Talk, as the cliché goes, is cheap. For brands, that’s never been truer than it is now.
Anyone can, within seconds, start a Shopify store and sell literally any product they want in a matter of minutes.
Got an Instagram account? That’s cool. So does everyone else.
And, these days, anyone with a few bucks can run some Facebook or Twitter ads and say anything to anyone around the world.
So how do you differentiate yourself in a marketplace where anyone can say literally anything about themselves?
The power of sacrifice
Sacrifice is fundamental to what it is to be a brand.
It’s why companies that make toothpaste don’t (typically) make cars.
It’s why a non-profit devoted to saving the whales would really need to stretch its purpose to end up helping people with their tax returns.
It’s why my mechanic doesn’t offer to fix my abdominal pain after changing up my winter tires.
All of these organizations share a fundamental view about branding: To have any hope of showing your audience who you are, you need to make a decision about who you are not.
That’s why the best organizations take a broader approach to brand building. They don’t just offer a product or turn a profit or create shareholder value.
They serve a greater purpose than any single revenue goal or product can define.
Instead, the retailer closes for the day so it can encourage its customers to actually build its purpose for existing in the first place: Getting more people to enjoy the great outdoors.
By doing this the brand is revealing something about itself to its audience. When given a choice between profit and giving people the opportunity to enjoy the outdoors, it is going to sacrifice the immediate bottom line and choose the outside.
A brand close to me, Ottawa-based clothing store Stomping Ground, made a similar sacrifice during the holiday season in 2020. Rather than mimic most retailers and offer Boxing Week sales, the store decided to instead make donations to the Ottawa Food Bank.
Stomping Ground decided it was going to sacrifice turning a quick buck to solidify its commitment to limiting the tendency to overconsumption that sales tend to fuel (and supporting a local charity in the process).
Or, to take an example that all of us have likely lived through, think back to the last time you were waiting on hold with a company and having an automated voice tell you your call was important to them.
It probably rang hollow. Why? Because if your call really mattered to the company, they would have been willing to sacrifice the money they need to invest on a customer service team that could actually answer your call in a timely manner.
That’s because companies with a clear sense of purpose understand that sacrificing can only help further define your brand.
But the best brands don’t just define who they are. They look for opportunities to show it to others.
But how will they know?
In 2021, people don’t just want to know what you do or why you do it. Audiences have long since glommed onto the notion that anybody can say anything they want about themselves.
That’s why they’re looking for something more: to know who you are. And the best way to do that is to make a choice.
Take what is perhaps the most famous example of this. Nike’s now-infamous Colin Kapernick campaign.
The company was not just promoting an athlete who had made a stand for racial injustice. It was also, in a sense, sacrificing.
Nike knew that making a grand declaration of support for an athlete like Kaepernick was also going to alienate a significant portion of its audience (read: GOP voters).
But that was also (at least) half of the point: It didn’t just want to support an athlete who gave his career for a cause he believed in. It wanted to sacrifice the audience members who would never agree with the stand he took.
Why is this so effective? Because it makes the choice as clear as possible to the audience (and earns a ton of earned media in the process).
That’s because sacrifice not only helps to solidify strategy, refine messaging and bring a tighter connection to a target audience.
It’s a declaration to the world of who your brand is.
It’s easy to think of sacrifice as a bad thing. Why would you want to make customers unhappy? To give them fewer opportunities to purchase? To reveal something closely-held about your brand that will just give them an opportunity to dislike you?
But that’s only because this viewpoint is built on a fundamental misunderstanding of what it is to be a brand.
By looking for ways to show who they are not, brands can go a long way to building a closer connection to their audience.
All they need to do is sacrifice.