideology”– Collins asserts that visionary organizations have strong, enduring principles that go beyond just profits. Call it a cause. Call it a purpose. Or maybe just a compelling answer to the question: “why?”. Collins argues that if you want to build a visionary company (or I would say a great, enduring brand!) you have to start by knowing who you are, what you stand for, and why you exist. Your core ideology must be authentic and integrated seamlessly into everything the company does.  If your story isn’t authentic, customers will figure it out. They’ll see through the marketing hype and recognize the disconnect every time.  If you’re launching a new brand or reevaluating an existing one, start with that equation. Dig below the surface, identify those core brand values, and ask yourself these fundamental questions: What business are we really in? Why are we doing this? What do we fundamentally believe in?  Collins found that visionary companies have almost cult-like corporate cultures. Everyone is indoctrinated into the core ideology and they follow it faithfully. Keep in mind, the research for Built to Last was completed long before the emergence and dominance of brands like Amazon and Nike – but I would argue the same markers of core ideology apply today.  Jeff Bezos’ core ideology certainly transcends selling books. And Phil Knight knew that “just do it” wasn’t just about the shoes at Nike. Today, both of those brands would certainly fit Collins’ criteria of “visionary” companies.
  2. Your Brand Strategy should be to “build clocks not tell time”– Collins describes “clock building” as the strategy of building an organization that can grow and prosper far beyond the presence of a single leader and through multiple product life cycles. In contrast, he states that “time telling” is a strategy based on having a breakthrough idea, a great invention or hiring a charismatic, visionary leader.  Likewise, a brand strategy focused on “building clocks” can enable a brand to withstand economic recessions, leadership turnover, competitive threats, tumultuous regulatory environments  and disruptive technologies.  Consider that when Thomas Watson took the reins at IBM (“International Business Machines”) in 1924, the brand appeared on punch card machines and electric typewriters. Today, the IBM brand has evolved into one of the world’s largest computer companies and systems integrators. And IBM’s “Watson” is perhaps the most recognized name in artificial intelligence business applications in the world.
  3. Your Systems should “preserve the core while stimulating progress”– Collins asserts that “core ideology in a visionary company works hand in hand with a relentless drive for progress that impels change and forward movement in all that is not part of the core ideology”. His research suggested that organizations that are built to last keep clear the difference between their core values (which never change), and operating systems and cultural practices (which endlessly adapt to a changing world).  In fact, the operating systems (the people, processes and platforms) must evolve if the company is to remain relevant and progress as the environment around it changes.  For example, Collins shares the story of Sam Walton discussing Wal-Mart sales figures on his deathbed with a store manager –  you don’t do that because the outside environment demands it! These things are baked into the culture and arise out of an inner urge for progress.  In recent years, traditional bricks and mortar retailer brands have been under attack from thousands of new e-commerce entrants who don’t have physical locations and don’t even carry inventory.  As a result, many big box retailers have gone under (e.g. Payless Shoes, Sports Authority, Toys ‘R’ Us to name but a few!)  By contrast, Wal-Mart is continuously innovating their systems to stimulate progress and fend off the upstarts.  For example, Wal-Mart has made it’s own aggressive move into drop shipping . If you’re unfamiliar with drop shipping businesses, it’s a method where a store doesn’t keep the products it sells in stock. The manufacturer stores and delivers the products directly to customers who order. Wal-Mart moving in this direction is pretty amazing for a brand that has traditionally relied on driving traffic to their physical stores… Collins would just say that Wal-Mart is preserving the core while stimulating progress.

So there you have it: 3 easy steps to building a brand to last!  As we always say at TopRight: great brands embrace the 3S’s (Story, Strategy and Systems) and evaluate their performance through a lens of simplicity, clarity and alignment.  And as a result, they generate outsized returns, and ultimately, corner the markets where they choose to compete.

For more examples and details on the 3S’s – check out my new book, Marketing, Interrupted. In it, I challenge marketers to change their ways and take a new path. That path starts with why you do what you do—how that empowers your customer, which shapes and defines everything about you—and your position in the market. Focus on this, and you will accelerate your ability to stand out as a “visionary” organization and you will be at the trailhead to building a brand to last.

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