2021 Reading List: What Great Brands Do by Denise Lee Yohn

I have always been intrigued by great brands. What makes us buy something, use something, do something, or go somewhere based on the brand name alone? What do those brands have that makes us recall them immediately when we need that product? What makes us trust them so implicitly that we don’t need to do the research or read reviews?

So I’ve had this book on my reading list for awhile, tucked away in my Save for Later cart on Amazon. (Ahhh Amazon…) I finally just asked for it for Christmas so I could really dive in.

And really I think that the seven principles discussed in What Great Brands Do: the Seven Brand-Building Principles that Separate the Best from the Rest could actually be compared to what people are looking for in their own personal lives. The principles don’t just apply to brands – they apply to being human.

The principles are:

  • Great brands start inside
  • Great brands avoid selling products
  • Great brands ignore trends
  • Great brands don’t chase customers
  • Great brands sweat the small stuff
  • Great brands commit and stay committed
  • Great brands never have to “give back”

When you list them out like that, it feels like common sense. Of course you want leadership to walk the talk and to believe in their products before they tell their customers to. Of course you believe that ultimately your products aren’t just a product, they make life better! Of course you’re not just following the crowd. Of course you can stand on your own two feet and right customers will just come to you. Of course the details matter. Of course you’ve committed for the long term. Of course you want to make a different in the lives of those less fortunate.

When you talk about it like that, it sounds easy. But if it were so easy, then we’d have more great brands. More people would feel like the brands they were buying were authentic and trustworthy. More people would feel like their purchase choices matter. It’s not easy.

As a marketer myself, having worked for several agencies, I often get clients who want a social media campaign. Or a brochure. Or a new website. And they come to us with who they think their audience is, what they want out of the promotion (more customers, almost always), and what their message is. But rarely do they come to me with who they are. There is often a lot of disconnect between the true core of a company and the message they put out there. Leadership doesn’t always see the big picture. They don’t see the real customer journey, they don’t understand the emotions behind a decision, they don’t think it matters if they say something in an ad but can’t truly back it up as a company.

I think this book did a great job explaining why these seven principles matter. We can all sit here and say that yes they do, but if we don’t truly understand why it works or how it works, then we’re going to fall back into the same trap of chasing the customers, selling the features of a product, or skipping over the little details that show a company cares.

Now back to being human – aren’t these seven principles also things that you’d want to see in a relationship with someone? Not necessarily a romantic relationship. Just any human relationship. You want other people in your life to do what they said they’d do. You want them to understand you on a deeper emotional level. (You don’t just want a nanny who keeps your kids alive, you want a livesaver who will help raise your kids.) You don’t want someone who’s only around because it’s a convenient time and place for them, or because you make them look good. You want a relationship with someone who cares about the details and pays attention to the little things. (The husband who cleans the snow off your car in the morning before you even wake up.) You want someone who is committed to the relationship, through thick and thin. And at the end of the day, you don’t need that person to give you birthday presents or Christmas presents because just being in each other’s lives makes your lives richer.

Behind every great company and every great brand are just people. People connect with people. It’s not some mysterious puzzle that we’re solving here.

This book was actionable in a long-term planning way. You could sit down and do some of these exercises, but at the end of the day, the actions you need to take are bigger-picture. This book can give you the tools and steps to take, but also the reason behind it so that you can build a better plan for your brand and get the right people involved.

I had been hoping the book would focus a bit more on the examples, in more of a storytelling way, but that wasn’t the case. It was descriptive, but more technical and action-oriented, rather than storytelling. So if you’re in a position to build a brand, then this would be an excellent starting point to put you in the right mindset.