Published in Entrepreneur's Handbook on Medium, July 25, 2020
When I was a young lad in the 1980s, I remember walking into a funky alternative record store on main street—back when such magical places existed—and hearing this obscure song by a new, up and coming rock band from Dublin called U2.
"What a strange name for a rock band," I thought.
(They were initially called “The Larry Mullen Band.” Then, briefly, “Feedback.” Shortly after their debut gig, they became “The Hype.” But in March 1978, this fledgling post-punk band from Dublin finally settled on the name U2, after the Cold War spy plane by Lockheed.)
I wasn’t sure what to make of this new group just yet—as it was an entirely new type of sound for us Americans to hear. But what came through loud and clear to me is that U2’s music was about a lot more than just the typical “sex, drugs, and rock and roll” approach. Not only were they serious about politics, but they were also vocally critical of the policies of the world’s leaders. Their sincere level of care, concern, and empathy for the oppressed and downtrodden in other parts of the world was not something I was used to hearing in rock and roll.
The hypersonic sounds and words U2 was rocketing out to the world seemed to be about a movement, a cause, and a type of social activism I didn’t fully understand yet at my young, inexperienced age. From what I could see through my small town portal, I thought the world I inhabited was in pretty good balance. But U2 started making me aware of some issues on the world stage I was frankly ignorant to at the time. While I wasn’t versed enough in world affairs to follow everything U2 had to say in their songs, I appreciated getting a different perspective—other than the same old familiar voices I heard regularly from my local community leaders.
The hypersonic sounds and words U2 was rocketing out to the world seemed to be about a movement, a cause, and a type of social activism I didn’t fully understand yet at my young, inexperienced age. From what I could see through my small town portal, I thought the world I inhabited was in pretty good balance.
I became a U2 fan that day in the record store, but the big problem I had is that there weren’t any recordings available yet to buy in the U.S. Good music was so much harder to come by in those days, so when you found something pleasing to your ears, you had to either hunt it down, go to a friend’s house who already bought the record or wait to hear it on some remote, late-night college radio station. While that may sound like too much work to teenagers today, this scarcity of coveted harmonies made music all the more precious and meaningful.
However, can you imagine not being able to buy, much less listen to a song today you really liked?
There were no Shazam apps or on-demand YouTube channels, Spotify playlists, or Amazon tracks to listen to back then. Instead, you had to be willing to go down to the local record store—which was usually found on some abandoned main street or in a seedy-looking back alley—and dig through the piles of albums. Ahh, how I miss those days!
My Favorite U2 Lyric
After months of searching everywhere for a U2 recording, I was finally able to get my hands on a rare 7-inch vinyl pressing from Ireland. It only had two songs on it—Side A and Side B—but I played that record over and over in my rock poster-filled room until I wore out the grooves on it, and my parents cried: “Enough already.”
The A-side song—“11 O’Clock Tick Tock”—was my favorite. It had a line that burrowed into my head like a tapeworm. This short but piercing line by the lead singer, Bono, said, “We thought that we had the answers…It was the questions we had all wrong.” This lyrical phrase perfectly summarizes the way I often feel about the state of marketing, branding, and strategy advice out there today.
There is so much information on the topic of branding today—including this post —that it’s hard for companies to make any sense of it. Worse yet, the foundational concepts of marketing, branding, and strategy often gets lost. Whenever I work with a new company, I start with two simple but essential questions:
Question #1: From your company’s perspective, how is the world out of balance today?
I have found that every good company I have worked with originated for an important reason. And that reason wasn’t solely to make money or get rich, at least not for the truly great companies.
Most visionary founders I have met started their business because they saw something wrong in the world, and they were hell-bent on fixing it. They noticed an unsolved problem and an underserved customer that wasn’t getting what they needed or deserved. And these founders had a brilliant idea of how to satisfy these unmet needs.
These visionaries believed the world was incomplete and out of balance, and they appointed themselves as the ones to put it back in balance.
Interestingly enough, this belief and passion are usually where these brands got their authentic value, meaning, and “we’re going to change the world” mojo. And their early adopter customers recognized this balance-setting capability and rewarded them handsomely with their dollars and loyalty.
But to be a great, enduring company with lasting value, you can’t just ask this question once—of how the world is out of balance—and never come back to it again. As companies mature, age and move through different generations, the world not only catches up with them, but it also changes around them and, in some cases, goes whizzing past them, as we have seen with formerly powerful brands like Barney’s, Sear’s, Kodak and Blockbuster. The unique perspective that companies once had on the market at one point in time becomes, well, less proprietary, and not so vital.
But this doesn’t mean the core purpose or meaning of the company gets tossed. It just means that the company has to keep updating their balance-setting capabilities.
Question #2: How does your company put the world back into balance?
Consumers naturally yearn for order, harmony, security, stability, peace, happiness, control, and predictability in their lives, and to a certain degree, the world. But they don’t always get it, particularly when the world around them is changing so fast, abruptly and unexpectedly. When the world feels out of balance, consumers can develop varying levels of stress, concerns, worries, and anxieties. More importantly, they can feel a loss of control, which humans don’t like to experience at all.
In the past, people looked to authority figures to help them address this imbalance. In the old days, this was typically patriarchal figures like the president, mayor, principal, or sheriff—but today, we look mostly to brands to provide many of the answers for how to get our world in balance.
Brands To The Rescue
Great brands do a lot more than just providing consumers with basic, problem-solving products and services. They also help bring the consumer’s world back into order by giving them a sense of control or mastery over the chaos.
• Vitamins fill us with minerals we’re lacking.
• Cosmetic brands promise to bring our skin back to its youthful vigor, glow and shine.
• Vacation destinations entice us with images of how they can bring a level of restoration, rejuvenation, and harmony to our lives.
• Second honeymoon destinations promise to rekindle our love, marriage, and romantic moments with our spouses.
• Men’s cologne promises to make us irresistible to others in our proximity. (I’ve tried, it doesn’t work!)
• For-profit social enterprise companies like TOMS and Warby Parker not only sell shoes and glasses (to socially conscious consumers) but will donate a pair to people in developing countries.
• Self-help gurus like Marie Kondo and her book “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up,” and Tim Ferris’s book “The Four Hour Work Week” promise advice and a system on how to get our messy lives under control and in balance in just 4 hours a week.
• New outdoor shopping center developments do it by trying to bring back the small-town charm and feel of window shopping and strolling, and by providing us with the sense of community we lost in modern suburban life.
• Even our political candidates do it by promising to bring our world back to some degree of common sense and normality, whatever that is.
The recent "Make America Great Again" hit home with a specific and sizable group of voters. It was originally just "Make America Great," but the last word "again" was added later, which made a giant difference in garnering voter support among their base because it implied a balance-setting capability they were seeking.
The key for companies is to uncover how they bring balance to the lives of their target consumers.
How Does Your Company See The World?
You’d be surprised by how many organizations can’t answer these two questions about balance.
Many management teams don’t have a strong opinion or collective point of view of what’s wrong with the world. Nor do they have a position on how their company’s offering puts it back into order. Some managers are even proud of their detachment from what’s going in the world/lives of their customers.
However, this lack of awareness is not something to brag about to others.
When a group of executives can’t tell me what’s wrong with the world—or how their company puts things in balance—what they are essentially saying is that their company’s products and services are not vital or relevant to the world their customers inhabit. This lack of connection to society is a dangerous place for companies to be these days, particularly with the younger generation that is so socially aware of and concerned about world issues.
To build a relevant brand today, companies need to relate themselves to the context of consumer’s lives. They need to attach themselves to the topics of national discussion.
This connection to the world discussion is what U2 did from their tiny little suburban town in Ireland. Even though nobody knew them or their small town, U2 made a bunch of noise about what’s wrong with the world, as they saw it. And they offered—to the best of their youthful abilities—solutions on how to put the world back in order. This message hit deep with their target audience of admittedly young and idealistic listeners like me.
And this is what good brands need to do as well:
Companies need to make a lot of noise, no matter where they hail from, about how the world of their target customers is out of balance, and how they can fix it. They need to find a balance-setting message that hits deep with their target audience.
Why Does Your Company Exist?
Despite what is often promulgated out there in the self-help business book world, the reason companies exist is not to make the founders wealthy, at least not first and foremost. Profit and wealth is usually a byproduct of offering something much bigger and more meaningful to society.
The reason great companies exist is to solve a problem for consumers that isn’t being answered adequately or addressed sufficiently by the other players in the marketplace.
However, if there are already other companies solving your problem in the same way, then a company needs to get even sharper insights and more novel solutions on how it can put the world into an even more perfect level of balance.
Balance-setting is a continual process, and consumers are always on the lookout for the next big thing that brings balance to their hectic, fast-paced, and interconnected lives.
Balance-Setting Changes Over Time
As humans, our desire to put the world in balance gets ever more finite and precise with each decade and generation.
The world order my grandparents lived in and expected was nowhere near as specific, detailed, and nuanced as my children’s world is today, or is going to be in the future.
During my grandparent’s era, they weren’t as concerned about sugar, obesity, gas efficiency, water usage, environmental contamination, carbon footprint, diversity in the workplace, sexual harassment, overseas sweatshops, animal cruelty, the proliferation of plastic (straws) in our ocean, and a hundred other modern-day issues.
Fortunately, we are much more aware and conscious of these issues today, and we not only ask, but demand our favorite brands have a position and perspective on these issues.
While balance-setting is a never-ending process, consumers have come to rely on brands to help remind, inform, and enlighten them to the new issues that need balancing in the world. And we also count on brands to help provide us with the right answers.
For better or worse, we are outsourcing the task of research, investigation, curation and problem solving to brands…and most great brands are happy to help.
Most of the time, consumers aren’t fully aware of, nor do they have the time to figure out how the world might be out of balance. That task has now become the entrepreneur’s job: to inform us of what’s wrong with the world and how the solutions we are currently getting are not right for us, or our world.
When Great Brands Correct The Imbalance
Up till Whole Foods came along, most consumers thought regular supermarket food was perfectly acceptable, decent, and accountable enough. But over time, many people got enlightened by Whole Foods about how our whole food system was out of balance. Whole Foods built an impressive brand, social movement, and cult following on correcting that imbalance (until they sold out to a different type of balance: the balance sheet of Amazon.)
Alba was inspired to develop a new line of healthy products because of the birth of her first daughter, Honor, and her own experience with childhood illness. She believed her daughter’s world was severely out of balance because of the prevalence of baby products with ingredients such as petrochemicals and synthetic fragrances.
When one of her mother’s baby laundry recommendations caused her daughter to have a welt outbreak, she got serious about solving this imbalance.
Moms around the world related to this same concern that Alba had about all the different toxins children get exposed to in traditional household products. Not only did Alba create a company with the intent of making baby-safe products, but she also lobbied congress publicly and persuasively to make testing of consumer products in the marketplace for chemical inputs more stringent.
Alba’s vision to correct a seriously concerning imbalance in the world created a company that today has a valuation of over $1 billion. Although she had no expertise in building or running a consumer brand, Alba made as much noise as a new startup company could about the imbalance of safe products in the world.
Well, I can't say for sure, but from their intense social media presence, it appears they were too busy providing outdated answers to moms and dads that may have worked in the 1990s, but not now. Although they all had a plethora of attention-getting social media tricks, they somehow missed the real core issues that preoccupied parents.
In other words, they weren’t asking the core questions of modern-day moms and dads:
“How is your world out of balance for your babies and kids today?”
When Big Companies Miss The Curve
When Lululemon came on to the market, they helped put the world back in balance for an emerging group of consumers—mainly women initially—wanting high quality, high performance, yet fashionable athletic wear explicitly designed for low-intensity exercises like yoga and Pilates.
Nike, Adidas, Champion, and Under Armor could have and should have addressed this problem. They had all the marketing resources, expertise, research, data, factories, stores, and designers any organization could ever ask for in a company. However, what they didn’t have was the keen insight of how the world, and closets, of a very influential segment of their customer base, was out of balance.
Like U2 said, these companies—Nike, Adidas, Champion, and Under Armor—thought they had all the right, cool, and hip answers and social media gimmicks consumers needed, when in fact, it was the questions they had all wrong:
How is your world out of balance?
These colossal-sized athletic brands had too much of a male-based approach. They also focused too much on traditional sports like golf, tennis, soccer, and of course, basketball. But there was not near enough energy and investigative questions spent on the new emerging athletic activities and healthy lifestyle habits of yoga and Pilates.
Lululemon had the deep smarts to realize the world of athletic clothing options were out of balance, and they set themselves on a very ambitious path and steep quest to put the world of yoga/Pilates clothing options in balance for a specific type of customer.
As Lululemon’s products started making the scene, the core yoga and Pilates fans recognized the tremendous advantages for how this brand’s value proposition put their world and active lives in a higher level of balance than the traditional brands did.
Eventually, these diehard yoga and Pilates customers removed the clothing options from their closets that Nike, Adidas, Champion, and Under Armor previously provided and migrated, seemingly en masse, to Lululemon (and the other offshoot brands like Alo, that were inspired by Lululemon’s success.)
Last year Lululemon’s annual revenue surpassed $3 billion. Not bad for a 20-year-old company. This revenue is not new money that entered into the athletic clothing industry. Instead, it is money that came out of the sweatpant pockets of Nike, Adidas, Champion, and Under Armor.
While they had all the leading edge, super fancy marketing and branding buzz techniques, they did not dig deep into the closet of their customers. They did not ask the core question of how this customer’s world might be out of balance. Instead of providing answers, they should have been asking questions.
Start With Core Questions
Not all brands, products, and services can, or have to be about balance-setting. Nor is balance-setting the only way to build a solid branding foundation. But for those brands that have the potential to create more balance in their customer’s lives, they will almost always have a much higher appeal, meaning, and value to offer consumers.
Why? Because humans are balance-seeking species.
The Question Is: Where Is Your Company On This Balance?
Constantly stay in touch with your customers, get into their closets and find out where they feel or believe their lives are out of balance. Pay attention to their answers and then try to address it with both your brand message and product offering.
Not only do these questions of balance allow companies an opportunity to understand their customers better, but it also provides a great system and pipeline for coming up with new product innovations and potential breakthroughs that can keep your brand in balance in the future.
As to U2, well, I am no longer as big of a fan as I was in the early days. They lost me at the Rattle and Hum album in 1988, and I moved on to other culturally balance-setting bands of the time—Nirvana first, and later Radiohead, and now maybe Alt-J.
But I am proud to see that U2 is still out there, making a lot of noise and trying to create balance in the world through several highly visible causes, campaigns and relief programs. Whereas most rock bands have a relatively short shelf life, U2 has done an impressive job keeping their fans not only in tune with their type of music but with the world at large.